October 28, 2019 | By Freda Washington-Perez
“I was dad’s sidekick. We were always going places and doing things – swimming, going to cousin’s homes,” Rochelle reflects on the few years she had to spend with her father.
Ronnie Johnson was the father of two young children. He was reported missing on April 2, 1989 from their small home town of West Plains, Missouri. His body would be found three weeks later.
Few things are harder than losing a parent, especially at such a young age. Ronnie was only 26 years old at the time of his murder, his only-daughter Rochelle was six.
“I was still watching for him to come home,” Rochelle recalled, reflecting on the moments she realized her life and environment would be changed forever.
In light of her age, Rochelle was initially shielded from the news about her father. Now a mother with children of her own, Rochelle has finally grasped the necessity of her family’s attempt to protect her from the cruel realities.
“I think I knew almost immediately something was different,” Rochelle said. She recalls her morning routine being interrupted, walking into her parent’s bedroom and finding just her mother.
“Where’s dad?” 6-year-old Rochelle asked.
The multitude of stories offered up were never clear to young Rochelle and always avoided what truly happened.
On April 26, 1989, Ronnie Johnson’s body was discovered “horrifically mutilated” and nude. Illegal substance abuse was speculated for Ronnie’s demise and condition when found. Rochelle isn’t surprised about the possibility, as she speaks candidly of hushed discussions connecting her father to drug-related habits and behaviors. She wonders if his history was reason for the supposed lack of engagement and investment to solving the case.
After being reported missing from a truck stop off Highway 14 and Highway 63, Ronnie’s body was found in the Mark Twain National Forest south of Noblett Lake, a heavily-wooded area in south Missouri.
Identification was difficult for law enforcement as many distinguishing features, including hands, feet, jaw, teeth, scalp, genitals, and more, were missing or mutilated. Officers deemed this to be an intention action and likely committed at another location. The key identifying mark was the “sunshine” tattoo on Ronnie’s arm. The mark was a tribute to his beloved daughter, Rochelle.
Another complicating factor was the matter of jurisdiction for investigation. Howell County Chief Deputy Don Baysinger and the County Coroner, Lonnie Pruitt, were first on the scene. Douglas County Sheriff Roldan Turner arrived soon after. The location of the crime scene happened to be near the border of jurisdiction lines between the law enforcement agencies. Ultimately, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office would handle the case.
An autopsy revealed a bullet hole in Ronnie’s skull. Sargent Carl Watson spoke to local news outlets at the time, stating “the bullet entered on the left and exited on the right side of the head,” indicating the suspicions of an execution-style shooting.
For Rochelle, the routine of time and silence has been a crippling aspect of pain and an overwhelming sense of unjust in her father’s cold case. The details of a murder conducted in the stillness of woods, witnessed apparently by no one, haunts her.
As an adult with a greater depth of understanding and patience, Rochelle takes on the continued fight towards seeking the truth and promoting awareness for her father. When asked of her expectations in the judicial process for those connected to his murder, Rochelle admits, with hesitation, “I feel like I’m the only one who remembers.”
“Someone knows who did this,” Rochelle offers, with caution. Her greatest apprehension is that those with information are aging just as rapidly as the years continue to push on.
She fears no one will come forward to help solve her father’s case.
Project: Cold Case reached out to law enforcement for a statement. We will update this story with any updates of a response.
If you have any information on the unsolved murder of Ronnie Johnson, please call the Missouri State Highway Patrol at (417) 469-3121.
Research and Impact
Countless stories like that of Ronnie Johnson have been lost in the digital age. Search Johnson’s name on Google and few resources appear. That’s more than many cases even see.
Project: Cold Case recently coined the term, “Internet Silence,” in which historic accounts of currently unsolved homicides are difficult, if possible at all, to access on the internet alone. Newspaper archives such as Newspapers.com have been vital in our attempts to record and re-tell these stories, but that collection isn’t complete by any means.
Based in Jacksonville, Florida, our local Florida Times-Union newspaper is not available on Newspapers.com, making it even more difficult to discover information on northeast Florida cases. In those situations, we often utilize the Jacksonville Public Library’s microfiche collection of Times-Union papers in the Downtown Jacksonville location.
Spotlight articles such as this one are sometimes the beginning of a digital-age telling of a family’s lost loved one and a service we are proud to provide at Project: Cold Case.
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