By Sandra Jordan of the St. Louis American
Wednesday, June 2, 2010 11:37 PM CDT
Memorial Day 2010 for John Johnson and his wife Linda Johnson was marked quietly at their Florissant home with a little barbeque shared with a few close family members and friends.
As he does most days, John Johnson thought about justice for his late daughter, Private LaVena Johnson, who was killed nearly five years ago on July 19, 2005 – just a little over a week before her 20th birthday.
She joined the U.S. Army after graduating from Hazelwood Central High School to save money to pay her way to college. She never made it back home from Balad, Iraq.
Her death was not the result of a roadside bomb or an exchange of enemy fire. The Army calls it a suicide. Her family and others working on the case call it rape and murder.
The last five years have been very hard on the entire family, which includes LaVena’s parents; her three older brothers, John, JayVince and Jermaine Johnson; and her sister, LaKesha.
LaVena Johnson told her mother by phone in 2005 that she was looking forward to coming home to celebrate Christmas with her family.
A short time later, LaVena was found dead inside a contractor’s tent in Iraq. She was battered and shot, with a broken nose, shoulder and neck. She had burns on one side of her body and an aerosol can of accelerant nearby. Blood was found in more than one location in the tent where her body was found. Based on the evidence, her family believes she was also sexually assaulted.
Based on its investigation, the Army claims she committed suicide by shooting herself in the head with her M-16 rifle.
John Johnson said no ballistics test on the rifle is reported in the mounds of redacted evidence, and the wound type and fragment damage typically caused by M-16 fire is not consistent with the much smaller size and discrete shape of her head wound. The family believes, based upon the evidence, that the weapon used to kill LaVena was a handgun made by Beretta.
This is not one family’s crusade. An entire team of people are working with John Johnson and his family members to get justice for LaVena. They are relying on documents from the initial Army autopsy, evidence from a second, private autopsy performed by Dr. Michael A. Graham after the body was exhumed two years later, and their own additional research.
John Johnson has spent the last five years pouring over graphic crime scene photos, letters and redacted reports. He has spoken to elected officials, congressional leaders and journalists from all over the world about his daughter’s case.
“We had a chance to get this all cleared up when Graham did that autopsy,” John Johnson said. “But he came back and said, ‘Inconclusive.’ And once he came back and said, ‘Inconclusive,’ all the news media backed off.”
Graham is the chief medical examiner for the City of St. Louis.
John Johnson said this issue is much bigger than his daughter. He believes the Army’s response to her death is part of a cover-up of a larger, chilling systemic ill – a horrible, dirty secret about the exploitation of females in the U.S. military.
An August 2008 article published by the anti-government John Birch Society, “U.S. Military Covering Up Possible Murders of Female Service Members,” links LaVena Johnson’s death to a number of other unexplained gunshot wounds and reported suicides by female members of the military serving in Iraq, describing the pattern as “highly suspicious.”
Anger fuels John Johnson’s pursuit of justice for his daughter and the affront that, despite evidence gathered by family and supporters, the Army is sticking to its story that her death was a suicide.
The Pat Tillman comparison
“There are a lot of people now that are beginning to question why the national media won’t cover this story,” Johnson said.
“We were told if we could get it to the national media, just like Pat Tillman’s family did, it will bust open just like Pat Tillman’s case did. But it didn’t happen.”
Tillman was a former NFL player who enlisted in the U.S. Army and was killed while on active duty in Afghanistan in 2004. After an initial cover-up claiming Tillman was killed by the enemy, and relentless activism by the Tillman family, it was revealed that he was in fact killed by friendly fire.
Tillman’s father, Patrick Tillman Sr., said the Army engaged in a “deliberate, calculated, ordered (repeatedly), and disgraceful” cover-up in an attempt to disguise the facts of his prominent son’s murder.
Throughout his family’s ordeal, John Johnson never thought that race played a role in how this case has been handled – until now.
“I believe that if LaVena was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl, and her father was raising as much hell as I’ve raised and had the kind of proof that I had, you ain’t going to tell me that they would be treating that family like they are treating us,” John Johnson said.
He said a local TV station promised to follow the case and help them get justice for LaVena, only to have it squashed when it got to the network level.
“Once [the network] got involved, which is their parent company, they dropped us like a hot potato,” he said.
The LaVena Johnson story is not going away. Several black news media outlets around the country picked up the story after it was reported in The American two years ago.
It has received international coverage in Australia and New Zealand, and will soon get additional exposure in a new documentary slated for completion this summer. Filmmaker Joan Brooker-Marks also places Private Johnson’s death in the context of other non-combat deaths of female soldiers serving in Iraq that were reported as suicides.
John Johnson has two brothers with backgrounds, respectively, in criminal science and law enforcement. Both have repeatedly combed the evidence and pointed out discrepancies between what is seen in photos and what is reported in official military documents.
John Johnson said their analysis is being disregarded because it comes from family members.
“I think it’s ridiculous to say that because we are family we can’t see,” he said. “You’re going to hand me information, and then tell me that I can’t see? That’s insulting.”
Regardless, John Johnson is still not backing off.
“LaVena would have gotten better justice if she was killed on the streets of St. Louis than getting killed serving her country,” he said.
While Memorial Day is a day to remember those who were killed in war, John Johnson said that is a totally separate recognition from what happened to LaVena. His unwavering efforts to find out who is responsible for her death and for justice to prevail are living memorials to his daughter.
“To know that my daughter wanted to be in the military so badly – was proud of it,” Johnson said. “I know right now that she is rolling over in her grave, if that was possible, to know they are treating us like this.”