Kendrick Johnson: Unsolved Crime or Tragic Accident?

Kendrick Johnson, photo from Medium.com

Kendrick Johnson was a sports-loving, ball-playing high school student in Valdosta, Georgia until January 11, 2013, when he was found dead in his school’s gymnasium.

Thing is, he wasn’t just found dead. He was found dead in a rolled up wresting mat. The mat was vertical. Police—and eventually the state’s attorney—said he went headfirst into the mat to get a sneaker at the bottom, and that he died from positional asphyxia when he couldn’t get out.

Now, positional asphyxia is a legitimate cause of death. Essential, you asphyxiate (either by suffocation or lack of oxygen) due to the position of your body—a position in which you can’t get yourself out. Given the slender opening in the gym mat, this is certainly plausible, even though Kendrick was exceptionally physically fit. But…

There are some strange pieces to this case. First, no one heard him? The police took videotape from the school and could see him entering the gym, but they haven’t released video that shows anything else. Not a big deal, perhaps, except…

Another student had an issue with Kendrick and had threatened him several times over a girlfriend. Allegedly they were in an altercation on a school bus prior to Kendrick’s death. Listen, I’m a high school teacher. These issues don’t mean that someone will kill someone else, however…

That student’s father is a retired FBI agent. I would be suspicious too, if I were Kendrick’s parents, that there may be some kind of cover up occurring because, let’s face it, who has ever heard of someone dying in a rolled up gym mat? And potentially missing videotape? Furthermore, a second autopsy showed non-accidental blunt force trauma to the back of the neck. And, allegedly the FBI agent’s son told at least two people that he hit Kendrick on the back of the neck with a 45 pound weight.

The state’s attorney has said that anyone who objectively looks at the case details can only come to one conclusion: this was an accidental death. But you have to wonder…

For a brilliantly done docuseries on Kendrick Johnson, watch Ashes to Ash’s vlogcast! They do an excellent job digging in to places and topics that authorities seem to avoid, not just in this case but in the others they’ve explored as well, like the case of Robert Bee that I wrote about here. For the sake of his family, I hope that the case of Kendrick Johnson can be closed in a way that provides closure.

Unsolved Crimes: Jelani Day

Jelani Day, photo from The Jelani Day Foundation

Jumping back into unsolved crimes this week on the blog. I’ve already shared several, such as the case of Robert Bee, Jr., a 13-year old who went missing in 2016 and was found dead months later; and Richard Griener, another 13-year old who went missing in 1972 and was never found, even 50 years later. Today, I’d like to share the tragedy of Jelani Day, a graduate student at Illinois State University, in Normal, Illinois. 

Day, originally from Danville, Illinois, had completed his undergraduate degree at Alabama A&M University before deciding upon ISU for his masters in speech pathology. On August 24, 2021, he inexplicably disappeared. 

On the day Jelani went missing, he arrived at the ISU campus, got coffee at the campus Starbucks, and then left. Police assume he went back to his apartment and changed clothes, because the next video sighting of him is at a marijuana dispensary in Normal. He can be seen on video inside the facility where he purchased one joint. He did not go to his classes that day and did not have any contact with anyone else beyond the dispensary, as far as the public knows. 

Just two days later on August 26, his car was found abandoned and somewhat obscured in a wooded area in the center of Peru, Illinois, just behind a YMCA. Day’s mother arranged a search party over the weekend as she felt the police were not doing enough (more on that later). Eleven days after he went missing, his lifeless body was discovered in the Illinois River near Peru, about 60 miles north-northwest from Normal. 

Day’s story is one in which his actions of the day do not match up with how others describe him. The day he went missing would have been his first day of clinicals in his first week of classes. It would be entirely out of character for him to skip class as he was an excellent student and had dreams of being a doctor. Everyone skips once in a while though, right? But this was the first week of class. He missed an important meeting with his adviser at the college. It was so unlike him that a professor reported him missing because that just wasn’t Jelani. Furthermore, he didn’t answer his cell phone when his mother called him. In fact, he didn’t answer his cell phone at all. 

Stranger still, Day’s car was found in the middle of Peru–over 60 miles from ISU. His family and friends know of no reason he’d be in that area: he had no family nor friends there. Peru is an easy drive up Route 39 from Normal, but there is no evidence that he stopped there to eat or for gas or anything else that would explain him being there. 

