Staten Island Commune Leader Details '06 Shooting at Trial of Accused Ex-Member

The New York Times/July 29, 2008

The first thing Jeffrey Gross saw was the gun. It emerged out of the pitch-black darkness and thick vegetation that edges the stairway leading up to his Staten Island home, one of 10 buildings owned by a commune he helped found. Then, Mr. Gross testified, he saw who was holding the gun: a disgruntled former member of the commune.

"I said: 'Don't shoot, please, don't shoot. What do you want?' " Mr. Gross recalled on the witness stand in State Supreme Court in Staten Island on Monday. Without answering, the woman holding the gun fired, striking him in the chest, neck, shoulder and leg five or six times, according to prosecutors.

Mr. Gross's account came on the second day of testimony in the trial of Rebekah Johnson, 45, on attempted murder and other charges. She is accused of shooting Mr. Gross, 53, about 11:30 p.m. on May 29, 2006, as he was returning home from Manhattan.

Mr. Gross is a founder of Ganas, believed to be New York's only commune, home to 80 to 100 residents brought together by a desire to live in a nontraditional group setting.

Ms. Johnson, who joined Ganas in 1986, was ejected twice for violating the commune's core rules, and spent much of the 10 years after her second ejection waging a legal and verbal campaign against Mr. Gross and other group leaders, accusing them of running a sexually abusive cult, commune members and the authorities have said.

The commune condones some nontraditional arrangements, like wife-swapping and the pooling of material resources. But if the first two days of Ms. Johnson's trial are any guide, the judge presiding over the trial, Justice Robert Collini, will limit broad investigations into how the commune operates, instead focusing the proceedings on the circumstances directly related to the shooting.

Mr. Gross and other members of Ganas have won praise for trying to improve their neighborhood, Tompkinsville. Along with renovating the Victorian homes they inhabit on a hill overlooking Manhattan, they run three thrift stores, sparking a commercial renaissance in a previously economically depressed area in another neighborhood, St. George. Stanford Bandelli, Ms. Johnson's defense lawyer, has argued that the unusual lifestyle of the commune worsened Ms. Johnson's emotional problems. In that regard, he tried to question Mr. Gross about his sex life inside the commune, questions that Justice Collini would not allow.

The justice also stopped a line of questioning into whether a form of group problem solving known as "feedback learning" could drive its participants insane through invasive examinations of their personal affairs before a group.

Mr. Bandelli questioned Mr. Gross's identification of his client, arguing that it was too dark the night of the shooting to see who was firing the gun. Much of Monday's testimony was devoted to establishing the placement of a street light on Corson Avenue, where the shooting occurred.

Mr. Gross testified that he met Ms. Johnson in 1986 in Canada, while she was living at another commune. She returned to Staten Island with Mr. Gross and his wife, Susan Grossman, and stayed at Ganas until 1989, when she was asked to leave. She rejoined in 1994, but was expelled again in 1996 for nonpayment of rent totaling about $1,500, Mr. Gross testified.

In a lawsuit she filed in 1999 against Mr. Gross and Ganas, Ms. Johnson claimed that she had been raped while in the community, and accused Ganas of forcing some members to marry illegal immigrants and brainwashing others into blind obedience. The police investigated the rape charges and found no cause to pursue the matter.

Ms. Johnson dropped that case, but continued to harass Mr. Gross, stalking him and taking pictures, he testified.

On the night of the shooting, as he lay on the ground bleeding, Mr. Gross testified, Ms. Johnson walked toward him. She stepped over him before turning and fleeing down the steps, he said.

"I reached out my left leg and attempted to trip her," he said.

As Mr. Gross recovered in a hospital, Ms. Johnson fled. She evaded capture for more than a year before federal and local law enforcement authorities caught her in June 2007 outside Philadelphia. A search of her small apartment in North Philadelphia revealed an AK-47 and rounds of ammunition, as well as three drivers' licenses under different names, and a stack of license plates from different states, the authorities have said.

Mr. Bandelli said outside court on Monday that his client's flight was not an indication of her guilt.

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