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Sarah Marie JOHNSON





Classification: Homicide
Characteristics: Juvenile (16) - Her apparent motive was her parents' prohibiting her from dating a 19-year-old
Number of victims: 2
Date of murder: September 2, 2003
Date of arrest: October 29, 2003
Date of birth: 1987
Victim profile: Her parents, Diane and Alan Scott Johnson
Method of murder: Shooting (.264 Winchester Magnum rifle)
Location: Bellevue, Idaho, Blaine County, USA
Status: Sentenced to two concurrent life prison sentences without the possibility of parole on June 30, 2005
photo gallery 1 photo gallery 2 photo gallery 3

The Supreme Court of the State of Idaho

State of Idaho v. Sarah Marie Johnson

The murder of Diane and Alan Scott Johnson occurred on September 2, 2003. They were shot to death in their Bellevue, Idaho home by their daughter Sarah Marie Johnson.


On September 2, 2003, Alan Scott Johnson and Diane Johnson were shot to death in their Bellevue, Idaho home. Their daughter, Sarah Johnson, was found guilty of their murder. Sarah was 16 years old at the time. Her apparent motive was her parents' prohibiting her from dating a 19-year-old.

At approximately 6:20 am on September 2, 2003, Johnson took the murder weapon, a Winchester rifle from the guest house, walked into her parents' bedroom and then shot her sleeping mother in the head. She then walked into the bathroom, where her father was taking a shower, and shot him in the chest, right above the heart.

DNA evidence was presented at trial from a discarded bathrobe and a latex glove that police found in the garbage can in front of the house. It contained the DNA of both victims and Sarah. Along with the robe and latex glove was a leather glove that had gunshot residue on it. In Johnson's bedroom investigators located the other leather glove that belonged to the pair.

Johnson was found guilty of the murders of her parents by an Ada County, Idaho jury on March 16, 2005. She was sentenced to two concurrent life terms plus fifteen years for a firearm enhancement. The Idaho Supreme Court upheld her conviction.


The case has been featured on Discovery ID's Solved series and Deadly Women series, the Suburban Secrets documentary show, the Spike TV reality show Murder, Snapped on the Oxygen Network and ABC's Primetime: Crime.

This case also appeared on an episode of Forensic Files on TruTV and on E!'s Too Young to Kill: 15 Shocking Crimes at #9.


Teen Charged With Parents' Gruesome Murder

By Elizabeth R. Grodd and Jeffrey L. Diamond -

August 13, 2008

Sarah Johnson has one last chance. One last try to convince a judge that she did not shoot her parents to death because they tried to prevent her from seeing an older man.

In late June, judges in the Idaho Supreme Court upheld a jury verdict that Sarah had brutally murdered her parents in 2003, a case solved by DNA and the then-16-year-old's suspicious behavior shortly after the bodies were found.

It was a case that made headlines and tore apart the Johnsons' family. Now Sarah Johnson's last chance hinges on convincing a trial judge in Hailey, Idaho that her attorney didn't provide her with proper representation.

Five years ago, Alan and Diane Johnson seemed to have a picture-perfect life. The longtime sweethearts, who had been together for 20 years, lived in a beautiful home on the outskirts of Sun Valley, Idaho. Alan was part owner of a landscaping company and Diane worked at a medical clinic. They treasured their family, which included two children, 22-year-old Matt and 16-year-old Sarah.

But just after Labor Day weekend in 2003, that happy family life abruptly came to an end -- Alan and Diane were brutally executed in the bedroom of their home.

For investigators, the first clues in the shocking case came when they discovered that Sarah had fallen in love with an Mexican man, who was in the country illegally. Alan and Diane did not approve of their daughter's relationship with Bruno Santos, a 19-year-old high school dropout from a poor home across town.

'She Could Do a Lot Better'

Santos became the source of heated family arguments and relatives and friends feared that the relationship was tearing the once close-knit family apart. Syringa Stark, one of Sarah's friends, said, "I felt she could do a lot better. He was a high school dropout and was selling drugs and she was from a nice family. It just didn't seem like it was right."

Tensions mounted the Saturday of that Labor Day weekend, when Diane and Alan discovered that Sarah was sleeping over at Santos' apartment. When Alan picked up Sarah, he told Santos that he was to stay away from his daughter. He even threatened to report him to the police for having sex with an underage girl.

But Alan never went to the police. The next Tuesday morning, he and his wife were dead. Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling said it was the most disturbing crime scene he had ever seen.

"There was blood and hair on the carpet," he said. "It was on the ceiling. It was on all the walls. There was part of a skull cap in the hallway."