His family was hopeful that there would be some forensic evidence between the car and his body to explain what happened, but this has actually been a source of contention and confusion. If any type of forensics have been discovered, the police have kept them quiet. And while his death was ruled a drowning, it is still undetermined as far as accident, suicide, or homicide, allegedly due to the decomposition from being in the water.

After the body’s discovery, his wallet and clothes were found three miles from the location of the body, which was about 1.5 miles from his car. His ISU lanyard was found in a different location in Peru, and his phone was found on I-74, an interstate that runs from Bloomington-Normal to Peoria, with an off-ramp for I-39 towards Peru. Despite the fact that investigators now had a car and a body and other personal effects, they apparently have nothing–or at least they’ve released nothing. 

Was it a carjacking and murder? Was it a desperate and depressed college student who took his own life? Or was it a guy who needed to get away for a little bit, and met with an accident?

Let’s start with the latter. I was a college student once too, and I can completely understand as a good student saying the heck with it and skipping one day because you just needed it. I can also understand hopping on the interstate and going for a drive. I can even buy the accident idea if his car was near the river, but it wasn’t. Also, why was his phone tossed back near Normal? And his wallet by his car? That just doesn’t seem like someone who has met with an accident.

What about depression? One theory is that, despite his family’s protests of him being a happy, positive, energetic person who would never consider suicide, he was battling depression and took his life. After all, family members may think they know someone, but do we really? Perhaps they saw only what he wanted them to see. There was nothing anyone was aware of that occurred to trigger him being upset or angry. In fact, his professors, to a person, talked about his bright future. Again, perhaps he had them fooled too. But would he drive all the way to Peru, a place he was not familiar with, effectively hide his car, and then walk to the river to drown himself? That seems unlikely, especially since he was a good swimmer.

So that leaves us with murder. A carjacking certainly seems plausible, since there is video evidence of his vehicle leaving the parking lot of the dispensary, but you can’t see who is driving it. It also would make sense with a phone being chucked out a window on I-74, his car being hidden, his body found some distance away and in a river, and his wallet being tossed near the car. But where is the evidence? The coroner said his body didn’t have any trauma. I have a hard time believing that forensics couldn’t recover anything from the car, and yet, this seems like the only explanation.

That is also what Day’s family believes. They thought from day one that he met with foul play, because the person they knew would not just disappear. They do not feel that the police did enough, whether it was the Bloomington-Normal police or the Peru police. Day’s mother, Carmen Bolden-Day, pressured them to involve the state police and the FBI, and I truly believe that without her continual pressure, it would have taken even longer to find his car and remains. I can understand that the police may not consider a college kid a serious missing person case, at least at first, but when his professor reports him missing after one day–not just his mother–because he just wasn’t that kind of person, that seems like a different level. And, keep in mind, Jelani was not some sophomore in college. He was in grad school. That’s a person who has committed to his education. 

Day’s case brought a significant issue to light: how missing white people garner much more attention than missing black people. Around the same time that Day went missing, Gabby Petito also went missing. Her situation made international headlines. Day’s barely made it across Illinois’s state lines.

Another potential twist in the story is that Peru was (and still is, by some) considered a “sundown” town. A sundown town traditionally got its name from the expectation that black people would be out of town by sundown–or risk lynching. However, it would seem that Jelani was abducted/carjacked in Normal near ISU, since his phone was tossed on I-74. I don’t think that he met with foul play only upon his arrival to Peru; I think that started before he left his college town.

His mother has created the Jelani Day Foundation to help draw attention to the case as well as to provide funds to help others in their searches when they are not getting proper attention. She also fought for and got passed Senate Bill 3932, The Jelani Day Bill, which requires coroners to notify the FBI of any remains not identified within 72 hours. His mom sounds like a powerhouse to me. I just hope that she gets some answers eventually. Someone, somewhere, knows something.

If you have any information regarding the disappearance or death of Jelani Day, please contact the Jelani Day Joint Task Force at 1-800-CALL-FBI. They have a $10,000 reward for significant information.

H. H. Holmes + Leonardo DiCaprio?

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Back in February of 2019, Hulu announced that it would be teaming up with Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese to introduce the world to Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, the book that brought H. H. Holmes back into the limelight, via a television series. Back in 2003, DiCaprio bought the rights to make it into a movie, and he and Scorsese had been at some level of the production since 2015. I have to admit, I’d rather have a television series that I can enjoy than one single movie, but then I’m a smidge obsessed with Holmes.

