Coming to No Good End

Undertaker Jay Herman shot his lover, Edwina Prosen, to death in 1991. That's the only thing he and her family have agreed on since.

In a twist of fate, Prosen would soon be delivering that message face-to-face with Johnson.

David Burke, police chief of the sprawling Veterans Affairs medical complex in Houston, knew nothing of Johnson or Jeff Prosen or the murder case.

On the morning of April 21, 1997, Burke knew only that he had a problem -- a big one.

Strolling across a large parking and transit area of the VA grounds, Burke heard shouts and noticed a commotion. He saw a younger man with a handgun pointed at the back of the balding head of an older man.

Prosen would later explain that he went to the VA pharmacy minutes earlier to pick up some medication. As he waited, he saw the man accused of murdering his mother also waiting to have a prescription filled.

"He explained to me later he can't stand even being around Johnson, so he was going to do the right thing -- he was going to leave," Burke said. Prosen turned and began walking away, but "something made him just stop and turn around -- like a sixth sense," Burke said.

Johnson said he did nothing to provoke his assailant. Prosen swears he pivoted in time to see Johnson stare at him then flash a grin and a wink. "That's when Jeff lost control of himself," Burke said. Witnesses told of Prosen, an ex-Marine, dashing to his vehicle, pulling out a Glock semiautomatic pistol, slamming in an ammunition clip and chambering a round. He tucked the weapon into his belt under his jacket and ran back toward the pharmacy.

He found Johnson outside, waiting near a bus stop. Prosen pulled the pistol and forced Johnson into the kneeling position as if he were going to execute him.

While police were summoned, Burke approached the gunman and began trying to build trust. The chief acted like he could not hear Prosen's demands so that he could gradually draw closer to him and get him to talk rather than rant.

"I was trying to buy some time," Burke recalled. Foremost, he wanted the crowded area cleared of bystanders. That proved difficult -- many of the surrounding VA patients were in wheelchairs or on crutches.

"Prosen was trying to explain the situation to me, but he was babbling. He wasn't making a lot of sense initially." The gunman shouted at Johnson to apologize, to say he was sorry for what he had done to Edwina Prosen. Occasionally he waved the pistol in the direction of the chief to try to explain his actions.

With one hand still gripping the weapon, Prosen used his other to wrestle his wallet from a back pocket. In it was an old newspaper clipping that was carefully transferred to the police chief.

Burke unfolded the newsprint and began to grasp the situation. The chief feigned sympathy for Prosen, who was relaying his frustrations over the inaction of the case.

Prosen wanted Johnson arrested. Burke took stock of the situation and pulled out his cuffs and snapped them onto the hostage. "I did that for two reasons: One was to appease Jeff; the other was that I was afraid Mr. Johnson was going to try to do something that would have tragic consequences."

Prosen blamed himself for the death of his mother. She had confided in him about her fear of Johnson, but he allowed her to return to Johnson. And then there was the matter of the botched effort to help police by taking the evidence of the insurance policies.

Prosen spoke of wanting justice with Johnson. "I was able to convince Jeff that I was on his side and wanted to see justice done to Johnson, but that what he was doing here was not justice."

"The deciding factor was telling him that the VA was a sanctuary for veterans like himself," Burke said. Prosen looked around for the first time. He saw veterans in their wheelchairs and staring from bus windows, as well as the police peeking out from behind autos and other secure points.

Their conversation turned to terms of a deal. Burke vowed to call prosecutors and to "do all in [his] power" to see that the murder case moved forward. He told the gunman he could call the news media from his office to try to generate support for his quest. When Prosen spoke of fears that he would be led into a trap and "jumped" by officers on the way to the office, Burke told him a path would be cleared and his safety would be assured.

In return, Prosen would have to give up his weapon. They made their pact. Prosen made his call to KTRK-Channel 13. "He held up his end of the bargain," Burke said. "He surrendered."

The dark stain on Johnson's pants showed he had urinated on himself when taken hostage. He was obviously shaken, but he stayed silent. He admitted nothing; he apologized for nothing.

Police charged Prosen with aggravated assault, a felony that carries up to 20 years in prison. In August 1997 he pleaded guilty in return for five years' probation and 240 hours of community service. At the sentencing, the judge ordered Prosen not to come into contact with Johnson again. He was ordered to undergo anger management counseling.

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