Femling immediately closed down the street and in doing so stopped a garbage truck that had just made its rounds. The garbage truck turned out to contain the key evidence in the case: a bloody bathrobe, a left-handed leather glove and a right-handed latex glove; all containing someone's DNA.

As family and friends began arriving at the house, everyone began to worry about Sarah and talk about Santos. Investigators fully expected Santos' DNA to tie him to the evidence they'd found in the garbage. But while they were focusing on Santos, devastated family and friends noticed something troubling about Sarah.

Sarah's Suspicious Behavior

As investigators removed Alan and Diane's bodies from the house, they too noticed a coldness and distance from Sarah, something Femling remembers asking his team to take note of.

"I said, 'There is something going on here.' I mean, most 16-year-olds would be hiding," he said. "They would not want to sit there on a fence and watch their parents come out in body bags. No way!"

Sarah's friends were also becoming suspicious. Her grief, they decided, didn't appear genuine, and she was oddly preoccupied with hair and nail appointments. Hardly the expected behavior of a girl who'd just lost her parents. Sarah's friend Chante Caudle remembered a chilling moment during volleyball practice.

"She came up to my side, and she said, 'Chante, find Bruno and tell him that I love him no matter what happens,'" she said. "And when she said that, it was just this awful feeling and my heart just sunk, and was just like, 'She did it!'"

Police also wondered if Sarah had some part in the killing of her parents, and after hearing about the heated arguments she had with her parents, investigators took her fingerprints and DNA samples and questioned her.

Though there was no evidence of a break-in, Sarah stuck to her story about an intruder who'd committed the murders. By now, her mom's sister, Linda Vavold, didn't believe her niece.

"Every time she went in to be interrogated by the police, her story kept changing," Vavold said.

The forensic evidence that came back from the lab showed that there was no match to Santos. Sarah's grandfather Dean Dishman remembers talking to Femling about the case.

"I finally just asked him. I said, 'Walt, who pulled the trigger? Was it Bruno?", Dishman said.'" He said, 'No.' I said, 'Then who?' And he said, 'Sarah.'"

'We Got Her'

By mid-October, six weeks since the brutal murders of Alan and Diane Johnson, the wait was finally over.

"When the state lab came back, and they said we have Sarah's DNA inside the glove," Femling said. "We said, 'There it is! We got her!'"

Convinced they had the final piece of forensic evidence in place, investigators questioned Sarah one last time, hoping for a confession. She wouldn't budge. After 45 minutes, Femling made the move he had dreaded: he arrested the high school junior on two counts of first-degree murder.

Sarah's arrest made headlines everywhere -- a rare case of a 16-year-old girl charged with the murder of her parents. It's called parricide and typically involves boys. One recent study shows that only four girls have been convicted of such a horrific crime here in the United States over a period of 24 years.

As the trial began in February 2005, lead prosecutor Jim Thomas believed his team had the forensic evidence to convict Sarah but worried whether they could prove that a bright, athletic high school girl suddenly became a killer.

Defense attorney Robert Pangburn still thought Santos was involved in the crime, "Bruno very easily could have recruited cohorts of his." However, Pangburn decided not to question Santos.

The trial took a toll on family and friends as many were called to testify against Sarah. Her brother Matt spoke in court of the open warfare between Sarah and their mother.

"Her and my Mom didn't get along," Matt testified. "It was fairly rocky. Constant fighting, bickering back and forth!"

'No Blood, No Guilt'?

Sarah's lawyer, Robert Pangburn, built his entire defense on a "no blood, no guilt" strategy. He thought the fact that Sarah had no blood on herself proved that she could not have possibly pulled the trigger.

"Her mother's head literally exploded in a spherical fashion," Pangburn said. "The gun itself had blood on it. Yet there was none on her. Absolutely none."

After a five-week trial, Sarah's fate was in the hands of an Idaho jury. Her family, nearly at the breaking point, was convinced of her guilt.

"It takes a lot of evidence to convince a grandma that her granddaughter killed her daughter," her grandmother Pat Dishman remembered. "I mean, it had to be overwhelming."

Then, the verdict: guilty on both counts of first-degree murder. Sarah was sentenced to two consecutive life terms, plus 10 years for murdering her parents with a gun. She has no chance for parole.

Time has done little to ease the devastation for Alan and Diane Johnson's family and friends who continue to grieve the loss of their loved ones. Diane's mother, Pat Dishman, struggles with the words to explain how she feels.

"It's indescribable, it really is, the heartache and the sorrow."

There has been no date set for Sarah's final appeal.


