Armed and Dangerous

If you’re looking for fun and excitement in San Diego, visiting the Gaslamp Quarter is a must. Home to dozens of hotels, restaurants, shops, and nightspots, the 16-block stretch is the center of San Diego’s night life and perhaps one of the safest places to wander after dark.
 
But no place is totally safe as 29-year-old Michael Champion found out one Monday night in October 1992.
 
Champion and a friend had just finished watching Monday Night Football and were heading back to the San Diego suburb of Hillcrest when unbeknownst to them, a 6-foot-tall, 240-pound former linebacker had broken out of a San Diego Sheriff’s Department transport van, overpowered the deputy/driver, stolen her service revolver and was headed their way.
 
Johnaton (yes, Johnaton) Sampson George was a 34-year-old career criminal who had been adjudicated a “mentally disordered sex offender” thanks to a 15-year history of rapes. He was a drug addict who considered himself a “supercrook” when he was under the influence of methamphetamine.
 
George was also an extreme escape risk. Court records show that in 1978 George escaped from a state mental hospital in San Bernardino County, where he had been placed after he was judged incompetent to stand trial for a string of rapes. While there, he fell in love with a transsexual and the pair became engaged.
 
A month after his escape from Atascadaro State Hospital, George was recaptured and in 1980 he was sentenced to five years to life in prison.
 
The sentencing judge told the California prison system that “Mr. George is a con man. He knows how to shine people on.” He recommended that George was a menace to others and should serve the maximum term in close confinement. George was released on parole after serving five years.
 
Shortly after his release, he robbed and assaulted a man and was arrested. However, he was not returned to prison for a parole violation. Several months later he was arrested for failing to register as a sexually oriented offender. Again, he was not returned to prison. In early 1992 he was arrested for shoplifting and assault when he stole baby food from a local market and then resisted attempts of security guards to detain him.
 
During a hearing for that theft in Chula Vista in July of that year, George was being kept in a holding cell and managed to escape from the courthouse and stole a car.
Federal marshals arrested George four days later — it took five officers to subdue him, the Marshal Service spokesman told the media. Because police found him in possession of a firearm, a federal offense, the U.S. Attorney decided to charge him under the Armed Career Criminal Act, which carried a maximum life term.
 
He was awaiting trial on those charges in connection with that breakout when he escaped October 5, 1992 and crossed paths with Champion.
 
When George overpowered the lone 59-year-old, 125-pound deputy who was transporting him and another inmate, the San Diego Sheriff’s Department was seriously understaffed, and according to Sheriff Jim Roache, was taking shortcuts to meet the demands of the job.
 
“In reality, what occurred is that men and women — far too few, far too under-equipped — are required to do too much work on rigid time demands,” Roache said of those in his department. “To get the job done, they cut corners.”
 
Sheriff’s deputies had transported George 42 times since April — just a small part of the 100,000 prisoner transports the agency did each year, Roache said. In late June, Assistant U.S. Attorney. Sherri L. Walker, who was waiting to prosecute George on federal charges of being a career criminal, warned the district attorney’s office in about George’s violent nature and his previous escapes.
 
“I would recommend extreme caution in transferring George from federal to state custody and urge you to return (George) to federal custody promptly,” she wrote.
 
He was housed at the local federal jail, but continued to be prosecuted on state charges, which required that he be transported by county officers. A warning was noted in writing on the sheriff’s transportation log the next 12 times he was moved.
 
But on October 5, as George was being moved from the El Cajon courthouse to the downtown Metropolitan Correctional Center, no warning was passed on to Deputy Lydia Werner who was filling in on the transport unit because it was 16 deputies below minimum staffing. The supervising deputy who assigned Werner to transport George also was not at his regular job and did not pass along information that George was a flight risk. As a result, Werner, who did not normally transport inmates and who was already into a 14-hour workday, transported George without knowing how dangerous he was.
 
If she had known George was a flight risk, he would have been wearing handcuffs and leg irons. However, because there was nothing to indicate his propensity to escape, George was only wearing MCC-issued handcuffs attached to a leather belt around his waist.
 
George told his cellmates that he had a handcuff key that opened the federal cuffs. Another inmate alerted authorities that George had had the key for at least a month, but repeated searches of his person and cell turned up nothing, leaving authorities to surmise that he was bluffing.
 
With Werner driving and George sharing the back seat with an inmate in a wheelchair, he opened the handcuffs — either with a key that was never found or some other means — and began kicking the doors open. Werner stopped the van and tried to keep George inside the van but he jumped out into the heart of the downtown Gaslamp Quarter. Trying to get a car, he dragged a woman from her vehicle, but she refused to relinquish her keys. George then continued running toward Fifth Avenue and G Street. Before he reached the corner, Werner — who was prohibited by law from shooting a fleeing felon — caught up with him but the diminutive deputy was no match for George and he knocked her out. He took Werner’s service revolver.
 
He then stopped a taxicab, pointing the gun at the driver. The driver grabbed the gun and they struggled as the car continued down the street. George bit the driver in the face, before the cabbie managed to get away.
 
Meanwhile, Champion and his buddy were stopped a light at Fifth and G. The intersection was crowded with people out enjoying a beautiful San Diego autumn night, and in full view of patrons at a trendy sidewalk cafe, George, dressed in his orange jail jumpsuit, accosted Champion by jumping into the backseat.
 
George demanded the keys but Champion, who apparently did not see the gun, refused.
 
“Mick told the guy to get out of the car,” the friend told detectives. “Then the guy shot him.”
 
As the unharmed friend bailed out of the car, George pulled Champion out of the car and drove away. After a week-long nationwide manhunt, George was arrested by police officers in Compton.
 
He was eventually convicted of the federal charges and sentenced to life without possibility of parole. George was also convicted of Champion’s murder but managed to escape the death penalty when the jury deadlocked on that question.
 
After his sentencing in state court, George reportedly celebrated by enjoying a snort of meth that had been smuggled into the jail. He was subsequently arrested and charged with drug possession. It was the 20th time he had been arrested.
 
George is currently on death row in California