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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

Will DOD Secretary Austin Seek Justice in Private LaVena Johnson’s Murder Case?

Updated: Sep 6, 2022

Special Investigative Report

By: Donald V. Watkins

Copyrighted and Published on March 21, 2021

New Department of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has a unique opportunity to achieve justice in the 2005 murder of Army Private LaVena Johnson. Ms. Johnson was a 19-year-old black Private who served as a switchboard operator on a U.S. military base in Balad, Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. This is her story.

Private Johnson's Murder

On July 19, 2005, Private Johnson took a short break from her job on the base and inadvertently stumbled upon four-star Army general Kevin P. Byrnes in an area reserved for civilian contractors while Byrnes was in the midst of an extramarital love affair with a female contractor. Byrnes, who is white and was powerful within military circles, had been previously ordered by Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker to end the affair. He disregarded this order.

When Johnson discovered Byrnes in a compromising situation, Byrnes snapped. He immediately assaulted Johnson, fractured her neck, and shot Johnson in the back of her head with his 9 millimeter pistol. The bullet traveled down the side of Ms. Johnson’s head and lodged within her tongue.

During a post-mortem autopsy performed by the Army on Johnson’s body, her tongue was removed. The Army’s autopsy report made no reference to the removal of Johnson’s tongue or her fractured neck. These findings were made in a subsequent private autopsy commissioned by the Johnson family.

Within hours after Private Johnson’s murder, the Army labeled her death a “suicide”. They claimed that Johnson stuck her M-16 rifle in her mouth and killed herself. If true, this made Private Johnson one of 83 men and women in military uniform who committed suicide in 2005.

In August 2005, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the Central Commander of Iraqi War Operations, Gen. John Abizaid, met with President George W. Bush to discuss three subjects: (a) the progress of the war in Iraq; (b) the “suicide” of Army Private LaVena Johnson, and (c) the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

After this meeting, two things occurred. First, the Pentagon’s internal file on Private Johnson’s death was classified as “Top Secret” and could only be released to the public upon the written signatures of the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Second, General Byrnes was promptly fired by Rumsfeld. No public explanation was provided by the Pentagon for kicking Byrnes out of the Army three months prior to his previously announced retirement in November 2005. Rumsfeld’s adverse personnel action suddenly and unexpectedly ended Byrnes’ 36-year distinguished Army career.

Private Johnson was not a military intelligence officer. Her work did not bring Johnson into contact with Iraqi insurgents or U.S. counterterrorism operations. She had no known connections to Osama bin Laden. Yet, Private Johnson’s “suicide” was the only one involving U.S. military personnel that required a private meeting between Rumsfeld, Gen. Abizaid, and President Bush.

Johnson was not killed by enemy combatants or friendly fire. She was murdered by a Commanding Officer who was engaging in prohibited acts that could result in his court-martial. Her Black life did not matter to the Pentagon’s top brass in 2005.

As described in detail in my exclusive series of 2016 articles titled, “The Murder of Private Johnson”, LaVena Johnson was murdered on the night of July 19, 2005; she did not commit suicide. Her murderer is Kevin P. Byrnes. [Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Epilogue]

As fate would have it, Private Johnson’s personal notes on a legal pad she kept as a diary placed Gen. Byrnes on the base the day before her murder.

While Private Johnson was being laid to rest in a military cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri, Gen. Byrnes was transitioning into his new life as a civilian. He ultimately divorced his wife. On August 19, 2014, Byrnes’ 28-year-old daughter committed suicide.

Senator Richard Shelby – Byrnes' Protector and Provider

Unbeknownst to the public, Byrnes had a powerful friend and ally in the U.S. Senate – Richard Shelby (R-Al). Shelby, who has been a member of Congress since January 1979 and a U.S. Senator since 1986, used his influence as a former chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on defense, and as chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to secure a high-paying job for Gen. Byrnes as a senior management executive with defense contractor Raytheon in Huntsville, Alabama. Shelby, who announced in February that he will not seek re-election in 2022, is notorious for “parking” his personal friends and former staff members inside of entrenched defense contractors so they can feed off of tax dollars without detection.

Senator Shelby came to Washington in 1979 with a humble net worth, but found a way to increase his fortune to $20,000,000 by 2021 through his “public service." Shelby’s 42 years in Congress have been a financial bonanza for him just like it was for Bill and Hillary Clinton when Bill served as President and Hillary served as a U.S. Senator and Secretary of State.

In 2016, Shelby ran for re-election for a fifth term in the Senate. During his campaign, a little-known Madison County, Alabama DA named Jay Town was featured in a TV campaign ad that aired during the College Football Playoff national championship game. Town, who had no solid credentials as a state prosecutor identified himself as a former major in the United States Marine Corps, spoke about Islamic terrorists, and bragged about how Senator Shelby was keeping watch over President Obama. Town said, “We have radical Islamic terrorists killing people all over the world, and President Obama keeps talking sweet to them, doesn’t want to offend them. Where’s the sense in that? We have another year to put up with Obama. But thank God we have Richard Shelby standing over him, trying to keep him in line.”

Shelby won re-election and assumed office for the sixth time in January 2017. In June 2017, Shelby got President Donald Trump to nominate Town as the U.S. Attorney for Alabama’s Northern District. Town’s resume was devoid of any significant accomplishments as a prosecutor. He was a mediocre assistant DA with a lackluster track-record as a state prosecutor. Town was “co-counsel”, not “lead counsel”, in his “most well-known case” – the prosecution of Benito Albarran for the murder of Huntsville police officer Dan Golden in 2008. In Alabama, the murder of a police officer is considered a slam-dunk case that is certain to result in the death penalty, especially if the defendant is an undocumented migrant or person of color. Albarran was both.