Johnson sentenced to two life terms

Judge addresses 18-year-old convicted murderer for an hour

By Greg Stahl -

July 1, 2005

Sarah Johnson's family members gave each other hugs and shed tears following the 18-year-old Bellevue resident's sentencing Thursday afternoon to two fixed life prison terms, plus 15 years, for shooting and killing her parents, Alan and Diane Johnson, on Sept. 2, 2003.

The sentence was handed down by 5th District Judge Barry Wood, who said he believes the young woman is a threat to society. He did not give Johnson the possibility for parole and also saddled her with $10,000 in fines, $5,000 of which is to be paid to her brother, Matt Johnson.

Wood talked for nearly an hour about the rationale behind his ruling. Most of the time, he addressed the shackled Johnson eye-to-eye.

"You had it all. You had a nice family, nice school, car, freedom. You had it all," Wood said. "In the final analysis, you had lots of options ... You had all kinds of ways to not go down this road, and, yet, you elected the worst possible courses of conduct. And it's the most devastating, harshest option.

"Are you a safety risk? There is a lot of evidence here to suggest you are a significant safety risk ... I have to come down on the side of protection of society in this risk analysis. The risk to society outweighs your individual needs and wants."

Wood handed down the sentence following a day and a half of testimony from Johnson's nuclear and extended family, her adoptive family and from law enforcement officers who worked on the lengthy investigation that led to her arrest. The sentencing caps 21 months that included investigations, court hearings and a seven-week trial.

The proceedings have cost Blaine County taxpayers close to $1 million, but that does not include the salaries of local police officers and Blaine County attorneys.

While Johnson's adoptive mother and sister said they would be there for Johnson if she were released from prison, her brother and extended family sought a permanent prison sentence.

Prosecutors, too, sought a life sentence.

"When I think about this case, I think the only word I think about is 'frustrating,'" said Blaine County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Justin Whatcott. "It's been frustrating for everyone involved.

"None of us chose to be here. We didn't choose to be involved in this case. She put us here. She's the reason we've had to go through this horrific case. For everyone who has had to deal with this case, the question is: Why? Why did you do this? That's all anyone wants to know. Why did this have to happen to two decent people."

Whatcott said that Johnson did not give her parents the chance to live out their lives the way they should have, and "there is no reason why she should be given the opportunity."

Defense attorney Bob Pangburn asked the court to impose a 15-year fixed prison term.

"If you give her fixed life, all of the opportunity to utilize the parole system and give her an opportunity to work toward parole, to have the hope, to be successful in the future, to return to the community as a productive personóif you give her fixed life, you take all that away."

Johnson was convicted by a jury of 12 Ada County residents on March 16 for using a high-powered hunting rifle to shoot her sleeping mother in the head and then shoot her father as he emerged from the shower. The shootings occurred at the family's Bellevue home.

"I recognize that what everyone here wants is something I can't deliver," Wood said. "I can not turn back the clock. I can not return the lives of your parents. I can only go forward."

As he explained the reasoning that went into the sentence, Wood made clear that he agreed without question with the jury's guilty verdict, and he stressed that he believes Johnson would pose a continued risk to society if she were released from prison.

"I have searched and searched, and I can find no rational basis as to why your parents were killed," he said. "Your family members have testified that they are fearful of retribution because they have given you a reason by testifying against you."

He pointed out that Johnson displays no history of significant mental illness, was raised in a good home and was not an abused child. To this day, she denies any involvement in the murders.

"No one saw this coming," Wood said. "All of those things, in my mind," contribute to "a significant risk of danger ... A lesser sentence would trivialize these two lives. Society can not tolerate, and will not tolerate, a child rebelling against their parents and killing them, the very people who were trying to protect you."

In determining a sentence, the court appointed a Twin Falls psychiatrist to evaluate Johnson. Dr. Richard Worst evaluated her for nine hours.

"I did not find anything in the data I collected that there would be anything indicating that she would be prone to violence," Worst said.

Worst pointed out that living in jail for the last two years has already affected the development of the still-growing young woman. But the crux of Worst's evaluation was that Johnson did not admit any involvement in her parents' deaths.

"I tried to discuss the killings with her," he said. "She said she did not commit the killings. She did not admit anything."

Until she admits to the crimes, there will not be a way to treat her, Worst said.

"Assuming she did do the crime, at some point she'll admit it, and there will be grist for the mill, so to speak," he said.

Wood attempted to re-create part of the scene that led to the Johnson killings.

"Are you the shooter? The jury found you were," Wood said. "When I make the comment that I think the evidence in this case is strong, it is. It is really strong. You had a chance to abandon, to step out of this senselessness. Presumably, you had a conversation with your father before you shot him. And you had to look him in the eye. You shot him in the lung.

