Suicide or murder: What happened to Jessica Johnson?
10/18/2017 5:19 pm PDT
A macabre discovery along a rural Mississippi road: a mother of two found tied to a mailbox by her shoelaces on June 2, 2017. Her death was ruled a suicide by hanging.
Did Jessica Johnson really kill herself, or did her worst fear become her reality?
Jessica Johnson, 37, was always ready for her close-up.
"She was always dressed up and really pretty, and she knew it," said Jessica's sister Kayla Mancil.
"She's fancy, glammed-up, diva," said Jessica's friend Summer Ledbetter.
She was a beautiful woman who never went unnoticed.
"She was the life of any gathering, whether it was just you and her or a room of a hundred," said Jessica's friend Leigh Ann Moreno.
"Jessica was energetic, outgoing, loved people. Not judgmental at all. She was just fun to be around," said Linda Johnson. "She loved everybody."
Jessica especially loved her two kids, a son and a daughter. For the single mom, her two kids were her everything.
"Anything that had to do with her kids, Jessica was always there for them," Linda tells Crime Watch Daily.
And so were their grandparents. Jessica and her kids lived with her mother and father.
"They've been a part of our life just like she has," said David Johnson. "She was a good mom when she was doing good. Of course she had her problems."
Some of those problems, her family says, were hanging with the wrong crowd.
"I was disappointed in her, in the choices she was making and what she was doing," said David.
And, according to her sister Kayla, Jessica's new taste in men.
"She was normally really picky on guys, so I was surprised her last two boyfriends that she had were pretty mean and controlling and kind of narcissistic," said Kayla.
"I don't know, I can't explain what she was attracted to, I mean, the crazy thing is, Jessica has never been attracted to men that was tattooed up. Neither one of my girls have ever had any tattoos, piercings or anything like that."
Michelle Bland believes she knows why her good friend was attracted to bad boys.
"I think some women just think they can save certain men," said Michelle Bland.
But in early June, it was Jessica Johnson who needed saving. The first sign of trouble: Her mother couldn't reach her.
"Thursday I kept trying to get in touch with her," said Linda. "I said 'This is very unusual for Jessica.' She always made sure that she texted and most of times she would even send me her locations."
This time Jessica didn't text or send her location. Instead, Linda learned of her daughter's whereabouts from the county coroner.
"He told me that my daughter had committed suicide and I'm like, 'No, that's not possible,'" said Linda.
It was a dark discovery on the sunny Mississippi day of June 2, 2017. Jessica's body was found tied to a mailbox outside a house less than five miles from her parents' home.
"The mail lady found her," said David Johnson. "She freaked out and she called to get help, and anyway another mailman come there and he took pictures. That's the pictures that we got."
The disturbing images show the mother of two on her knees with her legs curled underneath her, with shoestrings fashioned into a noose around her neck. Her purse was open on the ground placed between her legs.
"There's no way she's going to have herself displayed out for the world to see her like that. She had no makeup on, that's not her," said Kayla.
Even before seeing the horrifying candid images, Jessica's family and friends didn't believe she could commit suicide, let alone by hanging herself.
"Her drug of choice was Xanax," said Linda Johnson. "She would have went to sleep and believe me, Jessica would have had herself fixed up. She would have looked like 'Sleeping Beauty.'"
"She loved her babies. She loved her babies. She would not -- they were all she had, and they're all that they had," said Summer Ledbetter.
The gruesome photos convinced them even more that Jessica had not taken her own life.
"The way that they put her out there, only people that are not in their right mind would do something like that and say this is going to look normal," said Michelle Bland.
"It was like a display, she was put on there for display," said Linda.
But on her death certificate, DeSoto County Coroner Jeff Pounders ruled her death a suicide caused by asphyxiation. The certificate stated no autopsy was performed, but a private forensic scientist named Dr. Maurice Godwin, who is now working for the Johnson family to investigate the case, says a partial autopsy was performed. He tells Crime Watch Daily he does not agree with the police ruling of death by suicide.
Despite what the DeSoto County, Mississippi medical examiner put on their daughter's death certificate, the Johnsons don't believe Jessica committed suicide.
"He could've checked 'undetermined' or 'pended investigation,' as they're claiming now," said forensic scientist Dr. Maurice Godwin.
