Friends, relatives struggle to come to grips with the death of Alex Johnson

Alex Johnson with Angela Baldridge in Mexico. Baldridge said the photo was taken in December 2003 or January 2004.
Alex Johnson with Angela Baldridge in Mexico. Baldridge said the photo was taken in December 2003 or January 2004.

As she sat in her office Wednesday afternoon, Angela Baldridge struggled not to cry when asked what she'll remember most about Alex Johnson.

Baldridge, a close friend of Johnson's, is still in disbelief after Tuesday's news that Lexington police turned a missing-persons case into a homicide investigation.

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. Johnson's disappearance became a missing-persons case after relatives became concerned when Johnson didn't return calls or follow through with plans he had made with friends that night. He also didn't attend a meeting at work the next day.

"It's hard to imagine somebody would want to hurt him," said Baldridge, who has known Johnson for 13 years. "I can't imagine anyone having any ill will towards him."

As of Wednesday, police had not arrested anyone in Johnson's death.

On Tuesday, police spokeswoman Sherelle Roberts confirmed police obtained an arrest warrant for someone, but said identifying that person would be harmful to the case. On Wednesday, Roberts said police still were not ready to release the identity. Several news outlets have identified the suspect as Robert Markham Taylor, 28, of Lexington, who also is known as Mark Taylor. And Steven O'Daniel, a spokesman for Johnson's family, has said police are looking for a man named Mark Taylor.

Roberts would not say Wednesday whether a body had been found. Fayette County coroner's office officials said they did not find a body. Roberts also would not say whether police have launched a multi-state search. She previously said that the murder suspect and Johnson knew each other.

Police have charged Timothy Ballard, 42, with complicity to kidnapping and tampering with evidence. Court documents say Ballard assisted in the unlawful restraint and transport of Johnson and disposed of evidence.

Aside from those details, police have said very little about the homicide investigation.

"We are working hard on the case, and we want to solve it, obviously, without harming the investigation more than it may already have been at this juncture. We are just kind of following up," Roberts said Wednesday.

On Monday, police searched a garage that Taylor had rented on the 100 block of Jefferson Street, said Andy Hicks, the owner of the garage. He said Taylor has rented the garage since Aug. 1 and worked on vehicles and metal. Hicks said he didn't know Taylor, but that he was a good tenant. Taylor last paid rent on the garage Dec. 30 through an electronic system, Hicks said.

Johnson's disappearance has created a stir in the community. Friends and family have united for fundraisers and gatherings. Last week, they met at Blue Stallion Brewing Company to celebrate what would have been Johnson's 33rd birthday.

Earlier this month, Johnson's friends and family gathered at Mellow Mushroom pizza restaurant near the heart of UK's campus. A wave of emotions filled the room. Some people were eating and drinking and then crying.

"This is a parent's worst nightmare," Johnson's father, Lee Johnson, said during the event. "I can't imagine life without children."

Alex Johnson's green Ford Ranger pickup truck remains outside his residence, and the only things missing were his keys, cellphone and wallet, Lee Johnson said.

"I don't know what happened to my friend," said Darren Pirozzi, who attended the gathering at Mellow Mushroom. "I wish I could do more."

Pirozzi said the last time he saw Johnson was Dec. 18 after he dropped him off at work. They had spent the night at Pirozzi's house cooking, which was a regular occasion.

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

Gerald Marvel, general manager of the Boone Center, said Johnson had worked there since 2011 and was "very dependable, well-liked and had a kind soul."

Since Johnson's disappearance, his friends and family have tried to keep the case in the news. Billboards have gone up, seeking information.

Johnson's girlfriend set up a Facebook page that has garnered more than 14,000 likes. For the past two days, that page has been filled with condolences and calls for "swift justice."

Messages were left by friends, and strangers.

On Tuesday, Cherlyn Stallings Benningfield left a message saying, "This is so heartbreaking. I didn't know Alex or his family personally, but I have been following his search since Christmas and forwarding all the updates on here in hopes of finding him safe. Our thoughts are with his loved ones during this tragic time."

Baldridge, a freelance photographer for the Herald-Leader, said Johnson, a former boyfriend, loved to cook and made the best cabbage. She said he would play around with it, but it had bacon and onions in it.

"He had my mother's green thumb," Johnson's mother, Judy, said earlier this month. "He had a garden. He would grow herbs, beans and things."

An extrovert, Johnson traveled to Spain for school and visited Mexico yearly, at times with Baldridge.

Johnson's father said he rode his bike everywhere. Baldridge said Johnson had participated in two 100-mile bike races. Johnson also enjoyed hiking and camping at the Red River Gorge.

"He was just an awesome guy," Baldridge said. "It's kind of hard to talk about him in the past."

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