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Father of dead soldier investigates daughter's death

Monday, March 9, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

FLORISSANT — Inside the tidy suburban home of John and Linda Johnson, no photos of their eldest daughter grace the walls. Army Pfc. LaVena Johnson was just 19 when she died in Iraq in 2005; to this day her parents cannot bear to display reminders of her life.

John Johnson does possess other photos of his daughter — explicit color shots of her autopsy and death scene. He shows them to a visitor. They are horrifying: LaVena Johnson in a pool of blood. LaVena Johnson's corpse on a coroner's table.

John Johnson does not let his wife, Linda, or four children see these images, but he studies the photos for hours at a time, trying to determine how his daughter died.

Army investigators ruled that LaVena Johnson committed suicide by firing her M-16 automatic rifle into her mouth. Her body was found beside the rifle inside a contractor's storage tent on a U.S. military base in Balad, Iraq, on July 19, 2005.

There was no suicide note, no recovered bullet and no significant gunshot residue on her hands. But the Army cited fellow soldiers' reports that she was depressed and had spoken of killing herself.

John Johnson says his daughter was raped and murdered, with her death scene staged to make it appear that she shot herself. He accuses the Army of covering up for a killer or killers to conceal a soldier-on-soldier murder, explaining that military personnel would have had unrestricted access to the area where his daughter died and therefore would not have attracted undue attention.

If LaVena Johnson's death were investigated as a homicide, John Johnson added, it would raise questions about base security and discourage women from enlisting.

In 2005, in response to concerns about sexual assaults against female service members, the Pentagon established the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. Citing a reluctance to report rape for fear of stigma or reprisals, the office does not share information from female service members with law enforcement or the military command.

Like the Johnsons, other families have questioned the military's findings of suicide in the deaths of their daughters in Iraq or Afghanistan. They too accuse the military of jumping to conclusions and ignoring evidence of murder.

But these grieving families have discovered that there are no clear answers and few conclusive facts — only murky evidence that can be interpreted more than one way. The result is a climate of mistrust and suspicion that leaves the military on the defensive and the families feeling deceived.

Christoper Grey, a spokesman for the Army's Criminal Investigation Command, called its investigation of the Johnson case "thorough and complete." He said the command is ready to reopen any investigation in which "new credible information warranting further investigation is brought to our attention."

Of the 115 female service member deaths in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, 16 have been ruled suicides. Overall, 205 of the 4,868 military deaths in those wars through Jan. 31, were ruled suicides. The 128 reported Army suicides in 2008 was the highest annual level since the Pentagon began tabulating suicides in 1980.

The Johnson case, and several others involving female service members, have been championed by retired Army Col. Ann Wright, a former U.S. diplomat.

Wright accuses the military of withholding evidence pointing to sexual assaults and other attacks on female service members. She contends that the military has been too quick to close some women's deaths as suicides without first conducting thorough homicide investigations. She accuses the military of stonewalling families who question its findings.

"What the military is doing is egregious," she said. "In many cases, they have the information the families want but refuse to release it. These families are really fighting upstream."

Joy Priest, whose daughter Pfc. Tina Priest, 20, was found dead in Iraq in March 2006, said the Army has not convinced her that Tina Priest killed herself with her M-16, as an investigation found. She died two weeks after accusing a male soldier of raping her.

Joy Priest said it took the Army almost six months to provide her with investigative documents and another nine months to supply color autopsy and death scene photos.

"They have you jump through hoops, then they back you up and make you jump through more," Joy Priest said. "It's so painful — just mind-bending."

Wright said she believes there are enough unanswered questions in the Johnson and Priest cases, among others, to warrant new investigations.

For the Johnsons, the circumstance of their daughter's death has become an obsession. It is a wound that may never heal.

For more than three years, John Johnson has studied every aspect of his daughter's death. He keeps cross-referenced stacks of investigative reports, crime scene photographs, lab reports and angry letters sent to the Army, the Pentagon and Congress.

The Johnsons, both former Army employees, say they feel betrayed by a military they and their daughter served honorably. In his family room, John Johnson stabbed his finger at an Army autopsy report, his voice rising in indignation. "I'm not just a grieving father guessing at things," he said. "I'm going strictly by the facts. I'm going by the Army's own evidence."

After John Johnson filed a Freedom of Information Act request and enlisted the aid of his congressman, the Army provided original color autopsy and crime scene photos in June 2007.

As he studied the photos, he said, he saw blood inside and outside the contractor's tent. Other evidence suggested to him that LaVena Johnson was killed elsewhere and her body dumped in the tent: Bootprints in blood and on a bag of cement, the absence of blood and brain spatter on the tent and the Army's failure to find the fatal bullet.

A small fire next to the body was evidence, he said, that someone tried to cover up her murder. A caustic substance appears to have been poured on her genitals, he said, to eliminate signs of rape.

The abrasions on LaVena Johnson's face suggest to John Johnson that she was beaten, and scratches on her arms are likely defensive wounds, he said. And he does not believe his 5-foot-1 daughter's arms were long enough to pull the trigger of an M-16 cradled between her legs, as described in the Army report.

A gunshot residue test, performed on the woman's hands to determine whether she had fired a weapon, found "insignificant" residue, the report said.

The report quoted three soldiers as saying LaVena Johnson seemed depressed and spoke of suicide. But two of them also said she told them she was only joking and would never take her own life. "She didn't want to hurt her family," one soldier said.

A statement by her company commander, Capt. David Woods, said: "This soldier was clearly happy and seemingly very healthy physically and emotionally."

One soldier said LaVena Johnson was upset over a breakup with a soldier she had met in the U.S., the report said. She learned 10 days before her death that she had genital warts, according to the report.

Grey, the Army spokesman, said the only blood found outside the tent was on a bench that had been removed after LaVena's Johnson's body was discovered. Investigators are not aware of any boot prints in blood or on a cement bag, and found no cuts, bruises or abrasions "that would have led us to believe that they had been created by suspicious means," Grey said.

Investigators believe the bullet exited through an open tent flap window, Grey said. They concluded that LaVena Johnson had burned pages from her journal before she shot herself, starting a small fire inside the tent.

Grey said investigators demonstrated that it was "easily possible" for a person of LaVena Johnson's stature to shoot herself through the mouth with her M-16. And because investigators found no evidence of sexual assault, Grey said, there was no reason to collect vaginal or fingernail swabs.

Paul Stone, a spokesman for the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, said the damage to LaVena Johnson's face is consistent with the rapidly expanding gases discharged by an M-16, which he said can break bones and leave bruises and abrasions. The Institute also concluded that LaVena Johnson committed suicide.

After John Johnson met in April with U.S. Rep. Ike Skelton, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee reviewed the case. It concluded that further review "would not find anything to change the findings and conclusions" of the Army.

John Johnson called the committee's conclusions "insulting."

The Johnsons had their daughter's body exhumed in 2007 for an autopsy, conducted by Dr. Michael Graham, the St. Louis city medical examiner.

Graham concluded that she died of a gunshot wound fired through her mouth. In an interview, Graham said he could not determine whether the wound was self-inflicted because John Johnson did not provide him with crime scene photos and other material. John Johnson had not yet received the crime scene photos from the Army at the time of the autopsy.

"I saw no evidence that it was not self-inflicted," Graham said.

John Johnson called Graham's conclusions "disappointing" and said a lawyer is advising him on what to do next.

Linda Johnson wept as she recounted her final phone conversation with her daughter, two days before she died.

"She was her normal jubilant self," Linda Johnson said. "She talked about coming home and Christmas plans. She loved Christmas — she told me make sure her father didn't start decorating till she got home. This was not a girl getting ready to harm herself."

The family has not celebrated Christmas since LaVena Johnson's death, she said.

John Johnson was stoic as he thumbed through his daughter's autopsy photos. With his shaved head and black mustache, he appeared resolute, unbowed.

He spread the photos before him once more, convinced they contain the answers he is seeking. "I'm not giving up," he said, "until somebody tells me the truth about what happened to my baby girl."

 


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