COLUMBIA — When Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Richard Hicks began looking into Johnny Wright's arrest almost two years ago, the Boone County Prosecuting Attorney's Office didn't even have a file for him anymore.
No one expected to ever hear again from the man wanted for killing Becky Doisy in 1976. Although her body was never found, police, friends and her family all believed she was dead. Many, including Doisy's family, believed Wright was dead, too.
While it was true that there was an outstanding warrant for him from 1985, he hadn't been seen or heard from since the early ’80s.
But in September 2009, Wright was unexpectedly discovered and arrested when a background check for a job in Georgia revealed the warrant.
Hicks soon asked his colleague Cecily Daller to work with him on the case when he realized the difficulty of it.
With no body, no manner of death and more than three decades since the last time Doisy was seen alive, Hicks and Daller weren't certain prosecuting Wright was even a possibility.
But when they began to explore the case, the story that unfolded was enough to persuade them to try.
In January, Hicks and Daller brought a case to a jury that resulted in a guilty verdict. On Monday, Wright was sentenced to 30 years in prison — the maximum punishment allowed in the case.
Deciding to prosecute
With the help of Columbia police, Hicks and Daller used past investigations to build a list of potential witnesses and recover some possible evidence to piece together a case.
Before they could be certain about going through with prosecution, they had to find out if key witnesses were still alive and, after 32 years, if their memories were still reliable enough for court. Then, they had to figure out how to prosecute Wright for murder if there was no body or evidence of the manner of death.
And, on top of that, the question lingered of how Wright had gone undetected by authorities for so long.
Columbia police reopened the case and located two men — Harry Moore and William Simmons — who knew Wright during the 1970s and ’80s. It became apparent that if they had credible information, they would be key to Daller and Hicks' case.
From the beginning, they knew their case would depend on whether a few key witnesses proved credible.
"We knew from the beginning reports there's no way we're going to be able to prosecute this without Harry Moore," Hicks said.
Reports from police said that Moore was Wright's roommate when Doisy disappeared and that he told police in 1976 that he saw the two together on the night Doisy disappeared.
Another police report, filed in 1984, said a man named William Simmons told police that he and Wright spent time together at a methadone clinic in St. Louis. Simmons said Wright used to talk about how he had killed a woman in Columbia.
When police re-questioned Moore about Doisy's disappearance in 1984, he finally told police that Wright had shown him Doisy's dead body in the back of his car on Aug. 5, 1976.
It was Moore and Simmons' testimonies in the mid-’80s that led to the warrant for Wright's arrest.
Moore could also help them use a corpus delicti rule, which is a legal standard applied in many "no body" cases. It requires that the prosecution must first show that a crime took place before it can try to convict a defendant of committing it.
In this case, Moore's testimony might show a jury that Doisy was dead and, second, that she was murdered.
"We knew legally that you didn't have to prove how someone was murdered," Daller said, and added that Moore's information answered an important question for them.
"How do we say that a murder did happen, when you don't know how it happened?"
When they went to visit Moore at his apartment in southern Illinois, Daller and Hicks decided Moore was credible.
"You could tell he had remembered what had happened. You could tell it was difficult for him to talk about," Daller said. "There was one point when he got really emotional about it."
Moore gave them information he'd never spoken about before, too.
About three weeks after Doisy was last seen, a shooting was reported at Wright and Moore's house, but Moore didn't tell police who did it. When Hicks and Daller talked to Moore, he said it was Wright who'd had shot at him for talking to police about Doisy.
After the trial, the jury chief said in an interview that it was Moore and Simmons' testimonies that primarily convinced them to find a unanimous guilty verdict.
One of the final pieces to putting a case together was tracking down where Wright had been for all those years and why he'd suddenly gone back to using his given name.
The media, Hicks said, alerted him to the fact that Wright had been living as Erroll Edwards. Driver's licenses under the name proved he'd lived under the name since the early ’80s.
Using the fake name showed that Wright had what Hicks calls a "consciousness of guilt."
In August, the two attorneys went to Georgia, where Wright had been arrested. In four days, they found that Wright started using his given name again by 2008.
"In 2007 he got a letter saying, 'Your Social Security doesn't match with your name,’" Hicks said.
"'So send us some documentation and we'll get it all squared away,'" Daller said, finishing Hicks' sentence. "So then his license gets revoked."
"Because he can't match it," Hicks said.
They also went to places where "Erroll Edwards" had worked. When they visited a car dealership where he'd worked, co-workers said they'd only knew him as Erroll and were shocked to find out that the man on the TV news stories was actually named Johnny Wright.
The last witness they called was Harry Markham, who knew Wright as "Erroll Edwards" for years from the days they worked at the car dealership together.
Markham testified that he asked Wright about the name change once, to which Wright had said, "I changed my name before that happened to this girl."