New information sheds light on Johnia Berry murder

Knoxville News-SentinelQuestions remain in Johnia Berry’s death. This an important new source of information in the case and is worth reading in its entirety. Here’s a summary with comments.

The biggest revelation is Olson’s original statement to police. It matches what always seemed to me like the most likely scenario in that crime-plagued neighborhood. Someone walking up the back steps of the apartment complex, trying doors to find one that was open, then exploring the house for something to steal. That would fit with the stolen CDs found outside the back door by the kitchen, the murder weapon being a knife from Berry’s kitchen, and the blood trail going out the back door.

Olson, who had a history of arrests that stretched back to his teenage years, told authorities he lived in December 2004 with a friend, Noah Cox, at Warren House, a complex just down the road from Berry’s apartment at Brendon Park.

Olson said he and Cox spent the night before Berry’s death drinking stolen beer, smoking marijuana and breaking into cars. He said they got split up in the rain and that he went wandering along Brendon Park’s back porches, looking for an open apartment door and hoping to steal a pair of car keys.

Olson told a vague story of stumbling into an apartment by the light of his cell phone and accidentally waking someone up.

“It was so dark. I was looking for some keys and then, and someone said, ‘Who are you’ or ‘What are you doing’ or something then I heard like a yell and I just felt a pain,” he told investigators in a Sept. 23, 2007 interview. “I just freaked out. I didn’t see a face or anything. I got (the knife) away, and it didn’t seem like I stabbed anybody, it seemed like a fight or something, and then I just ran.”

Olson initially claimed he acted alone. Later he changed his story, claiming it was Cox who stabbed Berry. However, investigators found no forensic evidence of a second person in the apartment and Berry’s roommate Jason Amiyami saw only one intruder.

One mystery in the murder is how Olson got cut. Olson’s statement that he was stabbed first is interesting, because it would imply Johnia initially had the knife for self-defense. Because Olson is a suspect his statements don’t automatically get the benefit of the doubt, so it’s hard to say how much faith to put in his what he told the police. Note, for instance, the statement that there was a “fight or something.” In reality, according to her roommate Berry was stabbed “too many times to count” in an encounter that lasted some 30 seconds. (See the 2005 MetroPulse article for a contemporary account.)

The News-Sentinel article goes into detail about the Atlanta Braves ballcap found at the scene and its possible significance.

Despite the lack of forensic evidence, Allen said one thing in particular still troubles him – the Atlanta Braves baseball cap found on Berry’s bed. The hat belonged to a neighbor of Berry’s whose car was broken into that rainy night.

That neighbor, Brian McLemore, reported two caps stolen, along with a stereo and CDs. Investigators found them at the apartment – except for the other hat.

“The hats may have been taken to shield (from) the rain,” Allen wrote. “Two hats missing (but only one found) infers that two suspects were present, at least for the auto burglary, and then by implication during the homicide.”

Allen’s memo and interview transcripts show Olson and Cox became unusually concerned about who wore the hat that night.

cdsmall.jpgThe information above may clear up one minor mystery in the case. At least one of the stolen CDs had the letters “ML” written in marker. Everyone assumed those were initials, but McLemore may have used those letters to mark his CDs.

More information about Cox, the man Olson accused of killing Berry:

Like Olson, Cox had a history of theft arrests. Even prosecutors agreed he made a better match for the sketch and the roommate’s description than Olson.

“A chill went up my spine when I saw the resemblance,” Isaacs said. “I challenge anyone to look at the mug shots of Taylor Olson, Noah Cox and the composite sketch and draw their own conclusions.”

Aymami, the roommate and sole eyewitness, proved less decisive. He told authorities he couldn’t identify either man as the one who stabbed him.

Records show Cox’s name surfaced in the case through rumors long before Olson’s. KCSO officers questioned Cox 22 days after Berry’s death. He denied the crime and turned over a DNA sample that didn’t match. He showed no signs of a fight – no cuts, no bruises.

Olson Mugshot Cox Mugshot Police Sketch
Johnia Berry killer's composite sketch, without hatJohnia Berry killer's composite sketch, with hat

Johnia Berry honored at new TBI crime lab

WBIRMurder victim Johnia Berry honored at new TBI facility.

Law enforcement agencies throughout East Tennessee are celebrating the opening of a multi-million dollar facility that could help solve crimes faster. On Wednesday morning, TBI Director Mark Gwyn and Joan Berry helped cut the ribbon to the new TBI consolidated facility in Strawberry Plains.

