Woman, 15 at the time, disputes account that turkey hunters found Ronnie Johnson's body in the woods

Steve Pokin
Springfield News-Leader
The body of an unidentified murder victim (later determined to be Ronnie Johnson) is strapped to a gurney by (left to right) Douglas County Sheriff Roldan Turner, Bill Wisner of Klinkingbeards Funeral Home in Ava, and Quill Publisher Frank L. Martin III.

As if finding the killer of Ronnie Johnson wasn't difficult enough, 32 years after the fact the discovery of his body is in dispute.

Rebecca Wilson, now 48 and living in Joplin, says she believes law enforcement gave an inaccurate account of how the body was found.

A sergeant with the Missouri State Highway Patrol told media at the time that two turkey hunters from Arkansas stumbled upon the grisly scene.

That version of events was consistently reported by media, including this newspaper, and is a core element of what supposedly happened.

But Wilson, who was 15 at the time, told the News-Leader in July that she was with an older man who was a family friend and who lived in Howell County when the friend discovered the body in the Mark Twain National Forest.

Wilson said the family friend discovered the body the day before authorities say the turkey hunters found it.

More:Pokin Around: Inspired by a reader’s question, an investigation into the 1989 murder of Ronnie Johnson

Ronnie Johnson, of West Plains, was 26 years old when he was murdered in April 1989. No one has ever been charged.

The issue of who found the body came up after Rochelle Johnson, Ronnie Johnson's daughter, reviewed an early draft of a News-Leader news story. That story started with a description of the two turkey hunters from Arkansas finding the body.

Rochelle Johnson read the story and said, "There really were not any turkey hunters."

Here is why she believes that oft-repeated part of the story is inaccurate.

Back in 2010, she anonymously started an online discussion about her father's death on the Topix website. The thread lasted six years.

Someone posting as "joe somebody" stated the following:

"I found him! I was hiking in the woods with an adult family friend when I was 15 years old and smelled a very bad smell. We kind of separated, looking for the smell. I'll never forget it. All of a sudden, he yelled at me to get in the truck.

"He'd never acted so gruffly to me before and I was confused! I got in the truck as I was told and we went home.

"He was silent and I was afraid. He soon made up a reason to go into town. I later found out he went to tell what he'd seen."

Rochelle Johnson personally contacted Wilson in 2010 and learned Wilson was living in Dallas. Wilson's husband has since died and she has a different last name and has returned to Missouri.

The News-Leader contacted Wilson in July.

In 1989, she says, she was attending West Plains High School but was living with an older couple who knew her parents through their church. Wilson's mother was ill and her father was working out of state.

That couple she lived with was Marion Lindsey, who died in 1998, and his wife Dorothea Leola Connor Lindsey, who died in 2001.

The News-Leader checked public records and confirmed that they once lived where Wilson said they had lived in Howell County.

More:His body was found naked and mutilated. Decades later, silence and fear cling to the murder of Ronnie Johnson.

"Get in the truck!  Get in the truck!"

Marion Lindsey was an outdoorsman who loved to hunt and hike in the woods.

“He would let me tag along with him," Wilson said. "He would show me tracks or explore through the woods.”

Wilson and Lindsey were hiking in the Mark Twain National Forest on a weekday after school in April 1989. Lindsey was not hunting that day. They were simply walking.

As they returned to his pickup truck to leave, the wind must have shifted, she said, and they both smelled a foul odor.

“As a kid, I grew up running around through the woods," she said. "I smelled plenty of dead animals and dead fish. This was nothing like either. That’s what caught my attention and made us start looking."

Lindsey walked some 20 yards from the truck to investigate when he barked at her: "Get in the truck! Get in the truck!"

Wilson never saw a body.

They drove back home in silence. Once home, Lindsey talked privately to his wife and then left the house.

Sgt. Dan Cargill with the Missouri State Highway Patrol uses a metal detector to search for clues where the body of Ronnie Johnson was found in 1989 in the national forest. Also present (left to right) are Douglas County Sheriff Roldan Turner, and Lt. Jim Ewers and Sgt. Carl Watson with the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

When Wilson saw photos in the West Plains Daily Quill of the discovery of the body in the area where she had hiked, she asked Dorothea Lindsey why the story said that the body was discovered by turkey hunters. She said she and Marion had found it.

"I was old enough and intelligent enough to realize that it was him (Ronnie Johnson)," she said. (The body was only later identified as being Johnson.)

She said Dorothea told her never to talk about it.

Wilson did not talk about it, until she saw the online thread on Topix in 2010.

Wilson said she believes law enforcement fabricated the story of out-of-state turkey hunters to protect her and Marion Lindsey by keeping their names from being publicly connected to a grisly murder that was possibly drug-related.

"Even though we didn't see anyone coming or going," she said.

Carl Watson, now 78 and retired, was one of two lead investigators in the Johnson case. The other was Douglas Loring. Both were highway patrol sergeants at the time. Loring died in 2016.

The News-Leader interviewed Watson on his Texas County farm in July and told him that Wilson had contradicted the story about the two turkey hunters from Arkansas finding the body.

Watson said he no longer can remember who found the body.

More:Unsolved Ozarks murders: Woman was last seen mowing cemetery, man shot by burglar

Anonymity and redaction

This is what Watson wrote in a May 2,1989, report: "A body had been located by turkey hunters near the Horton Cemetery in Howell County ... The turkey hunter who actually found the body was [redacted]. He was hunting with [redacted] of Camden, Arkansas."

A news story in the West Plains Daily Quill by then-reporter Marideth Sisco talks about the turkey hunters. But she did not interview them directly.

"The pair of Camden, Ark. turkey hunters who found the body echoed those sentiments when telling their story to authorities, according to Carl Watson, drug and crime control officer for the Mo. Highway Patrol.

"'They said they had come up here to hunt because they thought it was safer than Arkansas,' he (Watson) said. 'They said last fall when they went hunting down there they walked into a big marijuana patch. I guess they'll be taking up fishing now.'"

Frank Martin III was publisher and part owner of the West Plains Daily Quill at the time and responded to the scene to report after the body was found, even helping to transport the body.

He said his newspaper reported the body was found by out-of-state turkey hunters because that's what law enforcement said.

(The News-Leader reported the same information; it did not have a reporter on scene soon after the body was found and did not follow the story as closely as the Quill.)

The West Plains Daily Quill interviewed a man who went to the newspaper soon after the body was discovered to get copies of the paper. He said he was one of the turkey hunters.

Investigators returned to the scene where a week earlier a mutilated body had been found in the Mark Twain National Forest. The man had been shot in the head. They are (left to right) Don Reid, a Howell County sheriff's deputy and Sgts. Doug Loring and Mike Weaver, with the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

Dennis Lancaster, then a Quill reporter, wrote that the man was the only visitor that day not carrying a dead turkey wanting to have his picture taken for publication in the paper.

The man said he did not want to be named and recounted that it was his hunting buddy who found the body first after smelling something awful.

He went to look, as well. The men then went to nearby Pumpkin Center to call police.

The man was not identified in the Quill and the names of both hunters are redacted in police reports.

Don Baysinger was Howell County chief deputy in 1989. He was one of two officials who arrived on the scene first after the body was discovered.

He told the News-Leader this year that there were, in fact, two adult males who were turkey hunting when they found the body.

"I met them at Pumpkin Center," he told the paper. "But they weren't from out of state."

This series on the unsolved murder of Ronnie Johnson continues in the print edition of the News-Leader on Monday. You can read the full series online at News-Leader.com.