A 16-Year-Old Murders Her Parents
(“Disrobed,” Forensic Files)
HLN is broadcasting a highly memorable Forensic Files episode today.
“Disrobed” tells the story of a teenager who shot her mother and father after they forbid her to see a guy who sounded at best like a waste of time and at worst like a life ruiner.
Bourgeois privilege? Since a jury convicted Sarah Marie Johnson at age 18 and sent her to prison for life for a crime she committed at 16, an epilogue to her story seems in order.
The justice system tends to show mercy to middle-class convicts who committed their crimes — no matter how awful — as minors.
A fair amount has happened since “Disrobed” first aired in 2008. But before getting into that, here’s a recap of the episode plus some information from internet research:
Diane Johnson, a 52-year-old tax collector, and her husband, Alan, a 46-year-old landscaper, provided a lovely home for Sarah and her older half-brother, Matt, in Bellevue, a city on the outskirts of Sun Valley, Idaho.
By 2003, Sarah had taken up with a 19-year-old named Bruno Santos. He was a high school dropout suspected of gang membership and drug activity.
He also had a cocky personality. Sarah’s parents found him none-too-endearing.
Happy ending. But Sarah had no intention of letting go of Santos and tried the usual teenage tricks, like telling mom and dad she was sleeping over at a girlfriend’s when she was really with him.
When they found out about one such incident, her parents took away her car and threatened to file charges against Santos for statutory rape.
At some point, Sarah decided to quell the controversy by disposing of her parents.
That way, she and Santos could run off and set up their own love-filled affluent household financed by her parents’ $680,000 life insurance payout and the rest of their estate.
Dressed to kill. According to Disrobed, Sarah was a fan of true crime entertainment. Perhaps she felt she had picked up enough know-how to pull off a double homicide with impunity.
First, Sarah stole a .264 caliber rifle from the guesthouse on her family’s property. The Johnsons rented out the structure to Mel Speegle, an electrician who was out of town at the time of the crime on September 2, 2003.
That morning, Sarah pulled a shower cap over her blond hair, put a pink plush bathrobe on backward, crept into her sleeping mother’s room, and shot her in the head at close range.
Fall planting. Her father ran out of the shower to see what happened. Sarah shot him in the chest.
To suggest gang activity, she placed knives at the foot of her parents’ bed and in her brother’s room. (Matt Johnson was away at the University of Idaho in Moscow at the time.)
She put the rifle’s scope on Speegle’s bed and left the rest of it at the crime scene.
Then she made a beeline for a neighbor’s house and said her parents had been shot by an unseen intruder.
Investigators were probably disappointed to rule out their first suspect, Bruno Santos.
He was arrogant and disrespectful, but they couldn’t connect any of the crime scene evidence to him or his DNA.
Mel Speegle, who Sarah had probably hoped to implicate, gave police a solid alibi.
By this time, Sarah’s lack of sorrow over the tragedy had aroused suspicion.
Evidence galore. Her aunt, Linda Vavold, who appeared on Forensic Files, noted that Sarah seemed more interested in having her fingernails painted than grieving her mother and father’s demise.
And a lot more than innuendo was building up against Sarah. It turned out that she had pretty much left a trail of forensic breadcrumbs for the police to follow.
First, the presence of her mother’s blood and bone fragments on Sarah’s bedroom wall contradicted her story that she was asleep with her door closed when she heard the first shot.
Cap it off. The pink bathrobe retrieved from the trash — Sheriff Walt Femling had stopped the garbage truck from picking up the can on the day of the murder — had high-velocity blood splatter from both Diane and Alan Johnson.
Gloves found in the garbage had traces of gun powder residue outside and Sarah’s DNA inside.
Plumbers recovered the shower cap, which Sarah had flushed down the toilet.
As crime scene investigator Rod Englert said during his Forensic Files interview, “The evidence was yelling and screaming.”
Prosecutors charged Sarah with two counts of first degree murder.
Family affair. At this point, Sarah probably didn’t need any more proof that her fairy tale had gone awry, but she got some anyway: Bruno Santos decided to testify against her in court.
Santos wanted to prove he had nothing to do with the murders.
Sarah’s brother took a turn in the witness chair in the 2005 trial as well, but he didn’t seem to have an agenda.
Matt Johnson said his sister was overdramatic and tended to stretch the truth when it suited her, but he loved her just the same.
Defense lawyer Bob Pangburn uncharitably pointed out that Matt would receive Sarah’s portion of their parents’ insurance money if the jury convicted her.
The prosecution brought in one of Sarah’s cellmates, convicted drug trafficker Malinda Gonzalez, who revealed that, during their jailhouse conversations, Sarah seemed to inadvertently confess.
Aunt no help. As reported by Emanuella Grinberg for Court TV, Gonzalez testified: “One time, she said, ‘When I killed…’ Then she stopped herself and was like, ‘When the killers …'”
Linda Vavold, Diane Johnson’s elder sister, ended up on the prosecution’s side as well. “When we would be discussing Alan and Diane and someone would be upset, [Sarah] would roll her eyes and act disgusted,” Vavold testified.
The five-week trial of the flaxen-haired killer turned into a national sensation. Court TV broadcast the proceedings live from Idaho’s Ada County courthouse.
Sarah received two sentences of life in jail without parole.
Pin it on someone. As far as what’s happening with her today, my initial guess was that Sarah had confessed to the crime already, embraced religion, and was helping inmates in a prison literacy program — and asking the state for mercy since she was young and foolish and evil back in 2003 and regretted her crimes.
Or maybe she would take the Menendez brothers’ route and admit to killing her parents but tell tales about why they deserved it.
Wrong on all counts.
As recently as 2014, Sarah — now 30 years old and prisoner No. 77613 at the Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center — was claiming someone else killed her parents.
She managed to draw the Idaho Innocence Project into her case. They contended that she had ineffective counsel at the first trial.
Her legal team also brought up the fact that the murder weapon carried someone else’s prints (not Sarah’s or Mel Speegle’s).
BF behind bars. But Speegle said that some prints probably came from a friend who had helped him move his things from his ranch to the Johnson guesthouse in 2002.
The Idaho Supreme Court denied Sarah’s petition in a six-page decision in February 2014.
Life has been no dream for the motivation for all this misery, either.
Bruno Santos served some jail time related to drug charges around the time of Sarah’s trial in 2005.
Then, in 2010, Blaine County brought him up on new substance-peddling charges — including the sale of a half pound of methamphetamine to an undercover detective.
The following year, he received a 10-year sentence. He occupies a bunk at the Idaho State Correctional Facility.
Santos, who is allegedly in the U.S. illegally, will be eligible for parole in May 2018 and could face deportation to Mexico then.
That’s all for this post. True Crime Truant will be off for the holidays next week, back on April 20. Until then, cheers. — RR
Update: Just found the 20/20 episode — albeit with compromised picture quality — about Sarah Johnson on YouTube