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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

The Murder of Pfc LaVena Johnson – Part 1

By Donald V. Watkins

©Copyrighted and Published (via Facebook) on January 31, 2016; Republished on July 12, 2018

Army Private First Class LaVena Johnson was just eight days short of her 20th birthday when she met her death on a military base in Balad, Iraq. Private Johnson was not killed in a firefight with enemy combatants. She died on July 19, 2005, at the hands of a fellow soldier. Her death was not the result of friendly fire; it was a cold-blooded murder.

The U.S. military orchestrated a successful cover-up of Private Johnson's murder by making it look like she had committed suicide, which they listed as the official cause of death. The cover-up was successful, until now.

Unfortunately, Private Johnson, a high school honor student and native of Florissant, Missouri, was an innocent murder victim who happened to encounter a powerful soldier engaging in prohibited conduct, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Her discovery of this conduct cost Private Johnson her life.

The cover-up of Private Johnson's murder went all the way to the top of the military's chain of command. A reckless indifference to the truth by top military commanders made this cover-up successful for more than a decade.

The Military Claims Private Johnson Committed Suicide

Military investigators quickly launched an investigation into Private Johnson’s death. They claim that Private Johnson was upset because her boyfriend of two months had broken up with her, via email. The investigators allege that Private Johnson printed out the emails, stuffed them in her pocket, slung her M16 service weapon over her shoulder, and went to buy M&Ms and a six-pack of soda at a military store with an unnamed male friend. The investigators also claim the two soldiers returned to the barracks, but then Private Johnson left again, alone this time. She made her way to a tent belonging to a military contractor. Once Private Johnson was inside the tent, the military says she found a can of aerosol, lit the break-up emails on fire, and then set the entire tent on fire. According to the investigators, a distraught Private Johnson, only 5’ 1″ tall, then put her 40-inch M16 rifle into her mouth and fired one shot. A spent shell casing was found next to her right leg, but not the fatal bullet. The military concluded its investigation and issued an official cause of death – Pfc LaVena Johnson committed suicide. Case closed…or so they thought.

The Forensic and Physical Evidence Points to Murder

The physical evidence and forensic reports, together with witness statements, crime scene photos, the military’s autopsy, and a subsequent independent autopsy, paint a very different picture of Private Johnson’s death. If she did not kill herself, then Private Johnson was murdered. The military stonewalled the release of the forensic reports and physical evidence to the Johnson Family every step of the way.

While the military’s autopsy showed that Private Johnson sustained only “non-serious” injuries prior to her death (e.g., a busted lip, broken teeth, and scratch marks on her neck), the crime scene photos of Private Johnson’s body, morgue x-rays, and an independent autopsy suggest that a much more serious physical struggle took place. Private Johnson had bruises and scratches on the upper part of her torso; there were even teeth marks on her body. Private Johnson appeared to have been badly beaten before she was killed. The morgue x-rays show that Private Johnson suffered a broken nose, which appeared to have been fixed with plastic surgery post-mortem, and a broken neck. What appears to be lye, or another dangerously corrosive caustic substance, had been poured on her vaginal area. Shockingly, none of these injuries is mentioned in the military’s autopsy or investigative report.

What is more, there was a trail of blood outside of the tent where Private Johnson’s dead body was found. The back of Private Johnson’s clothes had debris on them indicating that she had been dragged into the tent after a violent attack but prior to the tent being set on fire. The right side of Private Johnson’s back and her right hand had been burned, apparently from a flammable liquid that had been poured on her and subsequently lit.

Despite the bruises, scratches, and teeth marks on her body, together with her broken nose, fractured neck and burns on her body, Private Johnson was found completely dressed in the burning tent.

Additionally, the forensic evidence severely undermines the military’s suicide theory. Private Johnson’s fingerprints were not on the M16 she supposedly used to kill herself. There was no gunshot residue on her hands. Given Private Johnson’s 5’1” height, it would have been nearly impossible for her to stick the barrel of the 40-inch M16 rifle in her mouth and pull the trigger with her finger. Although she could have used one of her toes to pull the trigger, this did not occur because crime scene photos show that Private Johnson’s shoes were still on her feet.

Private Johnson’s fingerprints were not on the matches, the aerosol, or any of the other items found inside the tent. What is more, there was a footprint found inside the tent that was never identified.

Military investigators conducted no DNA testing on the weapon to determine whether Private Johnson touched the gun or its magazine, or whether she pulled the trigger at all. This is important because of the two small cuts on Private Johnson’s right thumb. These cuts would have produced enough bodily secretions for DNA testing on the gun, magazine and/or trigger. If not, certainly the alleged act of placing the rifle inside of Private Johnson’s wet mouth would have yielded enough bodily fluid for DNA testing. Again, the military’s failure to conduct DNA testing on the M16 rifle was inexcusable.

Interestingly, there were no discernible fingerprints of any kind on the M16, not even the fingerprints of the first responder who admitted to moving the M16 when he/she discovered the body. This absence of fingerprints belonging to Private Johnson or the first responder strongly suggests that the M16 weapon had been wiped clean of fingerprints after the discovery of Private Johnson’s body.

Additionally, the M16 “found” at the crime scene bore Serial Number 7095028. Private Johnson’s April 27, 2005 deployment Order (#117-301) to Iraq shows that she was issued (and traveled to Iraq with) an M16 rifle that bore Serial Number 7097069. She was never issued another M16 rifle. Nowhere in the military’s criminal investigation records does it disclose who was issued the M16 (Serial Number 7095028) that was located at the murder scene, nor does the military explain what happened to Private Johnson’s M16 (Serial Number 7097069).

Military investigators claimed they did not retrieve the M16 bullet that killed Private Johnson. Finding the missing bullet would have been a key piece of evidence in determining whether Private Johnson’s death was a murder or suicide. What is more, investigators failed to conduct a thorough search of the crime scene and surrounding area for the missing M-16 bullet. This is important because the small hole in the top left side of Private Johnson’s head is more consistent with a close-range shot fired from a 9 MM pistol than an M16 rifle fired from inside of her mouth. The military claimed that this hole was an exit wound from an M16. The autopsy photos indicate that this hole could also be an entry wound from a 9 MM pistol. Additionally, the internal damage to Private Johnson’s head suggests that the 9 MM bullet likely lodged in Private Johnson’s tongue, a major part of which had been removed during the military’s autopsy. Remarkably, there was no reference to the removal of Private Johnson’s tongue in the military’s autopsy report.

There was no suicide note or any other hard evidence suggesting Private Johnson was in a suicidal state. She was happy and healthy; she talked to her parents almost daily; and she looked forward to coming home for Christmas.

The lead investigator appointed by the Army had to wait four days for the military’s Criminal Investigation Division to finish its investigation before he could get started with his own investigation. Also, the crime scene was contaminated in a significant way. Multiple first responders were in and around the tent area, thereby compromising the evidence field and integrity of the crime scene.

The physical evidence of a murder and subsequent cover-up by military officials greatly outweighs any physical evidence of a suicide. Yet, the Base Commander’s directives to investigators shortly after Private Johnson’s body was discovered all but told them to classify her death as a suicide. As a result, the plethora of forensic and physical evidence establishing that Private Johnson had been brutally beaten and murdered was given virtually no attention by investigators, while the scant evidence supporting a suicide theory was developed to the maximum extent possible.

PHOTO: Army Private First Class LaVena Johnson proudly serving her country in 2005.

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