Johnia Berry was killed in 2004. Since her murder, her parents Mike and Joan Berry have worked with law enforcement and lawmakers to improve the way crimes are solved in the state. After the ribbon cutting, TBI officials revealed the plaque that dedicates one of the many labs to the young woman killed in her Knoxville apartment.

“We dedicated our DNA serology section to Johnia Berry,” TBI Director Mark Gwyn said. “Through DNA, that crime was solved, so how fitting could it be to dedicate the DNA section to her.”

“Hopefully this is going to help lots of other families that they won’t have to lose their child the way we’ve lost Johnia,” Joan Berry said as she fought back tears.

Johnia Berry’s Family Endorses Randy Tyree for Sheriff

WBIRJohnia Berry’s family to endorse Tyree for sheriff:

The family of murder victim Johnia Berry has announced they will endorse Democratic candidate Randy Tyree for Knox County Sheriff. Citing what the family views as a politicized environment under former Sheriff Tim Hutchison continuing under Sheriff Jimmy “J.J.” Jones, the family made the announcement in a press release from Tyree’s campaign Monday.

Johnia Berry was stabbed to death in her apartment in December, 2004. Taylor Olson was arrested in 2007 for her death but hanged himself with a bedsheet in jail before he could be tried. Joan Berry and then-Sheriff Tim Hutchison had disagreements about whether outside resources like America’s Most Wanted would aid in the investigation.

During the investigation, Hutchison said he was confident the person responsible was still in the area and said he didn’t want to spread his investigators’ attention onto false leads.

I wasn’t a fan of Hutchison with regards to Johnia Berry’s case or some other issues. As to Jones (no relation) I have no opinion, and since I live in Blount County I don’t have a vote, either.

Noel Thomas Cox Walks on Plea Deal

Knoxvile (TN) News-SentinelMan accused in killing gets deal in other case

The 24-year-old Cox, via defense attorney Brandt Davis, struck a plea deal in Knox County Criminal Court with Knox County Assistant District Attorney General Del Holley in which the convicted thief pleaded guilty to a half-dozen charges. The remaining counts against him were dropped.

Nearly all of the charges came about July 7, 2006, when Cox fled from Knox County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Patrick Lawson in a stolen Ford Expedition, Holley said.

Cox had been the target of accusations by defense attorney Gregory P. Isaacs that Cox, and not Taylor Lee Olson, Isaacs’ client, killed Johnia Berry, 21, in December 2004 in her West Knox County apartment. Olson, charged in the slaying, accused Cox of killing Berry after the two broke into her apartment.

Olson, however, hanged himself last month in the Knox County Jail, rendering his prosecution moot. He left behind letters in which he continued to blame Cox for the slaying.

DNA testing of crime-scene evidence has failed to provide any link to Cox, and Davis insists there is nothing to back up Olson’s claim. “Nothing that I know about the case would lead me to believe Noah Cox had anything to do with the (slaying),” Davis said.

The Taylor Lee Olson Autopsy Could be Interesting

Taylor Lee Olson hung himself yesterday. He was the prime suspect in the Johnia Berry murder. His blood matched blood found in the apartment the night of the murder and his face matched a composite sketch made by Berry’s roommate, Jason Amiyami.

There was always a question of how Olson’s blood was spilled. The police never said. The knife was from the kitchen, and I had a theory that the killer’s hand slipped and sliced the palm side of his fingers. There’s another theory, but it’s based on hearsay from a drug addict who has since committed suicide:

Court records show that Isaacs’ theory of the crime grew out of a statement by Augustine Joseph Leon, 23, a confessed drug addict and friend of Olson and Cox.

Leon has told authorities that Cox admitted killing Berry in the botched burglary that Cox and Olson were carrying out at the Brendon Park apartment complex on Rhodora Road, where Berry lived with a roommate.

According to Leon’s statement, Olson broke into what he thought was an unoccupied apartment when Berry armed herself with a knife and wounded Olson.

Cox then ran to Olson’s aid and killed Berry as Olson, bleeding, ran from the apartment, according to Leon’s account.

It would be interesting to see if the autopsy mentions any scars on the hand or elsewhere. A stab wound would not prove Leon’s story true, but the absence of such a wound could prove it obviously false. Hard to say.

Accused Johnia Berry Murderer Taylor Lee Olson Hangs Himself

I’ve been offline while this news broke today. Thanks to everyone who sent me links.

