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Two 17-year-olds charged with slaying, robbery at general store

May 6, 1997 GMT

UNION, Mich. (AP) _ The gunman fired his sawed-off rifle once to announce his arrival at the Hilltop, a general store where customers sip coffee, wash clothes and catch up on the news.

Then he shot a 68-year-old woman in the head as she cowered behind a washing machine. He shot and wounded a woman in the back, then another in the temple. A 4-year-old girl watched it all.

He got away with a purse.

``It was an act of cruelty and cowardice,″ Cass County Prosecutor Scott Teter said Tuesday as he announced murder and other charges against two 17-year-old boys from nearby South Bend, Ind.

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The shootings Saturday have people nervous and angry in this tiny community in the lake region of southern Michigan along the Indiana border. There have been armed robberies before, but nothing like this.

``People are nervous, a little on edge,″ said John Wetzel, who owns Union Market. ``There’s a coffee group meets here early in the morning. The buzz is everybody’s aggravated because there’s no death penalty in Michigan.″

Darnell Johnson, the accused gunman, and John Sherwood, who allegedly waited outside in a getaway car, are charged with murder, robbery and using a firearm in the commission of a crime.

The two are in jail in South Bend, where they were arrested later Saturday at a house. People had seen their Ford Bronco and called authorities. They are not waiving extradition to Michigan and getting them there could take several weeks, officials said.

They are also charged with robbing a convenience store in nearby Roseland, Ind., of $600 a few hours after the Hilltop, where the amount of cash taken was undetermined.

Diane Van Strum had planned to wash a small load of laundry there before attending a meeting of people who live at Baldwin Lake, one of several lakes in the area that attracts summer visitors to cottages and campgrounds.

She was fatally shot soon after the gunman entered.

Diane Brochue, 34, was standing at a folding table. She turned her back to protect herself as bullets flew, Teter said. The gunman then took aim at 18-year-old clerk Sabrina Johnson, who was sweeping the floor, Teter said.

``He led her to the cash register and ordered her to produce the money,″ Teter said. ``He then yelled that she wasn’t moving fast enough and shot her in the temple.″

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Through it all, Ms. Johnson’s young niece was eating a doughnut and drinking milk. The girl dashed for the door and crawled under a truck, unhurt ``but for the grace of God,″ Teter said.

Ms. Brochue was in fair condition and Ms. Johnson was in critical condition Tuesday at Elkhart General Hospital.

The Hilltop remained closed Tuesday, the property trimmed in yellow police tape. Someone jammed a small bouquet of flowers inside the door handle.

There are several washers and dryers inside, along with a pinball machine, a Pac-Man game and 50-cent self-serve coffee and snacks. A deer head hangs on the wall above a line of old license plates and a bulletin board with fliers promoting child care and free kittens.

Ms. Van Strum, who was called Billie by friends, had retired from a second-shift job at an Elkhart pharmaceutical company. She liked to sail and golf.

``I knew her for 30 years,″ said Pat Yoder, who lived two doors away. ``She always took her wash up there. In the summer, she’d bring it home and hang it up to dry.

``She was out all the time, putzing around, doing yard work,″ Mrs. Yoder recalled. ``She would do anything for anybody.″