Jury finds marijuana partner guilty in UK chef’s death, recommends 49-year sentence

Robert Markham “Mark” Taylor, left, was convicted in the murder of Alex Johnson, right.
Robert Markham “Mark” Taylor, left, was convicted in the murder of Alex Johnson, right. Lexington

After less than four hours of deliberation, a Fayette Circuit Court jury on Wednesday found Robert Markham “Mark” Taylor guilty of murder, kidnapping and tampering with evidence in the December 2013 death of University of Kentucky chef Alex Johnson.

The jury recommended that Taylor serve 49 years: 22 years on the murder charge, 22 years on the kidnapping charge, and five years on the tampering charge. Formal sentencing before Judge Thomas L. Clark is scheduled for July 22.

Johnson, who made money supplying marijuana, was savagely beaten to death, stuffed in a barrel and dropped in the Kentucky River, where his body was found in January 2014. Johnson was 32.

The jury rejected Taylor’s testimony that his driver, Timothy Ballard, killed Johnson by repeatedly hitting him because of a comment Johnson made. Taylor also told jurors Tuesday he fought Ballard to get him off Johnson and tried to revive the chef with CPR.

In its closing argument, the prosecution emphasized Ballard’s testimony that Taylor, 31, had planned how he was going to kill Johnson and dispose of his body. Taylor had arranged to get the blue barrel used to dump Johnson’s body, Ballard testified.

Ballard, 44, told jurors he hit Johnson twice on the night of Dec. 20, 2013, but that it was Taylor who beat Johnson to death inside Taylor’s Mercedes-Benz, which was sold and scrapped within days of the killing.

The closing arguments made by prosecutor Lou Anna Red Corn in the murder and kidnapping trial of Robert Markham “Mark” Taylor in the death of Alex Johnson in December 2013.

Defense attorney Sandra Downs said that other than Ballard’s testimony, there was no evidence that Taylor was the one who killed Johnson. She pointed out that Ballard told police several different versions of his involvement in Johnson’s death.

“If you don’t believe Timothy Ballard, you have to find Mr. Taylor not guilty,” Downs said.

Johnson had said he was thinking about getting out of the marijuana business, both Taylor and Ballard testified. He worked as a chef in the Hilary J. Boone Center on the University of Kentucky’s campus. His mother said in court Wednesday that he was thinking about taking a different path.

After Johnson died Dec. 20, Taylor went to Johnson’s apartment, took about $40,000 in cash, went to a nearby location where Johnson kept his marijuana and removed two black garbage bags filled with about 26 pounds of marijuana, Ballard testified.

Prosecutor Lou Anna Red Corn projected a picture of Johnson and his family on a big screen as she gave her closing arguments.

“He was folded up and pushed into that barrel,” she said, pointing at the blue barrel.

Red Corn then played video of Taylor dancing in Trust Lounge in the hours after Johnson’s death.

Taylor admits to texting Johnson several times after he knew he was dead. While Ballard was dumping the barrel in the river, Taylor texted Johnson’s phone and asked if he needed a ride to a bar, Red Corn said.

She said the texts were an effort by Taylor to divert suspicion.

Ballard has already pleaded guilty to kidnapping and tampering with evidence in the case. His plea deal was dependent on his testimony at Taylor’s trial. He will be sentenced later. Ballard admitted he drove a borrowed pickup truck with the barrel to the Kentucky River, where he rolled the barrel into the water.

The closing arguments made by defense attorney Sandra Downs for Robert Markham “Mark” Taylor in his trial on murder and kidnapping charges in Alex Johnson's December 2013 death.

Johnson’s mother, Judy, said she had to go on antidepressants after her son’s death to the point that even when she’s sad she can no longer cry. “The tears won’t come.”

Johnson’s mother said her husband couldn’t eat after their son disappeared. He lost 45 pounds.

“I thought I was going to lose him too,” she said.