Apparently, Tom Cruise was originally the first Hollywood hot shot to be interest, but that fell through, and within a year, DiCaprio picked it up. When he and Scorsese were planning the film version, the plan was for DiCaprio to play Holmes–and wouldn’t he be amazing in that role? His gentlemanly manner and charming smile certainly remind me of Holmes. However, now that Hulu is involved, it’s likely that they’ll come up with a different lead, but Hulu is not releasing any details. (And I’d looooove some details!)

Don’t forget, Larson’s book was not solely about Holmes. It has a broad appeal to non-fiction lovers since Holmes’ story is spliced into that of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. If you’re a history buff, a lover of architecture, or enamored with life in the late 19th century, there will be something for you in the book and the television series.

Sign up for my email list today! I have the H. H. Holmes Handbook coming out soon, and my subscribers will not only get a first look but get it for free!

Who was H. H. Holmes?

HH-HolmesWho was H. H. Holmes? Many things. A physician. A brother. A master manipulator. Chicago’s first serial killer. The source of my unending curiosity for the past few years.

H. H. Holmes was born in Gilmanton, New Jersey, in 1861. Made infamous through Erik Larson’s non-fiction The Devil in the White City, Holmes has now been the feature of several documentaries and bus tours in Chicago that will take you by his killing grounds–including the former location of his Murder Castle.

Sound ominous? It should. The more I learn about him, the more intrigued/baffled I become. (So much so that I wrote a novel, published some short stories, and started this website and blog!)

Jeff Mudgett, Holmes’ great-great grandson and author of Bloodstains, was the driving force behind the History Channel’s American Ripper docuseries. One goal of the show was to determine if Holmes could have been London’s Jack the Ripper (there is documentation that he was in London at the time of the murders), and another was to determine if Holmes was actually the body in his grave. His really weird double-grave, encased in concrete. No, I’m not making this up.

In the end, the History Channel’s experts determined that the body in Holmes grave was a “conclusive link” to the real Holmes.

Jeff Mudgett disagrees, and I can’t say I blame him.

On a recent Facebook post, he outlines his reasons–based upon admissions of court-appointed anthropologists from the University of Pennsylvania:

  1. The physical injuries that should occur upon hanging, like a broken hyoid bone, were not there.
  2. The DNA did not match.
  3. The skeleton size itself did not fit the descriptions of Holmes.

Holmes was a mastermind when it came to life insurance scams, stealing bodies, killing people, forging dental records, etc. Let’s not forget he was a doctor who was intimately aware of the human body, as he often stole bodies and killed people to make articulated skeletons that he could then sell to universities. Is it such a leap to think he could have managed to fake his death?

If you too are morbidly interested in this man, check out the rest of my website and short stories. And  sign up for my email list. I have the H. H. Holmes Handbook coming out soon, and my subscribers will not only get a first look but get it for free!

 

 

The Case of Robert Bee

bee

As part of a mini-series of unsolved crime blogs, I wrote about Robert Bee, a 13 year old who went missing from very near where I live and work. Too near. Later on, his remains were discovered scattered mere miles from his home. Most of us here feel his case has not received the attention it–or he–deserved.

Enter Ashes To Ash TV. According to their Facebook page, they are “an episodic true crime series” in the form of a documentary and podcast. They chose the Robert Bee case as their first. Episode 5 was just released.

If you are a true crime/unsolved mystery kind of person, this is a must watch. Check them out on their Facebook page or on Youtube. Let me know what you think after you watch!

And if you are indeed a true crime/unsolved mystery kind of person, sign up for my email list. There will be special freebies along the way, like snippets of The Devil Inside Me, backstory on characters, and explorations of the serial killing mind.

Unsolved Crime: Dalton Mesarchik

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Sixteen years ago, Dalton Mesarchik waited on his front porch in Streator, Illinois, for a church van to pick him up for Bible school. The church van never arrived, and seven year old Dalton never came home.

The next day, Dalton’s body was found floating in the Vermilion River, less than three miles from his home.

When Dalton’s sister left that evening, Dalton was still waiting on the porch. When she returned, she asked, “Where’s Dalton?” Their mother contacted church officials, only to discover that the van had not made its usual rounds that night–their normal driver was gone due to an illness in the family. Dalton had not been picked up for Bible school.

