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Murder suspect arrested in 33-year-old 'cold case'

Tuesday, September 29, 2009 | 7:32 p.m. CDT; updated 9:07 a.m. CDT, Friday, October 2, 2009
Becky Doisy disappeared in 1976, and her body was never found.

COLUMBIA — Kathy Doisy last saw her sister on Aug. 3, 1976.

“The last thing we said to each other was ‘I love you,’ so I have good memories of her,” said Doisy, 54.

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The date is easy to remember because it was Kathy Doisy's 21st birthday. The sisters ate her favorite meal — shrimp — and Becky Doisy bought Kathy a bottle of champagne to celebrate.

In the 33 years since that night, Doisy has lived with the mystery surrounding her sister’s disappearance. Becky’s body has never been found. Until last week, neither had a suspect.

On Monday afternoon, two Columbia police detectives arrived at Doisy's door in the Benton-Stephens neighborhood. They told her police in Georgia had arrested a man who they believe killed her sister.

Her reaction was “stunned disbelief,” Doisy said. “Our whole family is shocked.”

A surprising arrest

Johnny Wright, 65, was arrested Sept. 23 by police in Lawrenceville, Ga., after he applied for a job.

Since 1985, there had been a warrant for his arrest on a charge of second-degree murder. But authorities didn't know where Wright was until last week. There were so few leads that the Columbia Police Department considered the murder a “cold case,” Public Information Officer Jessie Haden said.

Earlier this month, Wright applied for a driving job with a company that required a criminal history background check, Capt. Greg Vaughn of the Lawrenceville Police Department said. When the Georgia Crime Information Center processed the background check, they found he was wanted on a warrant.

Officers in Georgia confirmed the warrant information with Boone County authorities. When Wright showed up at the police department to pay for the background check, police arrested him in the lobby without incident, Vaughn said. Georgia police positively identified him by a scar on his right wrist. They notified Columbia police of the arrest on Monday.

‘Who Killed Becky Doisy?’

At the time of her disappearance, Becky Doisy was a 23-year-old waitress at what was then called Ernie’s Steak House. The staff that worked at Ernie’s in 1976 has long since moved on, but Doisy’s legacy lingers.

“They say Becky Doisy’s ghost is here,” said waitress Jamie Bedford, 30, standing beneath the large illustration of Dick Tracy hanging above the kitchen at Ernie's Cafe on Walnut Street.

The legend of Doisy’s ghost has circulated among Ernie’s workers for years, usually with claims of phantom footsteps and clocks that always run off time.

But Doisy’s place in Ernie’s 75-year history is more tangible than any ghost story.

In 1980, short-order cook Arthur Koch completed an etching of the diner that now hangs above a table across from the counter. Koch’s work depicts a busy scene featuring many of Ernie’s regulars, including Doisy holding a pot of coffee with her back turned toward the viewer.

At the top of Koch’s etching, the text on the diner’s famous Dick Tracy illustration was changed to read, “Who Killed Becky Doisy?”

Koch, now a 52-year-old artist in San Francisco, recalls the day Doisy disappeared. He was 19. “It was out of character for her not to show up" for work, he said.

In addition to being a hard worker, Koch remembers her as “a gentle soul, very beautiful, sensitive. She did have a temper — she could be kind of defensive.”

Sitting at the counter in Koch’s etching is Kenny Greene, now the 58-year-old owner of the nearby Monarch Jewelry. He and Doisy were friends.

“She was a real intense writer, a poetess,” he said. “She was a real intellectual. She was a strong, independent woman. Waitressing offered her the independence she wanted.”

Neither Koch nor Greene knew Johnny Wright. “He was not part of the crowd,” Greene said.

Greene said that when he first heard the news of the arrest on the radio, he “bolted up in bed.”

“It was definitely one of those unsolved mysteries,” Greene said. “Nobody believed that she would just up and leave.”

Nine years and no leads

Becky Doisy was last seen on Aug. 5, 1976, leaving her apartment with Wright. Kathy Doisy reported her sister missing two days later. Wright was interviewed and given a lie detector test by Columbia police but wasn't formally considered a suspect until the warrant was issued in 1985.

Meanwhile, it was dead end after dead end for investigators.

Police scoured rural areas around Columbia on foot and on horseback, according to articles in the Missourian. Investigators hired psychics to help with the case. And in 1979, authorities exhumed a body near Festus they thought might be Doisy's.

By the time former Boone County Prosecutor Joe Moseley filed for the warrant, Wright seemed to have vanished from the face of the earth. And Doisy's body was still missing.

One of the only things police had to go on was the statement of Wright’s former roommate, Harry Moore, who said Wright showed him Doisy's body — her throat slashed — stuffed into Wright's blue 1972 Toyota.

Making the case

When Wright was arrested, he had a Lawrenceville address on the Georgia photo identification he used to apply for the job. But Vaughn, with the Lawrenceville police,  didn't know how long Wright had been living there. Georgia police did not interview Wright.

Wright is being held in Georgia on $100,000 bond and is awaiting extradition to Missouri. Haden didn't know when that will happen.

“It’s surprising that the case was resolved this way after all these years,” Haden said. “It was kind of a fluke.”

Joe Pollini, a former New York City Police Department detective who specializes in cold cases, said it is not uncommon for investigations — even ones as cold as the Doisy disappearance — to be solved when a suspect has been hiding for decades.

"You don't get a get-out-of-jail-free card just because you disappeared into the woodwork for 30 years," he said.

Pollini added: "I believe any case can be solved; it’s just a matter of tenacity and resources. All you got to do is turn the right stone."

The next step for law enforcement officials in Columbia is to get up to speed on the case, which is entirely new to many in the Police Department and the Boone County prosecutor’s office.

“This was not on our radar,” Boone County Assistant Prosecutor Richard Hicks said. “No one in our office was even working here when this case was first filed.”

The Police Department is contacting detectives and witnesses and reading through old reports, Haden said. Capt. Stephen Monticelli will take the lead on the investigation.

For her part, Kathy Doisy said she’s willing to do all she can to help the police in their renewed investigation.

“I’m hopeful that they may be able to resolve this," she said. "And some good may come of it.” 


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Comments

Becky Loar September 29, 2009 | 10:26 p.m.

Our police staff here in Gwinnett County is nothing less than exceptional. As usual, always underpaid and unappreciated- they dedicate their lives to protecting us. I am glad that we, so far away, were able to place some closure on this case.

(Report Comment)
Jenny Rogers September 29, 2009 | 11:36 p.m.

Really good story, guys

(Report Comment)
Ted Baxter January 19, 2010 | 2:38 p.m.

Hard to believe a woman like Becky would have anything to do with a person like this in the 1st place, to the point of getting into a car with him, and how did he know where she lived, (??) etc. There's more to it. There always is.

(Report Comment)

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