"With the final medical examiner's report still months away, and desperate for answers now, the Johnsons turned to Dr. Godwin.
"It should be 'homicide,' but at least at the minimum it needs to be changed to 'undetermined,'" said Godwin.
Dr. Godwin has two decades of experience working on high-profile murder investigations, including the Casey Anthony case out of Florida.
Is it possible, in Godwin's expertise, to successfully hang oneself from a 38-inch post with a shoelace?
"I've stopped using that term, 'hanged,' and prefer to use the term 'tied to,'" said Godwin.
Dr. Godwin recently met with Linda Johnson to explain why he doesn't believe her daughter took her own life. And the strange scene certainly is hard to explain. Jessica's body was found on the ground with her knees bent and her neck tied to a waist-high mailbox, with two shoestrings fashioned like a noose.
"Based on the way the string is around her Adam's apple here, she would've never have passed out anyway because I don't think there was enough pressure to cut off the air," said Godwin.
He says the positioning of her body against the mailbox also doesn't make sense.
"The majority of the force, pressure, was on her cheek bone," said Godwin.
In that position, Godwin says, Jessica Johnson would've been in excruciating pain.
"She's alive, supposedly, when she sits down there. So she has to put up with that pressure on her jaw from the edge of that 4-by-4 post until she dies. Never happen," said Godwin. "Never happen."
And if the shoelace could cause enough pressure to strangle her, he says there would be a very noticeable scar left behind.
"How much indent do you see that string making compared to her jaw? Little," said Godwin.
Something else he finds suspicious.
"In my opinion, she didn't tie this," said Godwin. The knot used to tie the shoelaces together.
"It is so precisely tied really close to the end, so to me that would be difficult to tie this without proper lighting too," said Godwin.
"I don't think that Jessica would be capable of doing that," said Former Memphis Police Officer Roe Moreno.
Roe Moreno has also been looking into Jessica Johnson's death as a favor to her family. He agreed to meet Crime Watch Daily at the mailbox where her body was discovered by the mail carrier.
"Someone that's coming and erratically trying to hang themselves in the cover of dark and you look here and this is a rural area, it was very dark, no street lights, anything," said Moreno. "It's not going to be precise to the knot."
Roe Moreno says complete darkness would not have been Jessica's only obstacle.
"Keep in mind while I'm down here it looks clean, OK -- this grass was up here," said Moreno.
The former police officer doesn't believe the mailbox, which stands just over three feet tall, would've held up under the weight and force of someone's struggle. Moreno has investigated many crime scenes during his years in law enforcement. And like Dr. Godwin, he doesn't think Jessica Johnson committed suicide.
"To me and to anyone with some common sense would know this is not a suicide by hanging," said Moreno. "She was placed here."
"That was a staged crime scene," said Dr. Maurice Godwin.
What else about it indicates it was staged?
"The purse," said Godwin.
If Jessica had hanged herself, Dr. Godwin says her hand would not have remained resting on top of her purse. And he questions her hair, which appears to be entangled in the shoelace.
"She has to get adjusted, right? Would a female just flip it on top there, and what that allows it to do is be closer to the skin," said Dr. Godwin.
When visiting the mailbox for himself, something else didn't add up for Dr. Godwin.
"If you did want to hang yourself, there's plenty of trees around," said Godwin. "I've looked at 'em. There's some low-lying limbs. Why you going to choose the U.S. Postal Service mailbox?"
"If she would have been suicidal, Jessica would never have done it that way," said Jessica's mother Linda Johnson.
Based on statistics, Jessica's mother is right: Women are far more likely to commit suicide by taking pills.
"If they would have told me that she had overdosed on Xanax, I think I might have believed that," Linda tells Crime Watch Daily.
But for now "asphyxiation by hanging" is the cause of death listed on her daughter's death certificate. The final report from the state medical examiner is expected by the end of the year.
"Her body should have been given to a known forensic pathologist for a detailed autopsy," said Godwin.
Godwin says he isn't expecting the report to reveal much new information, since only a partial autopsy was performed.
"Jessica shouldn't have never been cremated," said Godwin.
In their grief and confusion, Jessica's parents made the heart-wrenching decision to cremate Jessica due to financial issues, and they also believed the police had the necessary evidence to investigate. It's a decision they regret. Now they're convinced Jessica Johnson needs justice.
"They say this case is open, but they will not investigate anyone," said Jessica Johnson's mother Linda.
Why does Dr. Godwin think a homicide investigation initially wasn't even acknowledged or initiated in any way?
"I think it's her lifestyle and who she was hanging with," said Godwin.
Although her family admits the young mother had battled drug addictions for years, they say she had been trying to fight those demons. Godwin believes her drug use likely changed the direction of the investigation. Though she did not overdose, the coroner says Jessica Johnson did have methamphetamine and Xanax in her system when she died.
"And if this had been a college female or a housewife with no background or anything, found on a mailbox, oh, you wouldn't never heard the end of it," said Dr. Godwin.
Crime Watch Daily's request to the Horn Lake Police Department for an on-camera interview was declined. But in a statement to Crime Watch Daily, Captain Nikki Lanphere says: "Tips and information that we have received have been investigated. As far as we are concerned this is still a death investigation."
But if the investigation into Jessica's death is still open, Godwin doesn't understand why potential evidence has already been returned to her family. Godwin found what he believes could be evidence pointing to a possible murder, including what appeared to be blood spatter on her shoes.
"In my opinion that's what it looks like," said Godwin. "It all needs to be processed."
And on her purse is something that until now Jessica's family hadn't noticed. The metal connecting the strap to her purse had been ripped off. Godwin believes it's a clear sign that Jessica was involved in some type of altercation.
"There was somebody else with her that night and there was a struggle," said Godwin.
It's what her family first suspected after seeing her body at the funeral home.
"There were holes in the hand. Holes," said Jessica's friend Leigh Ann Moreno.
Not all of the potential evidence has been returned to the family. Some of it is gone.
"My suggestion was to take this shoelace and swab it for touch DNA," said Godwin.
But the shoestrings that had been fashioned into a noose are missing.
"That's evidence. How do you lose evidence?" asked Jessica's sister Kayla.
Also gone are the clothes Jessica was wearing the night she died.
"We were calling the funeral home and medical examiner, nobody could find her clothes," said Kayla.
"Her clothes were burned. Destroyed," said Godwin.
According to the family, the funeral director said Jessica's clothes were sent to him in a biohazard bag. But Dr. Godwin doesn't understand why.
"As far as I saw, there was no blood on the clothing," said Godwin.
"Something basic that you learned in the academy, how to correctly preserve a crime scene," said former cop Roe Moreno.
Former Memphis Police Officer Roe Moreno believes critical evidence was destroyed from the start of the investigation.
"They rode on top of here like it was nothing," said Moreno.
He says photos show cop cars parked too close to the body. He also claims potential witnesses were ignored. Moreno believes one oversight by detectives involved security video from the actual home where Jessica's body was found.
"It requires a pass code to get into them, and they didn't ask him for a pass code," said Moreno.
In the days before her death, Jessica had been hanging out at that home with her boyfriend, who lived there on occasion. The home is owned by his best friend. We wanted to ask him about the supposed security video. He didn't want to talk on camera, but off camera the man confirmed there was a camera facing the mailbox, but that police never got the pass code to access it.
But oddly, the homeowner had many changing stories about the video. First he told us he's never looked for the video. When asked if we could, he said he didn't know the pass code. He then said the camera may not have been on, or that it may have been recorded over already.
And there's another critical piece of evidence no one has been able to look into either: Jessica's cellphone.
"I know that holds answers," said Linda Johnson.
But the phone is locked and no one has the code.
"They could have used Jessica's fingerprint too, but they didn't even think about doing anything like that," said Linda.
On the day her body was found, Jessica's family says, her teenage son received a text from his mom's phone at 3:29 a.m.
Based on the reported condition of her body, Dr. Godwin estimates Jessica had been dead for at least eight hours when the mail carrier found her. That would mean the text was sent right around the time she died. Or perhaps even afterward.
"Either somebody had her phone somewhere else and sent that message, or they were standing at the mailbox around 3:30 a.m., sent the message to try to throw off everything, and then just put it in her purse and walked away," said Godwin.
Either way, Jessica's family says, eight hours before she was found dead, she certainly didn't sound like someone ready to commit suicide. In the message, she said she would be spending the day with "G," referring to her on-again/off-again boyfriend of more than two years, Garland Hart.
Linda Johnson says she never could understand what her daughter saw in him. She claims the relationship was toxic.
