Former NYC commune member cleared in shooting

Associated Press/August 4, 2008

New York - A woman was cleared of all charges Monday in the shooting of a commune founder nearly killed by a shadowy figure on the stairwell of his compound.

The jury took less than five hours to acquit Rebekah Johnson of attempted murder and lesser charges in the May 2006 shooting of Jeffrey Gross. Johnson disappeared for nearly a year after the attack, setting off a huge manhunt and garnering five appearances on Fox's "America's Most Wanted."

If convicted, Johnson had faced up to 25 years in prison.

On May 29, 2006, Gross returned home from a movie, and in the dull light of a nearby lamp, he saw a gun pointed at him. He was shot six times, prosecutors said. The shooter apparently stepped over Gross before walking away.

Gross was convinced that Johnson fired the shots. Prosecutors said he was capable of identifying Johnson because he'd known her nearly 20 years, even though the stairwell was barely lit the night of the shooting.

Gross portrayed Johnson as an obsessive, disgruntled former member seeking revenge after a falling out.

Johnson accused Gross of being an abusive brainwasher. She had previously filed a lawsuit against him and members of the Staten Island commune, known as the Ganas community, claiming she was sexually assaulted and harassed, though she eventually dropped it.

Her attorney said she was wrongly accused in the shooting as a way to silence her from speaking out against evils of the commune.

Johnson also was acquitted of charges she tried to extort $1 million from the commune after the shooting.

Ganas is believed to be the only commune in New York City. It has about 80 members who promote group problem-solving, environmentalism and diversity while eschewing violence.

Johnson was captured last summer in Philadelphia after she used her name to register a used car, authorities said.

A search of her small apartment turned up an AK-47 rifle and rounds of ammunition, several license plates from different states and several driver's licenses under different names with her photo, authorities have said. The weapons found weren't admissible in court. Gross was shot with a .38-caliber pistol, authorities have said.

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