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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

The Murder of Pfc LaVena Johnson – Part 2

Updated: Sep 6, 2022

By Donald V. Watkins

©Copyrighted and Published (via Facebook) on February 7, 2016; Updated and Republished on July 15, 2020

Motive for Murder

The military personnel involved in the cover-up of Army Private LaVena Johnson's 2005 murder never thought anyone would care enough about a 19-year-old low-ranking black soldier on a military base in Iraq to break this criminal case wide open. They were terribly wrong. The Johnson family's undying love for LaVena kept this case alive long enough for them to find just the right person to help bring her murder to light. A decade after Private Johnson’s murder, a seasoned lawyer/investigative journalist with a long and demonstrated track-record of solving murders committed by officials in uniform and cover-ups by their peers has stepped up to the plate to help the Johnson family solve this tragic case.

All of the physical and forensic evidence needed to classify Private Johnson’s death as a murder was available to military investigators in 2005. At the subtle suggestion of her Base Commander in Balad, Iraq, the investigators chose to look the other way as they developed this homicide case around a paper-thin suicide theory.

Private Johnson was Killed Over Her Inadvertent Discovery of a Commander’s Adulterous Affair

The totality of evidence suggests that the murderer was a top military commander who was on the base at the time. Private Johnson had met this commander sometime earlier. As fate would have it, Private Johnson wrote his name in her personal notepad. She did not know at the time that this commander had developed an extramarital affair with a civilian female employee of a defense contractor and had been ordered by the Pentagon in Washington to break off the affair. The commander, who was married, decided to disobey this direct order, electing instead to make the illicit love affair more clandestine.

The commander’s top rank gave him the means to travel the world at will. He also had the ability to visit his lover on military bases inside of Iraq. Over time, the commander had found effective ways to evade the Pentagon’s heightened scrutiny of his extramarital affair.

On the night of July 18, 2005, Private Johnson visited a male friend in his barracks. The two soldiers shared a close friendship, but not a romantic relationship. They left his room and went to buy M&Ms and a six-pack of soda at a military store. After purchasing these items, the two soldiers returned to the barracks. Shortly after midnight, Private Johnson left again. This time, she was alone.

Private Johnson made her way to a tent on base belonging to a military contractor. There, she inadvertently encountered the commander and his lover. They were engaged in the very romance the commander had been ordered to stop. Startled, afraid, and desperate, the commander snapped and became violent toward Private Johnson, who did not fight back because she was as shocked as he was. During his assault on Private Johnson, the commander knocked some of her teeth backwards, broke her nose, fractured her neck, and inflicted other injuries on her body. The commander then dragged Private Johnson into the tent where he staged the crime scene to look like two incongruent criminal events – a rape and suicide.

At some point, Private Johnson’s pants and underwear were pulled down and what appears to be lye, or another dangerously corrosive caustic substance, was poured on her vaginal area. This made it appear as though Private Johnson had been raped and that the rapist attempted to destroy his DNA evidence. Private Johnson’s underwear and pants were then pulled back up.

What appeared to be a man’s footprint was found at the scene. However, the military classified this footprint as “unidentified”.

Strangely, the military’s investigative file does not explain: (a) the trail of blood found outside the tent; (b) the debris on the back of Private Johnson’s clothes, (c) Private Johnson’s broken nose (which was fixed post-mortem during the military’s autopsy) and fractured neck (which appears on morgue x-rays taken during the post-exhumation autopsy); (d) how Private Johnson, with a fractured neck and standing only 5’1”, would have enough mobility to commit suicide by sticking a 40-inch M16 rifle into her mouth and pulling the trigger; or (e) why the top and back of Private Johnson’s head was intact.

Staging the Crime Scene

The crime scene in this case was staged to make it look like Private Johnson had committed suicide. An M16 rifle was carefully arranged across her body. A spent shell casing was placed near Private Johnson’s body. The M16 bullet was never located because that weapon was not fired inside the tent. Instead, the commander fired one shot from his 9 MM pistol into the top left side of Private Johnson’s head, execution-style. The bullet traveled through the brain, down the left side of her head, and lodged in her tongue. The commander then lit a fire in the tent before leaving the scene.

This series of events is supported by the military’s own records and explains how and why a battered soldier with a fractured neck was shot in the top of her head; why there were no discernible fingerprints on the M16 found at the scene; why there was no gunpowder residue on Private Johnson’s hands; why no M16 bullet was found even though an empty M16 shell casing was later planted next to Private Johnson’s body; why the M16 planted at the scene was not the one issued to Private Johnson; why Private Johnson’s tongue was removed during the military’s autopsy without any reference to its removal; why the military stonewalled the release of its investigatory records on Private Johnson’s murder; and why the commander was unexpectedly fired from his command position (to the shock and surprise of fellow officers and friends at the time).

The military controlled every aspect of the crime scene; it ran the criminal investigation; it performed the first autopsy (thinking there would be no second autopsy); and it zealously guarded access to the investigative files. The military thought the truth surrounding Private Johnson’s murder would be buried with her body.

The nature and scope of these cover-up activities usually occur when the killer is a top military official.

After Private Johnson was buried, the military concluded its investigation and issued an official cause of death – Private LaVena Johnson committed suicide.

Seeking Truth and Justice in Private Johnson’s Case

The Johnson family’s decision to exhume Private Johnson’s body and to seek an independent review of the heavily redacted military investigatory files, including physical and forensic evidence and crime scene photographs, unearthed the truth. Unknown at the time, a critical link between Private Johnson’s murder and her killer laid buried in a seemingly unconnected story written by Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington in 2005.

Private Johnson’s murderer is now living a comfortable lifestyle in the United States. Even though he was forced out of the military, the Pentagon led the public to believe that its decision to fire him was based upon his extramarital affair. In reality, President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld gave him a de facto pardon for his real crime -- murder -- and kicked him out of the Army instead.

There is no statute of limitations barring the prosecution of Private Johnson's murderer. There is only a lack of will within the Pentagon to do so.

Private Johnson volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army. She was a loyal and dedicated soldier who served in a war zone. Private Johnson was killed over her discovery of a commander’s adulterous affair. The dignity that she deserved in death has eluded this young murder victim and her family for more than 12 years.

PHOTO: Army Private LaVena Johnson posing at her military base in Balad, Iraq in July 2005.

Click on Article 1 to read the first article in this series.

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