St. Joseph teen sentenced to life in prison for Grandparent’s murders

(St. Joseph News Press) – After listening to some five hour of testimony, Circuit Judge Patrick Robb sentenced Joseph Johnson, 16, to life in prison for the murder of James Johnson, his grandfather and adopted father. For the murder of Beverly Johnson, his grandmother and adopted mother, Johnson received a second life sentence to be consecutively served.

Hearing reveals murder details

The plea bargain included filling no other charges. That didn’t stop Dwight Scroggins, the Buchanan County Prosecutor, from revealing information about the defendant’s activities.

Several months after being arrested for the Friday, July 3, 2015, murder of his grandparents, Johnson drew up a detailed map of the Hurlingen Road home where he’d grown up for about 10 years. The map showed a layout of the rooms and the location of guns, money and other valuable items.

Johnson also jotted down the key code for the homes security system, Scroggins said. He gave the map to Brian Stepp, a fellow prisoner in the Buchanan County Jail.

Stepp was to break in and steal some of Johnson’s personal items, sell some and put that money into Johnson’s jail commissary account.

Stepp could keep other valuables he found for his own use, Scroggins said.

A confidential informant told law enforcement officers about the map, said Mike Hess, a Buchanan County Sheriff’s Department investigator.

The map was recovered after an arson fire on Monday, Jan. 18, which totally destroyed the home.

Johnson denied everything until the map was shown to him.

He said he never discussed stealing the two cars in the garage or burning the house, Scroggins said.

Stepp was arrested on a charge of tampering with a motor vehicle and received a four year prison sentence.

No one has been charged with the burglary and subsequent fire.

“(Johnson) hated school and his goal was to runaway from home and live a life of thievery,” Scroggins said.

The teen proceeded to spend several hours moving the bodies and altering the crime scene.

Scroggins said after using one a gun to kill the Johnsons, the teenager proceeded to replace the pistol in a case and put it back in the nightstand by James Johnson’s bed.

He tacked a note to the front door showing the Johnsons on a two week trip to Texas and asking for packages to be left by the front door, Scroggins said.

The teenager tried to repaint a vehicle and switched the license plates, which led to a traffic stop in Platte County at about 12:30 a.m. July 4, 2015. This stop led to discovery of the murders.

Johnson even sent a text message to a girlfriend during the morning hours of Friday, July 3, 2015, saying “today was the day.”

Defense focused on teenage mental capabilities

Susan Rinne, the defense attorney, brought in Dr. Antoinette Kavanaugh, a forensic clinical psychologist, to testify about brain development in juveniles.

The doctor hadn’t done any study of Johnson.

Kavanaugh enthusiastically answered questions from Rinne and Scroggins about teenage brain development and a tendency to take impulsive actions because their brains aren’t fully developed. This was part of an attempt to secure a lesser sentence.

Family members describe James and Beverly Johnson

Celeste Gventer, a former deputy Secretary of Defense and James’s only daughter, stated her father successfully raised two families making the children feel they were special, she said. He also always did his duty, the daughter said.

Beverly Johnson’s oldest daughter said all her parents wanted to do was ensure the boy had a good life ahead of him. They even set up a trust to ensure if anything happened to them he’d still be able to go to school.

Letters sent by family members described how the grandparents took Joey on vacations, went to the movies as well as taking him to swimming and soccer lessons.


The prosecutor asked for the two life sentences to be consecutively served.

Rinne asked for two 20 year sentences to be concurrently served.

Robb said he agreed with the defense — Johnson’s actions weren’t well thought out — but he also agreed with the prosecution that Johnson spent a lot of time thinking about what and how he would do things.

The judge said in the end Joseph Johnson’s actions deserved life in prison.

Randall Mann

Randall has been with KTTN/KGOZ for almost 20 years. He is the current Engineer for all of the stations, as well as working "on-air" from 6 to 10, am in the morning. Randall does a bit of everything including producing advertisements as well as writing the occasional news article. Randall is also the current Webmaster for the studio as well as the local graphic artist.

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