K-9 units indicated that someone picked up Dalton that night. But who?

Early the next morning, people went out searching neighborhood after neighborhood. There were no sightings until a fisherman found Dalton’s body in the Vermilion River. He notified police immediately, and upon investigation, they determined it was a homicide. Shortly after the body’s discovery, the murder weapon was found: a Benchtop Pro three-pound hammer.

Dalton’s immediate family members were cleared, as was the fisherman who discovered the body. Church members were cleared, even the 30-some registered sex offenders in the town were cleared.

Local police, state police, and the county sheriff’s office were stymied. The state police even set up a headquarters at Streator’s National Guard Armory. Who would want to kill a seven year old boy–and why?

For a few years, Dalton’s mother said that police were getting closer to making an arrest and that they knew who the killer was. However, no arrests have ever been made nor any pronouncements of who the killer was.

Unsolved Crime: Robert Bee

bee

When kids run away from home, they often return shortly after: they realize that it’s not as fun on their own. However, when a child has a great deal of freedom, few rules, and a questionable home life, returning may not be a huge deal.

Such was the case with 13 year old Robert Bee.

One warm November day in 2016, Bee ran away from home–allegedly to avoid a truancy officer. Running away was not unusual for him (nor was avoiding the truancy officer), but this time, Bee did not return home.

In fact, he didn’t return home a week later or a month later. Instead, his remains were found eight months later, already decomposed after a long winter, already disturbed by animals in the rural area his bones were found.

So what happened to Robert Bee? We still don’t know.

Bee, from the small town of Pekin in central Illinois, had some behavioral issues. His mom readily admitted that she may have been too lax with him, allowing him too much freedom for his age. Others in the community said that while he was high energy, he was a kind-hearted boy.

When he went missing, multiple stories cropped up. Did he spend the night at a friend’s house? If so, why didn’t he take his bike? Why didn’t he take his cell phone? Both were left at home, and it didn’t appear he took any clothing to run away for an extended amount of time, either.

Of course, the first place the police must look is within the home, and that’s where the case became muddied. Lisa Bee, Robert’s mother, was not exactly mother of the year. Her social media alone made that clear. She was also involved with a man who was violent–and against whom she took out an order of protection a month before Bee’s disappearance. Then, not even a month after her son went missing, she moved out of her home and to a town about an hour south.

While Bee’s extended family was prominent in the search for the boy, his mother was noticeably absent. Multiple state agencies searched for him as well as a missing-persons search group, but no one had any luck.

About eight months after Bee went missing, his remains were found two miles from his home. By remains, I mean just that. The elements had helped decomposition along as well as animals roaming the wooded area where he was found.

The remains elicited no further leads on the case, aside from this: the property on which his remains were found belonged to a woman who lives nearby. She is related to someone “who is involved in the investigation,” according to Pekin police detective Seth Ranney.

Over two years later, the case remains unsolved and no one has been charged with any crime.

True Crime: Aileen Wuornos

Aileen-with-husband

Fifth in a series on serial killers!

I have to admit, watching Charlize Theron play Aileen Wuornos in the movie Monster made me feel a strange sympathy for the serial killer. I felt something similar after reading about Henry Lee Lucas too. Maybe it’s a teacher’s job hazard to always see the hurt, traumatized child in the adult, for, as Dr. Phil would say, I don’t ask why Wuornos and Lucas killed, I ask why wouldn’t they, given their formative years? Wuornos was convicted of killing seven men between 1988 and 1989 at point-blank range. She claimed self-defense: the men she killed either attempted to rape her or did rape her while she was working as a prostitute.

A few snippets from Wuornos’ early life:

  • Her mom was 14 when she married her dad, who was 16. They had a boy a year later, and then Aileen, a year after that.
  • Her mom, aged 16, filed for divorce when Aileen was barely 2 months old.
  • She never met her father, as he was jailed when she was born and committed suicide in prison.
  • Her father was diagnosed with schizophrenia and charged with sex crimes against children.
  • Her mother abandoned Aileen and her brother when Aileen was just 4. Their maternal grandparents took them in.
  • Her grandfather was an alcoholic who beat and sexually abused Aileen. He made her take her clothes off before a beating.
  • She engaged in sexual behavior with her brother.
  • By age 11, she was performing sexual acts at school in exchange for food, drugs, and cigarettes. Age 11. Age 11!
  • At 14, she became pregnant and gave the child up for adoption. The father? One of her grandfather’s friends.
  • Shortly after the birth of the child, her grandmother died and Aileen dropped out of school.
  • At 15, her grandfather kicked her out of the house. She began prostituting and living in the woods.