"I think that there was times in their relationship where they enjoyed each other and had a little bit of fun, but the bad outweighed the good in their relationship," said Linda.
Jessica's friends agree. They all paint a very dark picture of the relationship.
"He was mentally abusive, he was physically abusive," said Jessica's friend Michelle Bland.
"She said specifically she knew he was able to hurt her," said Jessica's friend Summer Ledbetter.
"She was like a possession to him," said Linda Johnson.
"There were times where I would have to go pick her up because they had gotten into an argument or altercation," said Bland. "She'd be so hysterical and she would be like 'This guy is going to kill me.'"
So why didn't she leave him?
"I think she just wanted to save him, you know. I think some women think they can save certain men," said Bland.
Friends say they tried to convince her to call it off.
"I really urged Jess to get away from him," said Bland.
"I would always ask 'Then why are you there?'" said Ledbetter.
But any time Jessica did get away, she'd go right back.
"With Jess, you could give her advice but she was going to do what she wanted to do," said Bland.
And friends say two nights before her death, she wanted to go with Garland Hart to his best friend's house.
"He lived there," said Bland.
Friends and family can now piece together some of her movements in the days and hours before Jessica Johnson's death.
Linda Johnson says the last time she talked to her daughter was two days earlier.
"Jessica was at my house on Wednesday afternoon," Linda tells Crime Watch Daily.
She says that's when Jessica had gone shopping with her on-again/off-again boyfriend Garland Hart.
"My granddaughter said that Wednesday that they were at the thrift store, they were getting some clothes for him," said Linda.
Linda claims the couple had a volatile relationship that at times turned violent.
"I begged her, 'Please stay away from him,'" said Linda.
Despite the pleas from her mom and close friends, Jessica kept going back. And late Wednesday night is exactly when Jessica and Garland went to his best friend's house across town. He is the man we questioned about supposed surveillance video at the home where Garland Hart sometimes lived, and where Jessica was later found hanging from the mailbox.
Did Jessica frequently go to that house; was she comfortable there with the homeowner?
"Yes she was," said Jessica's friend Michelle Bland.
But Bland was not.
"A place you don't want to be, we'll put it that way," Bland tells Crime Watch Daily.
When we spoke to the homeowner, he said he'd need to talk to a lawyer before showing his face on camera, which never happened. But in an earlier interview with our Memphis affiliate WMC-TV, he said he hadn't seen Jessica and Garland together in months, and he claimed something seemed off when they arrived at his house that evening.
"From the time they showed up, Wednesday to Thursday, she seemed out of her normal self," he said in that interview.
By Thursday, he said, the couple had gotten into a big fight. According to her friends, that's when Jessica called for help.
"She was locked in the bathroom with her cellphone, afraid of Garland," said Jessica's friend Leigh Ann Moreno. "She wanted her girlfriend to come pick her up and get her out of there.
"When she got there she was stopped by Garland, who said Jessica was the one that was irrational and causing all the problems," said Moreno. "He told her that he couldn't handle her anymore, maybe she should get her out of there."
After about 45 minutes, Leigh Ann Moreno claims Jessica's friend left. And Jessica stayed.
The homeowner says he didn't think much of the fight, or a text he claims Jessica sent him later that night after she was no longer in the house.
"I got the text message from her talking about, you know, she just didn't want to feel the pain anymore," he told affiliate WMC-TV.
Jessica's childhood friend Summer Ledbetter saw the text.
"To me it was just she was just frustrated, not that she wanted to leave this world, meaning be with her ex-boyfriend," said Ledbetter.
But the homeowner claims someone did see Jessica threatening to kill herself that night before the text was sent.
"One of my roommates told me she was out in the driveway and pulled the shoestrings out of her shoes and was threatening it, and he basically kind of just shrugged it off and told her, you know, 'Get out of here with that, I don't want to hear it,' and he shut the door on her," he told WMC-TV.
He says that was around 6 o'clock Thursday evening. After that, nobody reportedly saw Jessica again until the mail carrier found her tied to the mailbox 16 hours later.
"After 6 p.m. she just vanishes and no one sees or hears from her again until she's found?" said Ledbetter. "It's just not possible. That's not Jessica."
The homeowner says there were at least six people at his house coming and going on both Wednesday and Thursday.
