Alex Johnson's parents say two witnesses reported attack, but police did not respond

jmadden@herald-leader.com bestep@herald-leader.comMarch 25, 2014 

Two people witnessed an attack on University of Kentucky employee Alex Johnson the night he was killed in December and called 911, according to an attorney and private investigator hired by Johnson's parents.

That information led his parents to question whether police could have thwarted the crime with a swifter response.

Both witnesses saw a man being hit in the front seat of a car as it traveled on North Hanover Avenue, where Johnson lived, and heard what one described as his "blood curdling" screams.

"Stop, you're killing me," the man yelled, according to an account one witness gave a private investigator for the family.

Both people said they called 911 to report the attack as it was happening, Mark Wohlander, a Lexington attorney who represents Johnson's parents, Lee and Judy Johnson, told the Herald-Leader. No officers responded to talk with the witnesses that evening to get a description of the assailants, the car, the location of the incident and other information, he said.

The family wants to know how dispatchers and police handled the calls from witnesses.

"I think if they'd responded they would have had time to save Alex's life," Lee Johnson told the Herald-Leader Tuesday.

Wohlander said the city has resisted his request under the state open-records law for 911 recordings and transcripts. He has appealed to Attorney General Jack Conway's office.

In the appeal, dated March 22, Wohlander said the 911 center either failed to dispatch officers to the area of the witness calls, or that the "desperate calls" were not considered important enough to dispatch officers.

Lexington police spokeswoman Sherelle Roberts declined to speak about pending cases, saying the "details of what happened on that day will be made public during the court proceedings."

A private investigator working for Johnson's parents, former state police officer Steve O'Daniel, said one witness said the 911 dispatcher who fielded her call said, "Are you kidding me?" almost as if the dispatcher thought the call was a prank.

Police did not interview either of the witnesses for about two weeks, Wohlander said. He declined to release the names of the witnesses to the Herald-Leader.

Wohlander is preparing a wrongful death lawsuit against the two men charged in Alex Johnson's murder.

Alex Johnson, 32, a chef at UK, disappeared Dec. 20. He was at his apartment on the phone with his girlfriend, Lisa Horobin, that evening when he answered a knock on the door. Horobin told police she heard a man she recognized as Robert Markham Taylor tell Johnson, "Come downstairs. I've got a surprise for you."

Johnson told Horobin "Mark is here," and that he would call her back later, according to a court document.

The missing-persons case of Johnson sparked national attention after a Facebook page, FindAlexJohnson, was started after his disappearance The page has over 14,500 likes.

Taylor, 28, is charged with murder, kidnapping and tampering with physical evidence in the beating death of Johnson.

Timothy Ballard is charged with kidnapping, tampering with evidence and being a persistent felon.

Taylor and Ballard, 42, have pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Ballard told officers that he helped Taylor kidnap Johnson by luring Johnson into their vehicle, then "attacking and restraining him once inside the car," according to court documents. Police have told the family that Taylor killed Johnson in Taylor's basement, Johnson's father said.

During an interview with Lexington police on Jan. 20, Ballard said he watched as "Taylor beat Mr. Johnson to death with a foreign object," according to a police report. Ballard said he disposed of the body "while Mr. Taylor cleaned the vehicle used in the crime." The car had been sold for scrap and crushed before police arrested Markham and Ballard, Wohlander said.

Police have not released a motive in the slaying.

Taylor was arrested Jan. 22 in Texas, a few miles from the Mexican border. He allegedly had several pounds of marijuana with him. Search crews found Johnson's body in the Kentucky River on Jan. 24.

Taylor's attorney, Paul K. Croley, said Taylor has maintained his innocence.

A woman who had been to visit a friend was standing on North Hanover that evening when she heard someone screaming from inside a car parked on the street, according to a statement she gave O'Daniel.

Johnson's parents hired Wohlander and O'Daniel because they did not think police were aggressively pursuing Johnson's disappearance.

O'Daniel said he located the witness, a woman, after she posted on the FindAlexJohnson Facebook page, saying she thought she had witnessed Johnson's abduction. The woman said the car moved toward her and she saw a man in the front seat being beaten by a man in the back seat, O'Daniel said.

The man in the front was trying to get out, but the attacker was restraining him and hitting him, the woman said.

The man being beaten was screaming so loudly that the witness thought the 911 dispatcher could probably hear him; she could hear the screams even after the car moved out of sight, she told O'Daniel.

A second witness told O'Daniel he had just left a meeting at a nearby church and was riding his bicycle when he saw the attack and then called 911. The witness told O'Daniel he followed the car. He saw it go up National Avenue, but the driver turned around and tried to hit him.

Wohlander and O'Daniel acknowledged there were some discrepancies in the witnesses accounts, in part, because it was dark.

Still, O'Daniel said police should have sent an officer to talk with the people who called 911 that evening, or at least called them.

If there were mistakes in how authorities responded to calls the night their son disappeared, Lee and Judy Johnson said, they want to see them corrected.

"If we can save somebody else's life down the road ... it'll be worth it," Lee Johnson said.

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

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