Man sentenced to six years murdering Grant Avenue neighbor

SANDUSKY Both families wept for their loss. For one family, it was the loss of a love
Sandusky Register Staff
May 24, 2010

 

SANDUSKY

Both families wept for their loss.

For one family, it was the loss of a loved one whose life was cut short. For another family, it was losing their loved one to the prison system.

Andrew "Bill" Johnson, 60, pleaded guilty in March to involuntary manslaughter in connection with the deadly shooting on Grant Avenue. He was sentenced Thursday in Erie County Common Pleas Court to six years in prison.

A man of few words, Johnson was on the verge of tears as he apologized to Gerald Gilliam's loved ones.

"I'm sorry for what happened," he said. "I lost part of me, too."

Gilliam, 39, was Johnson's neighbor and friend. He was shot to death in his backyard after an argument erupted between the two men in July.

A "shoving match" began between the two and Johnson went inside his home and retrieved a .38-caliber gun, reports said.

Johnson told police he "did not want to try to kill him ... he was just shooting downward." He fired once, hitting the ground. A second shot hit Gilliam in the midsection, leading to his death a few hours later.

In court, Johnson, wearing a blue dress shirt, suspenders and slacks, sat quietly during the rest of the hearing, although visibly upset.

Across the courtroom a framed photo of Gilliam was displayed. His widow, Sandy Gilliam, 43, sat behind it and wiped away tears with a tissue. Victims advocate Jody Craig read the widow's prepared statement.

"We knew Andrew Johnson as a friend," she said. "It's impossible to count how many times he was in our home ... broke bread."

In her statement, Sandy asked for the maximum prison term of 10 years to be imposed.

Gilliam's father, Gerald Gilliam Sr., told the judge he had also been long-time friends with Johnson.

He claimed Johnson talked about killing Gilliam on more than one occasion prior to the shooting.

"I feel it was premeditated to go into the house and come back with a weapon," Gilliam Sr. said.

His body shook as he gripped the podium before the judge.

"He has to go in front of God and yes, he's going to judge him, too," Gilliam Sr. said. "But my heart just won't let me forgive the man, not yet."

Gilliam Sr., who also asked that the maximum sentence be imposed, looked Johnson in the eye as he walked back to his seat.

"The victims in this case have suffered extreme emotional harm," Erie County prosecutor Kevin Baxter said.

Johnson's attorney, Gerald Smith, stressed that his client had no risk of re-offending. A retired 30-year Ford Motor Co. employee, Johnson had a clean criminal record prior to the shooting, court records state.

"All he can do is try and set an example ... that something like this will never happen again," Smith said. "He's done all that's required of him. He can't change what has happened."

Presiding Judge Tygh Tone called it a "very difficult case" and expressed appreciation to all of the nearly 20 loved ones present at the hearing.

"No one wants to be here," he said, describing the neighbors as "two fine men" and long-time friends. "Alcohol probably added fuel to the fire."

Marijuana and racial slurs also played a role in the events leading up to the shooting, police said.

Prison time was not mandatory for the offense; however, the conviction came with a presumption for such, court records state. Johnson was also ordered to pay a $10,000 fine and a yet-to-be-determined amount of restitution to Gilliam's family.

"I wish you all the best," Tone said at the end of the hearing.

Gilliam's son, Cody Goff, said he was glad to see the case come to a close. If anything good is to come of this tragedy, he said he hopes it will be an example for others in the community.

"I believe that examples have to be made for our city's sake," Goff said. "Maybe the next person that comes into this situation will think of this."

Goff also described Johnson as a friend, but said he believes he had too much hatred built up leading to that fateful night, and the wrong choice was made.

"It's the greatest gift in the world ... choice," he said, adding that he has forgiven Johnson.

Goff described his father as a good person to be around and someone who will be missed.

"I hope he (Johnson) makes his peace with the Lord," Goff said. "There is always forgiveness with the Lord."

Several people present on behalf of Johnson declined comment after the hearing, as did Smith.

At least five years of Johnson's sentence are mandatory. After that he is eligible to apply for early release, Baxter said.

While the criminal matter has been finalized -- unless Johnson appeals the case within 30 days -- a civil lawsuit is still pending between Gilliam's widow and Johnson.

Sandy filed the lawsuit in February claiming Johnson is responsible for the "severe and debilitating emotional distress" she suffered as a result of the shooting. She is asking for at least $25,000.