"Precious Doe'' killer urged wife to change her story

Monday, December 8, 2008 | 1:45 p.m. CST

KANSAS CITY — The man convicted in October of killing and beheading a 3-year-old girl known for years as "Precious Doe'' wrote letters to his wife, urging her to change her story and reject plea agreements.

The series of letters, obtained by The Kansas City Star, showed how Harrell Johnson attempted to manipulate his wife, Michelle Johnson, alternating between caring and vindictiveness.

In one letter, written a month before Michelle Johnson pleaded guilty to her part in the April 2001 death of her daughter, Erica Green, Harrell Johnson coaches her to give a new version of events that contradicted confessions they had given investigators two years before.

"Michelle we got to do what we got to do, together as one,'' Johnson wrote in an Aug. 6, 2007, letter. "We can beat this case and that's real talk. You just got to do everything I ask you to do and listen to me.''

Instead, Michelle Johnson pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and received 25 years in prison. Harrell Johnson later was sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder.

When Harrell Johnson found out his wife had pleaded guilty and would likely testify against him, the tone of his letters changed. One written on Sept. 11, a month before his trial began, included bittersweet memories but also threats and vulgar language.

"So this is from my heart, I'm letting you go,'' he wrote. "It's over between us. I love you always, but you are showing me you don't care about my feelings or anything else. ... You (are going to) do what you want to do, regardless of how I feel or what I say.''

The letters, which The Star obtained through a public-records request with the Jackson County prosecutor's office, begin in 2002 when Harrell Johnson was in an Oklahoma prison on stolen property, weapons and drug offenses and end while he awaits trial in a Jackson County jail.

His early letters show a fierce affection for his wife and children, urging Michelle to stop smoking crack cocaine. He also fights to keep her dedicated to their marriage.

"Boo, let's be faithful to each other,'' he writes. "You have the man of your dreams.''

But as he got closer to trial in the Precious Doe case, Harrell Johnson's letters become more self-centered, at one point urging her to fire her court-appointed attorney and reject a plea agreement.

"Please do it, my love,'' he wrote. "Boo, if they don't have the evidence, then they can't get no conviction at all. That's why they keep coming at you with all those pleas, 'cause they know (that if) you go to trial, you'll beat the case. They know it. You got to put two and two together.''

In 2005, the two confessed that Harrell Johnson had kicked Erica in the head while they were staying in a house in Kansas City, watched her collapse and then waited hours for the girl to die, afraid going to a hospital would lead to their arrests on outstanding charges.

The pair then took Erica's body into the woods where Harrell Johnson cut off her head. For four years, the community called the unknown girl Precious Doe.

In the same Aug. 3, 2007, letter, Harrell Johnson recommends that he and Michelle change their stories.

The new version introduces a friend named "Mike-Mike,'' who agrees to take Erica to a family friend in Muskogee, Okla. After paying "Mike-Mike'' $35, Harrell and Michelle put Erica in his car and never see her again.

When confronted with the publicity surrounding the discovery of the girl's body, Harrell Johnson tells Michelle they could say they saw it but had no reason to believe the dead girl was Erica.

"Don't answer any questions you don't know,'' he wrote. "Send them to me. Look, that's ... something you need to keep in mind, 'cause this is our way out of town. ... I'm going to write it out for you, the whole thing. But you only need to remember the parts that's pertaining to you. Okay?''

But Michelle Johnson still pleaded guilty on Sept. 13, 2007.

Kenton Hall, Harrell Johnson's defense attorney, said he learned about most of the letters about a year before Harrell Johnson's trial. He said the "Mike-Mike'' story was one of several distractions as he and his fellow defense lawyers tried to keep Harrell focused on the case.

"We knew he was trying to phony up a story, and we didn't pursue that at trial,'' Hall said. "This was a big struggle throughout the history of the case, trying to get him on the same page with us.''

Michelle Johnson's decision to testify brought out the worst in Harrell Johnson, who sent a four-page, sometimes-obscene rant about a month before his trial, threatening to expose her as a poor mother.

"And now (I'm going to) make sure you get ran over personally,'' he wrote. "Tell 'em how you use to beat and leave Erica in that room with no TV, no nothing ... for hours while you ... smoked (crack).''

Later, he added, "(Your) time on this Earth is real short, you can believe that ... it's on sight.''

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