"It's hard to believe that she sat out there from 6 p.m. on Thursday till what, 9:30 or 10:30 Friday morning without anybody seeing her," he told WMC-TV.
That's why, he says, Jessica's body may have been placed at the mailbox shortly before it was found.
"Whatever happened to her, it didn't happen here," the homeowner told WMC-TV.
He admits there's something suspicious about Jessica's death.
"The way she was tied, too, that was kind of unsettling, you know what I mean," the homeowner told WMC-TV. "That kind of gave you the feeling that she didn't do it to herself."
But he doesn't believe his good friend Garland Hart had anything to do with it.
"I wouldn't let anything happen to her, you know, anybody do anything to her if I could help it," he told WMC-TV.
Jessica's mother Linda Johnson isn't so sure.
"I've prayed about this and prayed about this that if I am wrong for God to take this out of my heart," said Linda.
But she says whatever happened to Jessica she believes Hart knows more than he's telling. So we decided to ask him ourselves.
After first ordering us off her property, a woman who claimed to be Hart's girlfriend agreed to an interview if we didn't reveal her identity.
"There's no way he could hurt that girl," she told Crime Watch Daily. "They loved each other."
She claims on the eve of Jessica's death, Hart was with her.
"I know that he arrived here before the sun went down and he was here for days after that," she said.
She also told us where we could find Garland Hart, ironically enough at court where he was wanted on a charge of domestic assault against her.
Before facing a judge Garland Hart faced our cameras and stopped to talk.
"I loved Jessica. Anybody that knows me would know I could never do that to her," Garland Hart told Crime Watch Daily.
He says he voluntarily went in for police questioning and has fully cooperated with the investigation. Police have never named him or anyone else a suspect in Jessica Johnson's death.
Garland Hart believes the truth will eventually come out.
"Anybody that's accused me of that, when they see that it had nothing to do with me, as I've been cleared already, I willingly went down there myself because that was my best friend, so I don't expect an apology, because it would anger me," said Hart.
"But yes I do feel like something happened to her because I don't think she would do that to herself," Garland Hart told Crime Watch Daily.
Even though some of Jessica Johnson's friends and family accuse him of being involved in her death, just like them, he doesn't believe she committed suicide.
"I don't want my name cleared 'cause I don't care. I don't care. That doesn't mean anything because in the end, Jessica is still not going to be here," said Hart. "But if somebody did do something to her, I want to know who did it because her son, her daughter deserve to know."
He clearly has heard the accusations her family has been making against him.
"If her mother wanted to know the truth, though, why would she spread lies about me that she knows to be lies?" said Hart. "They have to have somebody to blame, I understand that. I'll be that dude. But I'll never apologize for something I didn't do, especially to somebody that I loved."
Does he have any idea who would have harmed her?
"I don't know," said Garland Hart. "I don't know what to think and I don't want to pass accusations because that's what everyone's done to me. And I just don't know."
But does he understand why the family is so confused and has so many questions?
"I understand that, I'm not mad at them in any way," said Hart.
It was the first time Garland Hart has spoken publicly about Jessica Johnson's death. He admitted it probably wasn't the best thing to do.
"I'm not a lawyer, I don't know. I shouldn't be doing this right now," said Hart. "It's not wise on my behalf in any kind of way. But I don't care. I will die in prison as an old man just to know they got who did that to her."
But before anyone will face that fate, Jessica's death needs to be investigated further.
How do you convince police to look at this investigation differently?
"Two ways: Word of mouth. Somebody talking," said Dr. Maurice Godwin.
If she was killed, Dr. Godwin says someone needs to speak out. But without that?
"Further pursue forensics," said Godwin.
That's exactly what Horn Lake Police say they're waiting for. Before the investigation goes any further, Godwin says Jessica's cause of death needs to be changed.
In a statement to Crime Watch Daily, Horn Lake Police Capt. Nikki Lanphere says "The state medical examiner will be the individual who determines the cause and manner of death." That report, she says, "Will take roughly 4 to 6 months to complete. ... In the meantime, tips and information that we have received have been investigated."
And she tells us right now they've found nothing linking Garland Hart or anyone else to Jessica Johnson's death.
"I want the police to do their job," said Jessica's father David Johnson. "I don't think that's too much to ask."
The Johnsons say until they find justice for Jessica they'll never stop searching for the truth.