Missing man Alex Johnson's body was found in Kentucky River, coroner says

jmadden@herald-leader.comJanuary 25, 2014 

Alex Johnson's body was found in 4 feet of water inside a 55-gallon blue barrel in the Kentucky River, Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn said at a press conference Saturday.

Johnson, 32, disappeared Dec. 20 after his girlfriend said he ended a phone call with her by saying he needed to answer the door at his home on North Hanover Avenue in Lexington.

Family members and friends publicized his disappearance for weeks in hopes of finding him alive. But police concluded that Johnson had been killed, and their leads resulted in two arrests last week and the discovery of a body Friday. Authorities announced the identity Saturday.

Ginn said Johnson died from blunt-force trauma injuries to the head, adding that Johnson was identified from dental records, which were already at the coroner's office, as well as thumbprints and DNA.

The coroner's office was called to the riverbank off Old Richmond Road at 10:06 Friday morning. Ginn said he was able to confirm that there were human remains inside the barrel, which the coroner described as a steel drum, from looking through a hole at 2:40 p.m.

"We believe he's been in the barrel at least a month," Ginn said. "He was fully clothed and had some money on him." He would not specify the amount of money. Ginn said the body had minor decomposition.

Ginn said that the barrel was submerged near the shore.

An autopsy conducted at the state medical examiner's office in Frankfort was finished about noon Saturday, and the family identified Johnson a few hours later, Ginn said.

Police have not commented about a motive in the slaying, and they would not give specifics about how they knew where to find the body.

Johnson's disappearance became a missing-persons case after relatives became concerned when Johnson didn't return calls, follow through with plans he had made with friends, or attend a meeting at work Dec. 21.

Police converted the case into a homicide investigation Tuesday, obtaining a murder arrest warrant for Robert Markham Taylor, 28, of Lexington. Taylor was apprehended Wednesday night in Pharr, Texas, about 8 miles from the Mexican border.

Taylor is charged with murder, and Pharr police also charged him with marijuana possession after several pounds of it were found in his vehicle. The extradition process to return him to Lexington is expected to begin soon. Taylor was being held in Hidalgo County Jail on a $50,000 cash bond.

In addition to Taylor, police have charged Timothy Ballard, 42, with complicity to kidnapping and tampering with evidence. A preliminary court hearing for Ballard, who has pleaded not guilty, is scheduled for Wednesday.

Johnson, Ballard and Taylor were all acquaintances, police have said.

Johnson's disappearance created a stir in the community. Friends and family joined for fundraisers and gatherings. On Jan, 16, some met at Blue Stallion Brewing Company to celebrate what would have been Johnson's 33rd birthday.

"It's just a sad loss. All I can think about is his dad, mom and sister. I can't imagine what they are feeling," said Kore Donnelly, co-owner of the brewing company. "My prayers go out to them. I'm surely going to miss him."

Johnson, a chef at the Hilary J. Boone Center at the University of Kentucky, was a native of Bowling Green and moved to Lexington to attend Transylvania University after graduating from Greenwood High School in 1999. He wanted to move to Lexington because he wanted to be in a larger city, his father, Lee Johnson, said. He graduated in 2005 with a degree in Spanish and a minor in mathematics.

The only things missing from Johnson's apartment were his keys, wallet and cellphone, his father said. His green Ford Ranger pickup, covered with snow, remains outside the building. Lee Johnson said the family had gathered some items from his son's apartment, including his cat Mahgee, who is named after the rock band My Morning Jacket's song Mahgeetah.

Alex Johnson was an extrovert who loved to travel and ride bikes, his father said. He entered two 100-mile bike races.

Johnson's friend Melissa Branham said she had known him since high school. She said she last saw Johnson in July when he came to visit her sick mother. Branham said he had "a magnetic personality."

"I never would think his goodbye to my mom would be my goodbye to him," she said. "Whatever the circumstances that led to this I will never understand it. I know he's looking down on us, and I feel it."

Johnson's funeral arrangements are pending with J.C. Kirby & Son Funeral Chapel in Bowling Green.

Justin Madden: (859) 231-3197. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

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