A St. Paul killer is arrested in cold case shipwreck gold caper

Police had a fingerprint and footage on the presumed suspect, but it would take them seven years to find him.

Police had a fingerprint and footage on the presumed suspect, but it would take them seven years to find him. Mel Fisher Maritime Museum

It was a summer afternoon in 2010 -- August in Key West. According to police, Richard Steven Johnson and his accomplice -- Jarred Alexander Goldman -- had driven all the way from West Palm Beach to the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum. Johnson was still in his early 30s, Goldman in his late 20s.

The museum was home to many artifacts, but one of particular interest: a bar of gold.

The bar had come a long way to be there. It was found in 1980, in an old shipwreck off the Florida Keys -- a gleaming passenger on the ruins of a 1622 Spanish galleon. Mel Fisher, the namesake for the museum, had dragged it back to land. It had been at the museum for more than 20 years, touched and gawked at and cooed over by countless guests. It weighed nearly 5 pounds and was worth $550,000.

The bar was on display in an acrylic case with a hole cut out of it, so it could be seen and touched, but not taken. Supposedly.

The two travelers from West Palm Beach each had a role. Johnson was going to grab the bar. Goldman was going to keep watch.

At 5:15 p.m. - just after the museum closed – the gold was found missing. They drove home. Johnson allegedly fled to Las Vegas.

The case stayed open for years. A missing gold bar isn’t something you forget about. Besides, there were clues. Johnson left a fingerprint on the acrylic case, and a security camera caught sight of him. There’s a moment when he looks up and dead into the lens, his eyebrows raised slightly.

But it was difficult to track the man in the photo. A $25,000 reward was offered in 2010. Still, nothing. Five years into the case, with a clear image of the suspect and a fingerprint, every lead had apparently gone cold.

Finally, on Jan. 29, police had an announcement seven years in the making. Johnson and his accomplice were found in California, taken in after an 8-hour manhunt. His arrest seemed itself like a long lost thing recovered from a sunken ship.

The trial is set for May 14 in Key West. The evidence looks damning, but it’s just that: evidence. The gold bar itself, which went from galleon to museum to who knows where, has not been recovered.

This won’t be Johnson’s first arrest. His criminal career began in St. Paul.

In 1996, he’d been a 19-year-old father. His 6-month-old son, Anthony, wouldn’t stop crying.

The baby was already dead when the authorities arrived after a 911 call. Homicide investigators would later determine that the child died of internal injuries. They would find bruises on his torso and chin, cheek and forehead. Johnson would admit to having bitten the baby’s left leg after he’d found him cold and not breathing. He would admit to having killed his son and was sentenced to over nine years in prison.

All this was after he allegedly struck the baby’s mother during a domestic dispute. She didn’t press charges.

After he was convicted of property damage.

After he was convicted of receiving and concealing stolen property.

And that was after he was convicted of check forgery.

Johnson’s paper trail is a mile long.

After being accused of stealing the 17th century gold bar, Johnson is still behind bars. Goldman, his accused accomplice, was released after ponying up a $100,000 bond.

Johnson’s lawyers say he wants the same bond deal as his alleged accomplice. He wants to stay with his wife and mother-in-law in West Palm Beach. He’s fine with GPS monitoring. But the U.S. Attorney’s office says his previous arrests are enough to keep him from getting a reduction. His alleged flight to Vegas also makes him a flight risk.

Some things, like gold bars and past deeds, can stay relatively unseen, unknown, unthought about, and how brightly they gleam once they’re brought to the surface.

If Johnson is convicted, he faces up to five years in prison for conspiracy, and up to 10 for theft of a major artwork.