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The impact of entomology on the Johnson murder case

Part nine in a serialization of interviews published on the 26th anniversary of the brutal murder of Donna Johnson: Mortician Kenny Coggins was washing murder victim Donna Johnson’s hair while preparing her body for the funeral when he noticed fly larvae. The same debris in Johnson’s hair had been previously noted by another investigator who passed it off as sawdust and thought perhaps it indicated Johnson had been killed in a sawmill. Coggins, who had worked autopsies with Georgia’s chief medical examiner, knew immediately what he was looking at and called the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. ’When we saw the larvae, it was just hatching out,’ Coggins told The Herald-Gazette. Medical examiner Dr. Byron Dawson noted in his autopsy report that Johnson had maggot eggs in her hair and mouth. Since the Johnson file remains closed, there is no independent knowledge regarding how far investigators ran that phase of the investigation. However, in 2005, then-sheriff Joe Buice and his lead investigator, Steve Burge, ran down the larvae reports and buried, in their minds, many of the old premises of the investigation. Burge contacted Dr. Richard Walter of the Vidocq Society who took an interest in the case. Burge and Chuck Ledbetter went to Philadelphia on Feb. 17, 2005 and presented the case to Vidocq Society members. That presentation led Burge to send the maggot evidence to Dr. M. Lee Goff, a widely-published expert in forensic entomology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Goff estimated the maggot eggs had been on the body for 12-24 hours before they were noted. Then the evidence went to Dr. Bill Bass, a Smithsonian cataloguer, forensic consultant for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation and founder of The Body Farm, which was the subject of a bestselling novel by noted author Patricia Cornwell. Bass estimated the larvae had been on the body for 12-18 hours. He told investigators flies seek out death and often find bodies within 10 minutes. A third expert, forensic entomologist Dr. Jason Byrd of Virginia Commonwealth University, was consulted. Byrd analyzed the weather data from the period of Johnson’s death and determined the larvae had been on Johnson’s body by at least 8 a.m. on the day she was found. Yet another forensic entomologist, John Wallace of Millersville University, was consulted. Working without knowledge of Byrd’s result, Wallace determined the latest the eggs could have appeared on Johnson’s body was between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. on July 16. This information contrasted greatly with previous assumptions Johnson was killed between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. on July 16. It also, according to Buice, contradicted statements and alibis of several people questioned during the original investigation in the weeks and months after the murder. All of this data was presented to the GBI and prosecutors at a meeting in December, 2005. Buice and Burge were clearly frustrated when that meeting failed to lead to an indictment. Coggins, meanwhile, vividly recalls the Johnson murder and its aftermath. Law enforcement secretly videotaped and photographed the fivehour visitation prior to Johnson’s funeral. Coggins was among those who helped try to identify all who were there. He said there was speculation in the days after the crime that Johnson was run over prior to being beaten to death and that the attack with the vehicle took place in a garage. However, the garage burned mysteriously before it was searched. He also lamented the pandemonium at the scene where the body was found. ’Everybody was trying to help but they were stepping all over the evidence and did not realize it,’ Coggins said. He said ‘“ as others have told The Herald-Gazette ‘“ that Johnson was placed into a previously used body bag and that the GBI altered its crime scene protocols in the aftermath of the Johnson case. Coggins opined the body had been moved several times due to debris on it. He said some investigators speculated at least some of that debris could have come from inside a dumpster. Donna’s vehicle was found at a dumpster site. After 26 years, he vividly recalls the brutality of the crime. ’She was beaten unmercifully. I have seen some brutal stuff; stuff you can’t believe one human being could do to another. This was among the worst.’ Coggins is also hopeful of an eventual arrest, trial and conviction. ’I wish something would break,’ he concluded. If you have information on the Johnson case, call the Lamar County sheriff’s office at 770.358.5159, the Milledgeville office of the GBI at 1.478.445.4173 or The Herald-Gazette at 770.358.NEWS. All tips submitted to the newspaper will be kept confidential and routed to the proper authorities.

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