Mix together and bake for 20 years. What would we expect from her?

Wuornos appealed her conviction, but stopped all attempts in 2001, saying, “I killed those men…robbed them as cold as ice. And I’d do it again, too.”

Well, then. At least she’s honest. She continued:

“I have hate crawling through my system…I am so sick of hearing this ‘she’s crazy’ stuff. I’ve been evaluated so many times. I’m competent, sane, and…one who seriously hates human life.”

Can you blame her, considering what her first fifteen years of life were like?

She was found sane, but over the course of the next year, became increasingly erratic in her behavior. She was executed in 2002. Her last words were “I would just like to say I’m sailing with the rock, and I’ll be back, like Independence Day, with Jesus. June 6, like the movie. Big mothership and all, I’ll be back. I’ll be back.”

I’m no psychiatrist, but that would make me question her sanity.

Why is it that some people can be exposed to horrific early-life trauma and come out on the other side, but others, like Wuornos and Lucas, can not? Let me know your thoughts after you read up on Ed Gein, Henry Lee Lucas, Belle Gunness, and Robert Hansen.

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True Crime: Belle Gunness

belle gunness

Third in a series on serial killers! Did you miss number one on Ed Gein? How about number two on Henry Lee Lucas?

It used to surprise me that serial killers existed in the 1800s. H. H. Holmes, for example, shocked me with his continual insurance fraud. Apparently, it was all the rage. One of his contemporaries in Chicago, Belle Gunness, also discovered the lucrative business of insurance fraud, and used it repeatedly–on her husbands and even her own children. Read on, and you, too, will start thinking that Holmes and Gunness would have made a perfect pair.

In the 1800s, Norwegian immigrant Belle found her way to the Windy City. In 1893 (the year of the World’s Fair in Chicago), she and her husband, Mads Sorenson, opened a candy store. It would seem as though Belle and Mads had a run of bad luck, with a business and their home burning down and two children dying. It was luck, alright, devised by Belle to cash in on insurance policies. Yes, conventional wisdom says she administered strychnine to her own children.

Later on, Mads died. Surely the fact that he died on the day two insurance policies overlapped was mere coincidence. Surely.

Now a woman of some means, Belle took her remaining children to the small town of LaPorte, Indiana. There, she bought a 42 acre farm. Part of it burned down. I don’t need to tell you it was insured…

By 1902, she found a new beau, Peter Gunness. Gunness, who had two children already, sent one to live with relatives after the other mysteriously died in Belle’s care. It wasn’t long before Peter, too, was dead. There was some concern that Peter showed signs of strychnine poisoning, but the doctor ruled it heart failure.

Belle’s life was like that of Shakespeare’s Macbeth: her greed overtook her ambition. Rather than being content with the cash she already had, she continued on her murder-for-money spree. Now, however, she unknowingly borrowed from H. H. Holmes’ playbook: set up potential lovers. Belle’s version was to get men to “buy” shares of her farm. Once she had the money, the men disappeared. Rumor has it she burned them, buried them, and fed them to her pigs. Handy, those hog farms.

Belle’s fast-track train came to an end in 1908. A relative of one of her “investors” was suspicious and told Belle he was going to come check things out. Soon, the entire farm burned down. In it, Belle’s remaining three children perished, as did Belle.

Or so it seemed.

The missing man’s relative insisted they do a complete search. Eleven bodies were discovered on the farm property. The adult female body discovered in the fire? It likely wasn’t Belle.

Her farmhand, Ray Lamphere, was a prime suspect for arson and murder–that is, until he confessed that she faked her death. The woman’s body in the fire did not match up to Belle’s size.

Twenty years later, in 1931, a woman named Esther Carlson in California was tried for poisoning a man. In her possessions were photographs of children–children who looked very similar to Belle’s.

We know very little about Belle’s childhood. She grew up in a very poor town in Norway, but as to what trauma may have caused her willingness to kill, we’re left to our own devices to make suppositions. Or, perhaps worse, there was no trauma. Perhaps she, like Holmes, was likely born that way.