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Twins share tragedy and death

The sisters joined the Tampa police force, then left after a fatal shooting. More trouble followed till last week.

By KEVIN GRAHAM
Published April 12, 2005

LAKELAND - Twin sisters Charlotte and Jennifer Rowse showed promise at an early age.

At 17, both were named "Teenager of the Month" by the Dunedin Elks Lodge. Charlotte won a National Merit Scholarship, and Jennifer belonged to the National Honor Society. In the 1980s, they joined the Tampa Police Department - Officers Charlotte Johnston and Jennifer Foster.

All that changed dramatically on Dec. 30, 1988.

Johnston's partner was shot to death as the two of them tried to arrest a man in his East Tampa home. When the killer was spared the death penalty, Johnston bitterly denounced the sentence.

Both sisters soon left the department, beginning a downward spiral of arrests on drug, fraud and domestic violence charges.

On Friday, the 44-year-old twins were found dead in a Lakeland motel room.

Investigators found no sign of physical abuse or foul play.

The women, now known as Jennifer Rowse and Charlotte Rowse Johnston, had missed their checkout time at a Days Inn on Lakeland's East Memorial Boulevard. Police found their room locked from the inside, the curtains tightly closed and fastened with safety pins.

Autopsies were inconclusive, and toxicology tests to determine the presence of drugs may take weeks.

"I was just shocked and surprised and tearful that their lives ended that way," Steve Cole, who worked as Tampa police spokesman during the 1988 shooting, said Monday. "To find out that both of them were found dead in a motel room, it's just unbelievable. ... It's a tragedy."

Cole, now a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa, said neither sister was ever the same after the shooting.

"I know that Charlotte took it very, very hard," he said. "She had a difficult time bouncing back. It was very draining."

* * *

On that December day in 1988, Johnston and her partner, 25-year-old Tampa police Officer Porfirio Soto Jr., tried to serve an arrest warrant on Jackie Lewis Simpson, wanted on weapons charges.

Simpson, 37, killed Soto and exchanged gunfire with Johnston in a dark hallway outside his bedroom at 3710 Idlewild Ave. In Simpson's trial, he contended that he didn't realize they were police officers and that he was defending himself.

He got life in prison for Soto's murder and 35 years for the attempted murder of Johnston, and he was allowed to serve both sentences at the same time. Police and prosecutors were angry that Simpson could have been released, after serving 25 years, in 2013. (Simpson ended up hanging himself with a pair of trousers in Polk Correctional Institution in 1997.)

After the sentencing, Johnston called it a dark day for police everywhere.

"The lives of police officers ... should mean more than what the judge and the jury said today," she said in a bitter speech before a bank of television cameras.

Cole, then the police spokesman, said Johnston's emotions transferred to Rowse as Rowse tried to help her sister through the ordeal. The two tried to get medical discharges from the department, but eventually left voluntarily.

"Charlotte was involved in a gun battle that night and fought for her life and Soto's life, and it was very tragic and very emotional," Cole said.

Johnston worked for TPD from 1986 to 1990. Before that, she spent two years with the Temple Terrace Police Department, according to records. Rowse worked for TPD from 1982 to 1991.

Things changed for the sisters after they turned in their badges.

Each twin had been arrested several times over the past decade in Polk and Marion counties. Both had faced charges of cocaine possession, domestic battery, fraud and probation violations, according to records from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Johnston, a convicted felon, had also been charged with marijuana possession and DUI; she had been arrested at least 10 times since 1998, state records show. Rowse had been arrested at least eight times since 1995, including once in Hillsborough County.

On Friday, the manager of a Days Inn in Lakeland forced his way into the sisters' motel room when no one answered the door. The twins had rented the room from April 1 until Friday, and they hadn't checked out on time.

One woman was lying on a bed; the other was on the floor. Police said they had been dead at least 24 hours.

* * *

Cole said he knew little about Johnston before the 1988 shooting, except that she was quiet. Rowse was the outspoken one, he said.

Rowse "was active in the community doing community policing, even before community policing became a way of doing things," Cole said. "She broke some ground in that area and was out there and very much involved in the community and trying to prevent crime."

After the shooting, Johnston and Rowse began to lose focus of their jobs, Cole said. He would see them in the hallways and talk with them.

"I would see them go through a transition from being devastated, to trying to deal with it, then to trying to leave the force," he said.

For Johnston and Rowse, Cole said, Soto's death meant the sisters had lost their best friend.

"It just seemed like (they) never bounced back," he said.

--Times researchers Cathy Wos and Kitty Bennett contributed to this story, which used information from the Lakeland Ledger. Kevin Graham can be reached at 813 226-3433 or kgraham@sptimes.com

[Last modified April 12, 2005, 01:24:13]


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