continued No one knows if Johnson's contention that Spencer was a child molester is true or not. Donaldson says Spencer was never accused or convicted of molestation either in San Diego or Idaho.
Donaldson asked Johnson why he had decided to unburden himself 28 years later. "He basically told me that he had been out in Oklahoma for about 6 years, and he said he was involved with a woman out there and he wanted to come clean for this woman. But we went out there, and we interviewed a lot of people and couldn't find anybody that said he was involved with a woman. So I don't know if that was another reason or he just said that. But I think he just wanted to clear his conscience. And I really believe that he was just tired. He was basically homeless, he had no job, had no money as far as we could tell. He was homeless, and that was his motivation. He didn't say that, but I believe that was his motivation. He just had nowhere else to go. He thought that, because it happened in 1978, he would get maybe five years in prison, and when he came out he would be 65 and eligible for Social Security."
He thought wrong. Sentencing guidelines at the time of the murder called for a life sentence. On May 24, 2006, Donaldson flew to Oklahoma City with another detective and arrested Johnson. "He knew it was coming," Donaldson says. "He had sold and given away what little he had, and he signed his car over to a friend. He knew he was going with us. There was no surprise."
What was a surprise, at least to Donaldson, was the fact that Johnson took the case to trial instead of striking a plea bargain with the district attorney's office. Another surprise was that on November 29, 2006, Johnson testified on his own behalf, against his public defender's advice. Once on the stand, Johnson denied murdering Spencer. "He said," recalls deputy district attorney Jeff Dusek, "that he was down on his luck in Oklahoma, didn't have any money, didn't have any place to stay, was living out of his car. So he decided that he had to confess to this first-degree execution murder so he could have a place to stay for maybe three years or so. And California would house him and feed him, and the federal government would give him Social Security while he was in jail. So he would have some money when he got out after three or four years."
Though there were other witnesses for the prosecution who corroborated the fact that Johnson knew Spencer, Johnson ended up being chief witness for both the prosecution and the defense. Jurors had to decide whether he was telling the truth on the stand or during his tape-recorded conversations with Donaldson. "Yes," says his public defender, John Thomas, "it came down to that. And a lot of facts that came out in his phone calls were damaging to say the least."
On November 30, Peter Jacob Johnson was found guilty of first-degree murder. He was sentenced January 20, according to 1978 guidelines, to life with the possibility of parole. Thomas says he won't be eligible for parole until 2014. But he says, "Normally, you don't get parole the first time your name comes up. But he has some health issues. And the prison system has a tendency to overlook precedent and kick people out when they are sick, because it's expensive as hell to keep them in."