Crime

Witnesses saw victim being beaten, heard screams night slain UK chef disappeared

Robert Markham Taylor, left, is scheduled to stand trial Monday in the death of Alex Johnson, right.
Robert Markham Taylor, left, is scheduled to stand trial Monday in the death of Alex Johnson, right.

A witness who apparently saw Alex Johnson being assaulted in a car testified Tuesday that she couldn’t hear any words coming from inside the vehicle.

“It was just screaming,” registered nurse Sara Connor said. “I don’t know how to describe it. It was just blood-curdling screaming.”

Connor’s testimony came on the second day of Mark Taylor’s trial in Fayette Circuit Court. Taylor, 31, is charged with kidnapping, murder and tampering with evidence in the 2013 death of Johnson, 32, a University of Kentucky chef. Johnson’s body was found in a blue 55-gallon barrel in the Kentucky River in January 2014, about a month after he was reported missing in December 2013.

Connor said she was outside getting something from a car on the night of Dec. 20, 2013, when she heard screaming and looked up to see a scuffle inside another car near the corner of Hanover and Cramer avenues, east of downtown Lexington.

“It looked like one person was trying to get away and one person was trying to restrain them,” Connor said.

The jury heard the recorded 911 call Connor made, in which she told the call-taker, “Somebody is beating the ---- out of somebody.”

Connor said another witness, a man on a bike whom police later identified as James Gayheart, witnessed the same struggle in the champagne-colored sedan.

Jurors heard Gayheart’s call to 911, in which he reported “somebody’s beating somebody to death.”

Lexington police officers went to the Hanover Avenue area, but did not interview Connor or Gayheart until some days later, according to Tuesday’s testimony.

The jury watched videos recorded by surveillance cameras at the salvage yard at National and Richmond avenues where police say Johnson was beaten; the garage rented by Taylor on Quin-Shearer Court off Jefferson Street, where police say Johnson’s body was put into the barrel; and Trust Lounge on Main Street, where Taylor and another man, Timothy Ballard, are seen entering after Johnson’s body was dumped in the river.

Tuesday’s testimony started with Lisa Horobin, Alex Johnson’s girlfriend.

Horobin said she knew that Johnson sold marijuana and that he would sell to Taylor. Johnson kept the marijuana in a large lockbox inside a garage near his apartment on Hanover Avenue.

Horobin said Johnson kept his cash in the apartment, and that at one time, he had close to $100,000 in cash.

Johnson had accumulated that amount over an unspecified period. “It wasn’t like he made hundreds of thousands of dollars every day,” Horobin said.

Horobin testified that she was speaking to Johnson on the telephone on Dec. 20, 2013, when the conversation was interrupted by a knock on his apartment door. Horobin said she recognized Taylor’s voice over the phone saying to Johnson, “Hey, buddy. Come downstairs. I’ve got a surprise for you.”

That was the last contact she had with Johnson.

Cayce Johnson of Bowling Green, Alex Johnson’s younger sister, testified she “went into a panic” when she couldn’t reach her brother in the days after Dec. 20, 2013. The two had planned to go Christmas shopping, but he never arrived in Bowling Green.

Cayce Johnson initially didn’t tell her parents, Judy and Lee Johnson, that Alex was missing because “I was hoping it was a big misunderstanding. I didn’t want to scare them ... if I didn’t have to.”

At her brother’s apartment, she found all the lights on, which was unusual for Alex if he was out.

There was no evidence of a struggle in the apartment. His three bicycles were inside, his laptop computer was on the couch, and his iPod was on a table. However, she couldn’t find his keys, wallet or cellphone.

“It just looked like he had left on foot,” Cayce Johnson testified.

Cayce Johnson said she reported her brother as missing to Lexington police. During cross-examination, Cayce Johnson said she did not tell police about her brother’s involvement with drugs.

“I didn’t think it was relevant, so no,” she said.

Detective Rob Wilson told jurors he began investigating Alex Johnson’s disappearance on Dec. 25. At that time, Wilson said he didn’t know that the 911 calls reported five days earlier from the Hanover Avenue area were related to Johnson’s disappearance.

The investigation eventually led police to Ballard, who told police that Johnson’s body was put into a barrel and was dumped in the river. Ballard will testify later this week for the prosecution. The defense says Ballard is an alternative suspect in Johnson’s death. Ballard, 44, pleaded guilty in April to kidnapping and tampering with evidence.

Tom Coon, a former technician for the Lexington police department’s forsenic services unit, said traces of blood were found on the door handle inside the garage rented by Taylor on Quin-Shearer Court. The traces were detected by a chemical agent called Bluestar, which reacts to the presence of blood stains.

During cross-examination, defense attorney Sandra Downs asked Koon: “You don’t know when that blood was deposited?”

“No, ma’am,” Koon said.

The trial will resume at 8:45 a.m. Wednesday.

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