COLUMBIA — The first nine witnesses called by the state Wednesday struggled to tell a jury what they knew about Johnny Wright’s connection with Becky Doisy based on memories from at least 34 years ago.
Wright was 32 years old when he picked up Doisy to go to the Heidelberg restaurant Aug. 5, 1976. Doisy, a former student at the MU School of Education and a waitress at then-called Ernie’s Steak House, was 23.
But after that, memories get fuzzy and witnesses’ statements begin to clash. Doisy was never seen or heard from again, and her body was never found. Wright was charged with second-degree murder in 1985 and picked up on that warrant in September 2009.
“Where is Becky Doisy? Where was Johnny Wright?” Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Cecily Daller said several times in her opening statement to the jury in the half-filled courtroom in the Boone County Courthouse.
Daller re-created for the jury Doisy’s life in Columbia in 1976. She also described the police search for Doisy — and, later, for Wright. Then she paralleled the story with Wright’s actions: his move to Seattle, then Texas, then Georgia and his confessions to two people during the '70s and '80s.
Harry Moore, though quiet for the first nine years of the search for Doisy, claimed in 1985 that he was the first person to learn of Doisy's death. He is expected to testify against Wright later this week.
Both the prosecution and Wright’s defense attorney, Cleveland Tyson, devoted a portion of their opening statements to Moore’s connection with Doisy’s disappearance. It was apparent at the trial Wednesday that Moore likely will be a vital witness.
In the prosecution's version, Moore was the last person to see Doisy with Wright. He told Columbia Police Officer Chris Egbert, the detective involved in the Doisy search, in 1985 that Wright approached him Aug. 5, 1976, at a club. Wright asked Moore for help and showed him Doisy’s body in his blue Toyota, Daller said.
Tyson refuted that account, saying Moore's story changed depending upon whom he talked to and what was at stake. Moore was facing charges in connection with Doisy’s murder at the time of his confession.
Tyson’s voice rose as he talked about the most recent version of Moore's story. Last Friday, Tyson said, was the first time Moore ever mentioned that Wright said anything about Doisy being “six feet under.”
“Moore has changed his story again and again and again,” Tyson said. After saying “and again” several more times, Daller objected, calling Tyson argumentative. Judge Gary Oxenhandler sided with the state.
William Simmons also said Wright confessed to him about Doisy's murder. Simmons, Moore and Wright socialized while at the same methadone clinic in St. Louis at various times during the '70s and '80s. Simmons was the last person called to testify Wednesday.
Hicks directed Simmons to recall a time after Doisy disappeared when he, Wright and a group of people at the clinic were talking about a murder in St. Louis that got a lot of media attention. Simmons said he heard Wright say, “that ain’t shit. I offed a bitch without shooting her.”
But, Simmons told Hicks he couldn’t remember if Wright ever mentioned hiding a body.
Tyson asked about what happened when Simmons was arrested by Maplewood police for stealing in 1985. Simmons said he had prior narcotics and stealing offenses so he knew this arrest could put him in jail. It was then that Simmons told police what he knew about a homicide in Columbia involving Johnny Wright and a young woman.
About two years before the arrest, he said, Moore told him of a night when Johnny Wright cut the throat of a woman. Tyson asked why Simmons didn’t go to the police with the information.
“It was something I could hold on to and use as a bargaining chip,” Simmons said.
“And you got out of there scot-free?” Tyson said.
“I did what I had to,” Simmons said quietly. Although Simmons said he’s clean now, he struggled with substance abuse during the '70s and early '80s. He also said he continued to cooperate with police even after prison time wasn’t a threat anymore.
“I just thought I should tell the truth about it,” Simmons said.
Maplewood police called Egbert who drove to St. Louis to speak with Simmons in June 1985. He said there was still hope Doisy might be alive at that point and she was still classified as a missing person.
Simmons met with Egbert twice and gave two testimonies between June 1985 and January 1986. The former was written and the latter was video recorded.
Egbert was questioned by the state earlier Wednesday but Oxenhandler and both sides agreed to cross-examine him Thursday. The reason was that Simmons was in Columbia by subpoena and he had to return to St. Louis that night.
Egbert’s testimony for the prosecution outlined his investigation of Doisy's disappearance and his detective work done in relation to Moore, Simmons, Wright and the other witnesses included in the trial.
Other witnesses that testified Wednesday:
- Doisy’s younger sister, Kathy Doisy.
- Doisy’s floormate, Dan Aspenwall.
- Doisy’s friend, Victoria Norman Eisner.
- Doisy’s high school boyfriend.
- Doisy’s close friend and coworker at Ernie's, Sue Spiegel.
- Wright’s then-girlfriend Anne Germanson. She went to visit Wright from Aug. 16 to 23, 1976, in St. Louis. On the stand, Germanson said she dated Wright for about three months but could recall little about her relationship with him, her week in St. Louis with him or the interview she had with Egbert after she returned to Columbia. Anne Germanson’s married name is now Wright, though there is no connection between her last name and Johnny Wright's last name.
- Susan Palmer, Anne Germanson’s then-roommate. Palmer had contact with Germanson while she was in St. Louis with Wright. When her roommate didn’t return for a week, Palmer hand-wrote a report detailing what she knew about Germanson and Wright’s relationship. While on the stand, Palmer could not recall what she wrote in her report from 1976.
Each witness, at some point while on the stand, acknowledged having a hard time recalling finer details from 1976.
Oxenhandler said the trial was likely to end Friday. It is set to resume at 8:30 a.m. Thursday.