William Johnson seems like the mild-mannered, scholarly type, but inside lurks the heart of a cowboy, itching to break loose.
And at the age of 69, that's what the longtime Peters solicitor, former FBI agent and prosecutor plans to do.
"I'm headed to Arizona to be a full-time rodeo cowboy," said Mr. Johnson, who this week leaves behind a career spanning 35 years of serving his No. 1 client: Peters council.
Instead of wrangling clients, he'll be roping steers and calves.
"I will probably rope every day or so," said Mr. Johnson, of South Strabane, who plans to significantly reduce his private law practice in Washington, Pa., and live part of the year in a small house that he and his wife of seven years, Sue, purchased in Wickenburg, Ariz.
He has pared down his clients, including municipalities such as Peters and Mount Pleasant, although he plans to continue representing Cross Creek, a much smaller township.
Mr. Johnson is originally from Mt. Lebanon, but his family moved to North Strabane during his teenage years to be closer to farm acreage they owned.
He graduated from Peters Township High School -- which at the time served some residents in North Strabane -- in 1962 and earned his bachelor's degree in economics from Washington & Jefferson College four years later.
He loved sports and played baseball, track, football and basketball at various times in high school and college.
"I thought I was going to be a basketball star, but the coach didn't realize what he left on the bench," he said, joking about his time at Peters High School.
It was during his teenage years that Mr. Johnson developed his love of roping, which was taught to him by a neighbor who was a horse trainer and rodeo cowboy.
After earning his degree and not finding a career that interested him, Mr. Johnson decided to attend law school.
"I didn't know what else to do," he recalled. "I didn't grow up wanting to be a lawyer."
But that's what he became in 1969 when he graduated from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.
And, something interesting happened during those years in Oakland.
"I was recruited by the FBI out of law school," he said.
Mr. Johnson became a special agent during the final years of the Vietnam War and was assigned to a fugitive task force. After serving for a time in Washington, D.C., and Quantico, Va., Mr. Johnson was transferred to St. Louis and eventually Mobile, Ala., where he continued to serve on the fugitive squad.
"I had a great time in the bureau," said Mr. Johnson, who married and had one of his two daughters during his tenure in Alabama.
When the bureau requested that he transfer to New York in 1972, Mr. Johnson declined.
"I just couldn't see me in New York City with a wife and a young daughter," he recalled.
Instead, he returned to Pittsburgh and became a sole practitioner with a few partners here and there over the years.
In 1984, Mr. Johnson went to work as first assistant to District Attorney John Pettit, prosecuting some of the most heinous criminal cases in Washington County.
The cases that Mr. Johnson helped secure convictions for during his seven years in the office included: Roland Steele, convicted in the June 1985 "karate-style" murders of three elderly women; William "Tippy" Wallace, for the shooting deaths of a Canonsburg businessman and his young employee in 1979; and Thomas J. Gorby, for the stabbing death in 1985 of a Washington man outside of a bar in Somerset Township.
"Those were bad cases," he recalled. "They were particularly nasty."
With no political ambition, Mr. Johnson ended up back in private practice by 1991, where "more mundane things" drew him back.
He started representing Peters in 1978 and later went to work as solicitor for Mount Pleasant and Cross Creek, as well as the Chartiers zoning board.
He also has provided free legal representation to the Washington County Fair Board for the past 15 years.
When he was 30, Mr. Johnson decided to try his hand at roping again.
"I've been roping ever since then," he said.
He has traveled to 26 states and Canada and has competed on some of the biggest stages, including Madison Square Garden.
He practices roping three to four nights each week on his farm and sometimes competes with a group of fellow ropers from neighboring states.
"They are usually held all over the country," he said of roping contests. "I'm too beat up to rope calves anymore, but I can rope steers as good as ever."
Roping a 500-pound steer is more dangerous than a calf because the animal can cause a horse to fall on top of its rider, Mr. Johnson said.
His time in the roping arena hasn't been without injury. Mr. Johnson said he has broken his neck and separated his shoulders and "all of my fingers have been broken."
Roping enthusiasts like Mr. Johnson can earn from $500 to $5,000 in one event.
He estimates that he has won "tens of thousands" of dollars in roping over the years, but he never thought he could quit his day job -- until now.
"I think I can make some money doing it every day," he said of roping in Arizona. "You can only go as far as your athleticism will let you."
During his last meeting as Peters solicitor on Monday, council members recognized Mr. Johnson with a commemorative clock and a railway trip for two to the Grand Canyon.
"I believe that hiring you was very fortuitous for the township," council President Frank Arcuri said. "We all believe that one of the best things that ever happened here was hiring you."
"My objective wasn't to win cases, but to keep the township out of court altogether," Mr. Johnson said. "I've always had very civic-minded people on council. I was always treated with the utmost respect.''
Township manager Michael Silvestri said, "Bill has always been ethical and forthright. He's saved the township a lot of time and money by resolving issues."
Mr. Johnson said he will miss the friends he made in Peters, but he is looking forward to the next chapter in his life.
"I don't need to be the richest guy in the graveyard," he said.neigh_south - neigh_washington
Janice Crompton: email@example.com or 412-851-1867. First Published October 17, 2013 1:51 AM