Shooting victim reaches milestone Ex-Corrections captain attends arraignment in murder plot case

Dr. Stephen Fann checks out the area where Robert Johnson was shot six times back in March of 2010. (Brad Nettles/ 3/14/13

After a three-year wait, former state Corrections Capt. Robert Johnson finally got the chance Thursday to stare down the man accused of pumping six rounds into his body in front of his wife.

Johnson, 59, traveled from the Sumter home where he was ambushed to a Columbia courtroom to see the accused triggerman arraigned on federal charges in connection with the March 2010 murder-for-hire plot.

Sean Echols, 29, of Orangeburg is accused of trying to kill Johnson in exchange for $6,000 in cash, according to U.S. Attorney for South Carolina Bill Nettles. Echols faces the possibility of life in prison if convicted, authorities said.

“He didn’t get a chance to say anything, but I looked at him and he looked at me,” Johnson, who was forced into retirement by the shooting, said. “I was full of joy to be able to get to this point, and hopefully start the process of getting some closure to this thing.”

Johnson worked for the state Department of Corrections for 16 years and developed a reputation for being able to ferret out illegal cellphones, drugs and other contraband smuggled behind the prison walls. His efforts so riled inmates at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville that one prisoner reportedly used a smuggled cellphone to order a hit on Johnson, authorities said.

As Johnson was preparing for work on March 5, 2010, a gunman broke down the front door of his home and blasted six rounds into Johnson’s chest and stomach in front of his wife.

The bullets sliced Johnson’s liver, shredded his abdomen, broke his ribs and caused other damage. Doctors pumped 63 units of blood into his body to keep him from bleeding to death.

He endured 15 surgeries and spent four months in hospitals receiving care and therapy.

Three years out, he still has trouble breathing at times and walks with a pronounced limp and the aid of a cane. Through it all, he’s waited for justice to be done.

Federal prosecutors called Johnson on Wednesday to let him know a grand jury had issued a sealed indictment against Echols last month. They told him to keep the information quiet until Thursday’s arraignment, when a federal judge unsealed the document.

Johnson said he recognized Echols as an inmate he had encountered before in the prison system.

Echols has a criminal record dating to 2000, with convictions for second-degree burglary, assault and battery with intent to kill, armed robbery, first-degree assault and parole violations, according to the State Law Enforcement Division.

He currently is housed at Kirkland Reception and Evaluation Center in Columbia after being sentenced last month to 15 years in prison for a brutal 2011 armed robbery in Orangeburg. He and another man were accused of pistol whipping and stabbing two elderly men during an early morning holdup, according to reports in the Orangeburg Times and Democrat.

In connection with Johnson’s shooting, Echols is charged with conspiring with unidentified accomplices to murder the former corrections captain. He is also charged with using facilities of interstate commerce in connection with the attempted murder and using and discharging a firearm in connection with a crime of violence.

Echols faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison if convicted of either count one or two of the indictment. Count three, the firearms count, carries a mandatory minimum term of 10 years imprisonment and a maximum term of life, which must be imposed to run consecutive to any other sentence Echols is serving.

Johnson has said investigators told him the conspiracy involved the shooter, a getaway driver and two inmates who orchestrated the hit. So far, only Echols has been charged. But Johnson has said the others are reportedly locked up on unrelated crimes.

He’s eager to see the others charged as well, but he’s impressed with the work federal and state investigators have done on the case, considering how little information there was to go on after the shooting.

“We went from nothing to this,” he said. “Hopefully, this can start the process of getting everyone involved.”

Prison officials have repeatedly cited Johnson’s case to illustrate the need for technology to block calls from contraband cellphones in prisons. South Carolina has been seeking federal permission to jam cellular signals at state prisons, but the request has stalled before the Federal Communications Commission, despite support from 30 other states.

Johnson and his wife, Mary, are now suing 20 cellphone companies and cellular tower owners in connection with the attempt on his life, alleging that these companies had the ability to block inmate calls but chose not to.