Town’s nomination was confirmed by the Senate and he was sworn in by Judge Karon O. Bowdre on August 11, 2017. Town, who resides in Huntsville, immediately hired Lloyd Peeples as First Assistant U.S. Attorney to serve as “de facto” U.S. Attorney. In this capacity, Peeples ran the Office’s day-to-day operations. Peeples, a struggling pizza restaurant owner and operator prior to being hired by Town, has a long and documented history of harboring and expressing racially discriminatory and sexist views. His conduct as a federal prosecutor mirrors that exhibited by COINTELPRO federal prosecutors of the 1950s, 60s and 70s as well as the racist federal law enforcement officials who participated in the “Good Ol’ Boys” network from 1980 to 1995.

In essence, Town drew a government paycheck as U.S. Attorney, while Peeples ran the shop as a modern-day COINTELPRO operation targeting civil rights activists and political dissidents.

As Shelby’s political operative and handpicked U.S. Attorney, Town performed two political functions for Shelby. First, Town protected General Byrnes from exposure and prosecution for his murder of Private Johnson after Byrnes was “outed” in my 2016 series of investigative articles. This was accomplished by placing me under a Blitzkrieg federal crime investigation in October 2017 in connection with various “investor fraud” allegations against me that had been reviewed by career federal prosecutors in New Jersey in 2015 and 2016, and for which I had been cleared of all wrongdoing. Shelby was also a member and/or chairperson of the Senate Banking Committee from 2005 to January 2021 in addition to his other committee assignments.

Second, Town met with Alabama Power Co. CEO Mark Crosswhite before the North Birmingham Superfund bribery trial began in the summer of 2018 to ensure that power company officials and their ties to a money laundering entity named Alliance for Jobs and the Economy were never mentioned during the trial. Town also made sure that Senators Richard Shelby, Jeff Sessions (then Trump’s Attorney General), and Luther Strange (Sessions’ successor) were protected from reputational harm, even though they were directly connected to the Superfund bribery scandal and received campaign and/or PAC money from two of Alabama Power’s strategic partners that were implicated in the bribery scheme – the Balch Bingham law firm and the Drummond coal company. Strange received $50,000 in campaign cash in 2014 and 2015, Sessions received $300,000 since the late 1990s and Shelby pocketed $110,000 from Balch and $155,000 from Drummond between 1999 and 2016.

It should be noted that Attorney General Sessions did not require Town to recuse himself from the Superfund bribery investigation or trial. Jeffery Wood, Sessions’ Assistant Attorney General of the Environment and Natural Resources Division, was a Balch attorney who worked in Sessions’ Senate office. Woods recused himself from all matters involving the Superfund site. In contrast, Town embarked upon heavy-duty political protectionism and kept Shelby, Sessions, and Strange out of harm’s way.

Town’s Financial Reward for Protectionism

On August 4, 2020, announced that Jay Town had joined Huntsville defense contractor and cybersecurity company, Gray Analytics, as vice president and general counsel. Town will “play a large role in leading efforts around digital forensics and eDiscovery, supply chain security and business development as Gray expands its company with a new Los Angeles office," the company said. “We’re honored to welcome Jay Town to our team and believe his leadership, expertise and perspective will be of great benefit to our clients, and in turn, our nation’s defense system, which we serve,” said Gray Analytics President, Scott Gray.

Gray Analytics projected growth in its commercial and government projects within the coming months and stated that “Jay will lend exemplary support across all initiatives.” Any objective review of Town’s career resume shows that he has zero experience in designing, installing, operating, and/or protecting sophisticated cybersecurity systems. His credentials in this highly specialized area of expertise are weaker than his greatly exaggerated credentials as a state and federal prosecutor.

As such, Senator Shelby has “parked” another political flunky inside a defense contractor and is feeding him big bucks that are funded by tax dollars.

The Pathway Forward

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has a unique opportunity to achieve justice for Private LaVena Johnson. Austin, who is Black and was a former Army four-star general, should declassify the “Top Secret” internal Pentagon file regarding the murder of LaVena Johnson. The case should then be referred by Austin to the Department of Justice for the investigation and the prosecution of Gen. Kevin P. Byrnes for Private Johnson’s murder. There is no statute of limitations for murder and the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act gives U.S. prosecutors jurisdiction for criminal acts committed by former U.S. soldiers in foreign countries.

Austin should also request the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute all conspirators who covered up the murder of Private Johnson. None should be spared.

Finally, Austin should investigate Gray Analytics for its role in hiring Jay Town – the man who protected Gen. Byrnes from prosecution and for whom Gray Analytics is a “pass-through” entity for funneling Town taxpayers’ money for work Town is not qualified to perform. Town’s employment and retention at Gray Analytics represents a classic case of “fraud, waste, and abuse” in government contracts that cannot be tolerated. The company should be banned from participating in federal government contracts while Austin’s review is ongoing.

Finally, President Joe Biden should call the parents of Private LaVena Johnson and assure them that the coverup of her murder is over and that Gen. Kevin P. Byrnes will be prosecuted for this crime. This is the justice that Private Johnson deserves. She has been waiting in her grave for it for 16 years. Make it happen!

PHOTO: Senator Richard Shelby, Kevin P. Byrnes, Jay Town

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