UK chef was savagely beaten to death over marijuana, prosecutor says

Judy Johnson, mother of Alex Johnson, testified during the trial of Robert Markham Taylor, 31, who is charged with murder, kidnapping and tampering with evidence in the death of Alex Johnson.
Judy Johnson, mother of Alex Johnson, testified during the trial of Robert Markham Taylor, 31, who is charged with murder, kidnapping and tampering with evidence in the death of Alex Johnson.

To his mother, Alex Johnson was a successful chef working for the University of Kentucky. But to his alleged killer, Robert Markham “Mark” Taylor, Johnson was a supplier of large quantities of marijuana.

Opening statements and testimony began Monday in the trial of Taylor, who is accused of kidnapping and killing Johnson. 

Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Andrea Williams told jurors that Taylor, who bought marijuana from Johnson, savagely choked and beat the 32-year-old chef. Johnson’s body was found in a blue barrel in the Kentucky River in January 2014, several weeks after he was reported missing in December 2013.

Williams said the evidence will show that as Taylor, 31, repeatedly punched and beat Johnson in the back seat of a Mercedes Benz, Taylor said, “I’ve got to kill him! I’ve got to kill him! He’s got weed!”

Taylor’s defense attorney blamed another man for the slaying.

The state medical examiner found 25 “distinct and different” injuries to Johnson’s head, including “four holes punched into his skull,” Williams said. Pieces of his skull were found in his brain.

The last person to speak with Alex Johnson was his girlfriend, Lisa Horobin. Williams said Horobin will testify that Alex ended a telephone call Dec. 20, 2013, after he heard a knock at the door of his North Hanover Avenue apartment in Lexington. 

Horobin recognized the voice of the man at the door, who told Alex, “Come downstairs. I have a surprise for you,” Williams said.

Williams said Alex Johnson and Taylor “bought and sold large quantities of marijuana.” In addition, Taylor would buy marijuana from Johnson and then resell it at a profit, Williams said.

Taylor was arrested in Pharr, Texas, less than 2 miles from the Mexican border. Police there found marijuana and $10,000 cash in Taylor’s car, Williams said.

In her opening statement to jurors, public defender Sandra Downs said Timothy “Tiny” Ballard is an alternative suspect.

Ballard, 44, pleaded guilty in April to kidnapping and tampering with evidence. He must testify for the prosecution as part of his plea deal.

The prosecution and defense both say that Johnson planned to get out of the drug business. But Downs said Johnson had planned to turn over his business to Taylor, the accused killer.

Downs argued that it doesn’t make sense that Taylor would kill Johnson to “get a business six months early.”

“Is it a tragedy? Yes,” Downs told jurors. “Was it brutal? Yes. Did Mark make mistakes? Yes, but that does not make him a murderer. There was one other person in that car, and it was ‘Tiny’ Ballard.”

The prosecution identified Ballard as the person who rolled the barrel into the Kentucky River near Riptide, a bar where Ballard had been a bouncer and Taylor had been a bartender.

The first witness to testify Monday was Judy Johnson, Alex Johnson’s mother.

She said her son had worked at Dudley’s restaurant and Buddy’s before being hired at the Hilary J. Boone Center on the UK campus.

Judy Johnson and her husband, Lee, had expected their son to come to their Bowling Green home on Dec. 23, 2013. Instead, they learned he was missing.

During cross-examination, Judy Johnson said she and her husband hired a private detective because they felt Lexington authorities “were just too slow” in their attempts to find Alex. Johnson’s missing-persons case garnered national attention as a Facebook page was created and billboards were put up seeking information about his disappearance.

“Did you know he was a drug dealer?” Downs asked Judy Johnson.

“I did not,” she said. “I didn’t know at any time that he was.”

Lee and Judy Johnson filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against several Lexington officials, alleging that police and call-takers mishandled the case after Johnson was reported missing.

That civil case has been delayed until the criminal trial against Taylor ends.

For the criminal trial, a Fayette Circuit Court jury of nine women and six men was seated Monday afternoon. Once testimony has been completed, three jurors will be excused and the remaining 12 will determine whether Taylor is guilty or innocent.

Fayette Circuit Judge Thomas Clark is presiding over the trial, which is expected to last two weeks. However, no testimony will be heard Friday. Testimony is scheduled to resume at 8:45 a.m. Tuesday.

Greg Kocher: 859-231-3305, @HLpublicsafety

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader