Crime

Slain UK chef had neck, skull fractures, medical examiner testifies

Robert Markham Taylor, 31, who is charged with murder, kidnapping and tampering with evidence in the death of Alex Johnson, sat at the defendant’s table June 6 during opening statements in his trial at Fayette Circuit Court in Lexington.
Robert Markham Taylor, 31, who is charged with murder, kidnapping and tampering with evidence in the death of Alex Johnson, sat at the defendant’s table June 6 during opening statements in his trial at Fayette Circuit Court in Lexington. palcala@herald-leader.com

University of Kentucky chef Alex Johnson suffered neck and skull fractures before he died, a medical examiner testified Monday in the trial of the accused killer.

Meredith Frame, a state medical examiner in Frankfort, gave jurors a detailed account of what she found during an autopsy on Johnson. She was the last witness called by prosecutors in the fifth day of the trial of Mark Taylor, who is charged with kidnapping and murder in Johnson’s 2013 death.

Before Frame’s testimony, Judge Thomas Clark told people watching the trial in the courtroom that they should step out if they couldn’t handle graphic descriptions and images.

Before projecting images of Johnson’s injuries and torn clothing on a large screen, prosecutors brought out Johnson’s mud-coated left shoe and the blue barrel in which his body was found in the Kentucky River.

Frame told the jury that Johnson had 26 cuts to his head and bruises on his chest, left hand and right leg. He also had a neck fracture and a “depressed skull fracture,” meaning bone was pushed into his brain, Frame said. The injuries were fatal, she said.

The resulting brain trauma would lead to swelling that also would have eventually caused the victim to stop breathing, Frame said.

Taylor, who also is charged with tampering with evidence, beat Johnson to death on Dec. 20, according to Timothy Ballard, who testified Thursday for the prosecution. He said the Taylor and Johnson were best friends and business partners in the sale of large amounts of marijuana.

After Johnson died, the pair put Johnson’s body in the barrel, Ballard said. Ballard took the barrel to the river in a borrowed pickup truck and rolled the barrel in the water.

Ballard, 44, pleaded guilty in April to kidnapping and tampering with evidence in Johnson’s death. Ballard’s agreement required that he testify against Taylor. Ballard will be sentenced after Taylor’s trial.

Taylor’s defense attorneys argue that Ballard, who has a bulky build, is the killer. Ballard acknowledged on the stand last week that he was present at Johnson’s abduction and death.

The object that inflicted the skull fracture would have to have had a surface area with a small diameter, Frame said Monday. A wide or long object would not have the concentrated force to push the small portion of bone into the brain.

During his testimony last week, Ballard described the object Taylor used to hit Johnson as a fishing lure that looked like an ice pick. Ballard admitted at one point he hit Johnson with a broken nightstick.

Ryan Benge, a former co-owner of Riptide, testified Monday and described the nightstick Ballard used to hit Johnson as having a small, rounded tip.

Riptide is the bar on the Kentucky River where Ballard and Taylor met. Ballard worked security and Taylor was a bartender.

All of Johnson’s injuries could be inflicted by an adult man or woman, Frame said. When defense attorney Sandra Downs asked whether it would take “quite a large person” to break someone’s neck, Frame said it depended on the angle and the object used.

The first witness called by Taylor’s defense team Monday was inmate Frederick Miller. Miller spent time in the Fayette County jail with Ballard.

Miller said Ballard told him he “beat a guy’s face off with a slapstick.”

A second inmate, Brian Kirk, also described a conversation he had with Ballard while incarcerated at the Fayette County jail.

Kirk said the two were giving each other a hard time one day when he told Ballard, “you’re not a killer, you just hide bodies.”

Kirk told jurors Ballard replied, “I’m a killer for real. Don’t get it twisted.”

Prosecutors asked Kirk if inmates sometimes lie or exaggerate in jail to make themselves seem “bigger.”

“He’s 6’7, 300 pounds,” Kirk said. “I don’t think he needs to make himself bigger.”

More coverage: Key witness describes beating UK chef endured at hands of ‘best friend’

Man says he cleaned garage for suspect in UK chef’s killing

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

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

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