WVLTTaylor Olson’s lawyer says letters identify other suspect in Berry death:

Johnia Berry’s accused killer takes his own life, leaving behind letters saying he did not commit the murder. Now there are new questions about the investigation and what may be next. Volunteer TV’s Rob Pratt has more.

Taylor Lee Olson’s attorney held a news conference this afternoon. He stopped short of saying who his client accused of murder in his dying letters, but Johnia’s mother says she’s satisfied that Olson was responsible.

Taylor Lee Olson last spoke to us when he was first taken into custody. “It was an accident.” But now, after his death, he is speaking again through letters he left behind.

Greg Isaacs, Olson’s attorney says, “he has identified an individual that he says is responsible for the death of Johnia Berry.” Isaacs would not tell us who Olson named in his letter.

Olson is the only one charged with the crime. He’s been jailed since September on first degree murder and aggravated robbery charges.

The Sheriff’s department says in a statement published on it’s website that he was held in a cell alone. Officers checked on him every hour. Before 1:00 a.m. they found him with a piece of sheet around his neck, hanging from a clothes hook in the corner of his cell.

Knoxnews.comDA’s office says letters ID’ing alleged killer nothing new:

Court records show that Isaacs’ theory of the crime grew out of a statement by Augustine Joseph Leon, 23, a confessed drug addict and friend of Olson and Cox.

Leon has told authorities that Cox admitted killing Berry in the botched burglary that Cox and Olson were carrying out at the Brendon Park apartment complex on Rhodora Road, where Berry lived with a roommate.

According to Leon’s statement, Olson broke into what he thought was an unoccupied apartment when Berry armed herself with a knife and wounded Olson.

Cox then ran to Olson’s aid and killed Berry as Olson, bleeding, ran from the apartment, according to Leon’s account.

Note that Leon was not in the apartment the night of the murder, so everything he says is at best hearsay from Cox, and at worst completely invented by Leon. It seems like the blood stains (of which there were many) would tell whether Leon’s story is plausible. Police have not found Cox’s blood in the apartment. Olson was the one who went into the bedroom of Berry’s roommate, Jason Amiyami, who gave the police the composite sketch that matched Olson. In the absence of any physical evidence linking Cox to the crime scene I don’t believe his story.

I don’t know what to think about Olson’s suicide. Berry’s family wanted answers, and now I don’t think they’re going to get them.

Delay in Johnia Berry Murder Trial

Knoxville News SentinelJudge grants trial delay in slaying of Johnia Berry:

The March 3 trial has been pushed back to July 28 at the request of the attorney for the defendant, Taylor Lee Olson.

Blood found at the crime scene was matched to Olson’s DNA. The article quotes statements of Olson and his former friend, Augustine Joseph Leon, who turned him in, concerning how Olson was wounded that night:

Olson was arrested last September in connection with a sealed presentment filed against him in the Berry slaying after authorities matched his DNA to a trail of blood from a bedroom in the woman’s apartment to the living room to the back door.

An Olson friend-turned-informant, Augustine Joseph Leon, contends Olson was cut after Berry confronted him with a knife in an effort to defend herself from a burglar.

Olson denies killing Berry and, instead, insists pal and fellow thief Noah Thomas Cox came to his aid and killed Berry after Olson ran from the apartment. Leon, also a pal of Cox, alleges Cox confessed to him. Cox, jailed on unrelated charges, has not been charged in the Berry slaying.

Authorities are keeping mum about whether Cox is being investigated as a suspect.

It’s hard to conclude anything very definite from those statements. Leon wasn’t in the apartment, so his statement is hearsay. Olson is an accused murderer with an incentive to lie. We may never know exactly what happened that night.

“Former girlfriend talks about man linked to Johnia Berry murder”

WATEFormer girlfriend talks about man linked to Johnia Berry murder:

She describes Cox as abusive with an appetite for both drugs and crime. His criminal history, filled with theft and assault, seems to support her characterization.

“He would choke me, push me, slap me,” she said. The woman told 6 News she tried to contact the sheriff’s office about Cox, but deputies didn’t seem interested in her story.

“They never took my name, even,” she said. “They never asked me my name, my telephone number, anything. They just said, ‘We’ve looked at him and his DNA doesn’t match. If you think of anything else call us back.'”

There’s a suggestion that the police didn’t follow up on the lead, but the big news there is that Cox’s DNA didn’t match the crime scene DNA. It’s still possible he was involved somehow, but assuming this person (whose name is not given) is telling the truth the DNA wasn’t Cox’s. For him to be directly involved there would have to have been two attackers that night. So far as I’ve even seen in the media there’s only evidence of one.attacker. If those facts are correct then I don’t believe Cox was in the apartment that night.

Mother of Third Inmate Says Cox Involved in Berry Murder

WBIRInmate’s mother says investigators uninterested in Berry murder connection:

Ruth Leon says her incarcerated son knows what happened the night Johnia Berry was murdered, but investigators were not interested in talking to him. Leon said her son Joseph talked with Berry murder suspect Taylor Olson about Johnia Berry.

Ruth Leon said she tried to call investigators to tell them her son had information about the murder. Ruth Leon said her son’s information puts Noah Cox at the scene of the crime. She also said Cox, Leon, and Olson are all friends.

But see this item for a suggestion that Cox’s DNA did not match. That evidence is, admittedly, unofficial and based on an anonymous source who spoke to the Knoxville News-Sentinel.

Johnia Berry’s Parents to Meet Prosecutors

Tricities.com:

The parents of a college student who was stabbed to death three years ago are expected to meet with Knox County prosecutors this week to discuss recent developments in the case that may point to another killer.
A grand jury in September indicted Taylor Olson in the slaying of Johnia Berry and charged him with felony murder, first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder and aggravated burglary.
But last week Berry’s family learned that Olson’s lawyer is planning to point the finger at a petty criminal and friend of Olson as the real killer.

Taylor Lee Olson’s Attorney Suggests Other Suspect, Challenges DNA Sample

Last month police arrested Taylor Lee Olson for the murder of Johnia Berry. Now Olson’s attorney, Greg Isaacs, is pointing the finger at another suspect, Noah Cox, who is already in jail on other charges.

Isaacs is also trying to suppress the DNA sample his client gave to police in the weeks prior to his arrest. I’ve been waiting for that to happen. Olson volunteered the sample, and I assumed Isaacs would challenge the means by which police obtained consent. From WBIR:

Isaacs also filed a motion Friday to suppress DNA evidence gathered from Olson, on the grounds that Olson should have had access to an attorney’s advice before consenting to give a DNA sample.

Johnia Berry Memorial Toy Drive

Via email from Remonda Swafford:

The holidays are right around the corner and we would like to encourage you to donate new, unwrapped toys for children ages infant to 14. In honor of Johnia Berry and her goal to devote her life to working with children, we would like to help provide toys to local needy children. All toys collected will be delivered to local Knoxville children organizations on December 6.

Download flyer with drop-off locations.

DNA and the Johnia Berry Case

Knoxville News-Sentinel – DNA testing so costly, it’s only done on crimes like Berry case:

The process of collecting and testing DNA evidence is expensive, so it can only be used in the most serious of criminal cases, such as the 2004 stabbing death of Johnia Berry, authorities say.

Authorities found DNA samples from at least three people at Berry’s apartment in West Knox County Berry, her roommate and a third person.

Early this week, Taylor Lee Olson, 22, of Knoxville, was charged with murdering Berry, 21, during a burglary. Although officials have declined to say if Olson’s DNA matched that found at the scene, his arrest came weeks after the Knox County Sheriff’s Office obtained a DNA sample from him.

Elsewhere, it’s been noted that Berry’s investigation was the most expensive in Tennessee Bureau of Investigation history due to DNA testing.

On the subject of whether DNA or something else led to Taylor Lee Olson’s arrest:

Based on what authorities have said so far, Olson’s DNA wasn’t matched to any evidence through the use of a DNA database. Instead, detectives had already focused on Olson and voluntarily obtained a DNA sample from him when he was arrested on a misdemeanor probation violation charge in July.

The Johnia Berry Act of 2007 requires that people arrested in Tennessee for certain violent crimes submit a DNA sample. That sample will then be checked against a database of DNA samples from crimes. However, the new law doesn’t go into effect until January 1, 2008. Olson for whatever reason gave his DNA sample voluntarily.

During the Johnia Berry investigation it became clear that the state of Tennessee couldn’t keep up with the backlog of DNA testing needed. The Johnia Berry Act will increase testing needs even more, so the TBI is building a new DNA testing facility named for Berry in Strawberry Plains.

Details Emerge of Taylor Lee Olson

News-SentinelDetails sketchy about man charged in Berry murder – Olson has a child who is less than a year old, but is estranged from the mother. I’ll go out on a limb here and say he’s an absent father.

Interview with Sketch Artist in Berry Murder

WVLT – Sketch Artist Talks About Photo