"There's only one story to be told here, so to speak, and it's sad."

Wood said he is a big believer in rehabilitation.

"I'm a big believer in hope, but there's certain conduct that crosses the line. We're not talking, for instance, about a residue methamphetamine case. We're talking about one of the most severe crimes known to man.

"There is evidence that indicates she's not seeking rehabilitation, that she's just trying to get off. It's all about Sarah, and it's all about Sarah now."

And Wood, too, asked the central question of the two-day sentencing hearing.

"Why? It's the ring that can't be taken out of the bell. Everybody in this room is asking why, why, why? It defies explanation, except for the explanation of your selfish protection of your relationship with (your former boyfriend)".


Johnson guilty of killing parents

Sentencing scheduled for May 19 in Blaine County

By Greg Stahl -

March 18, 2005

"We lost another member of our family today."

That's how Alan Johnson's sister, Lynn Murrill, described the conviction Wednesday of Sarah M. Johnson on two counts of first degree murder for shooting and killing her parents Sept. 2, 2003, in Bellevue. Alan and Diane Johnson were found shot and killed at their home, and their daughter, Sarah, is the only person known to have been in the home at the time.

Sarah Johnson's hands and body trembled visibly as she waited for a verdict from 12 Ada County jurors, who deliberated for 11 hours, beginning Monday afternoon. As a bailiff handed the verdict to a clerk, the 18-year-old's hands were together and on her forehead, as if in prayer. She wept openly, and her entire body shook.

As the verdict was read, she buried her head in her hands.

"Is Sarah Marie Johnson not guilty or guilty of murder in the first degree of Diane Marie Johnson?" Clerk Cindy Eagle-Ervin read from the jury's verdict. "Guilty," she continued. "Is Sarah Marie Johnson not guilty or guilty of murder in the first degree of Alan Scott Johnson? Guilty."

Johnson's weeping deepened into sobs.

The jury also found the teen guilty on two counts of using a firearm in committing the crimes. She was handcuffed and led out of the courtroom, her face beet red against her signature pink sweater.

"There are no winners here," said Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling following the conviction.

Fifth District Judge Barry Wood scheduled a sentencing hearing for May 19 and 20 in 5th District Court in Hailey. Johnson could spend the rest of her life in prison for the crimes.

The 18-year-old faces up to two life terms, plus two 15-year terms for each firearm enhancement. At a bare minimum, Wood could impose two 10-year prison terms that run concurrently, for a total of 10 years.

But prosecutors indicated they would seek maximum sentences.

"I don't think Sarah needs to get out," Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Thomas said. "We're going to ask for a lot of time."

Thomas characterized the prosecution's victory as "bittersweet."

"It's a big emotional release for me," he said.

But the county's deputy prosecuting attorney, Justin Whatcott, qualified his colleague's response.

"This doesn't provide any closure to them," the family, he said. Justice was served today, but Diane and Alan Johnson are still gone and the family is faced with the killer being a member of their own family. I don't think this will make them happy or bring them any closure."

Prosecutors claimed that at the age of 16, Johnson shot her mother in the head with a .264-caliber rifle as she slept in the family's Bellevue home and then shot her father in the chest as he stepped out of the shower. They surmise that the teen shot her parents over a dispute about a 19-year-old man she dated for three months.

Johnson's defense attorney, Bob Pangburn, claimed someone else killed the couple. Before the verdict, Pangburn was optimistic. Afterward, he maintained his client's innocence.

"Sarah has not admitted to us she did anything, and I still believe she didn't," Pangburn said.

Pangburn said he would handle the girl's appeal.

Following the verdict, The Times News reported, a defense investigator gave a Times News corespondent a signed statement from Sarah Johnson: "I am grieving the loss of my parents. I have lost my family, my home, my friends and my community. I want to thank the people who believe in me and support me, especially my guardian and adoptive family."

Diane Johnson's parents, Pat and Dean Dishman, said the trial was difficult on everybody.

"When they showed the pictures and things, I left the room. I prayed a lot," said Pat Dishman, who qualified that the family still loves Sarah Johnson. "We prayed for justice."

But justice was difficult to swallow, said Murrill.

"We still don't understand it, and I don't know if we ever will," she said. She described her brother and sister-in-law as "very good people, somebody who just can't be replaced."

She continued.

"He was just an awesome brother. He and Diane were just such awesome people We still don't understand it, and I don't know if we ever will."

She characterized Sarah Johnson's conviction as "something that had to be done."

When Johnson's verdict was read, Alan Johnson's brother, Brian Higgason, and Sarah Johnson's brother, Matt Johnson, openly wept and released pent-up emotions from six weeks of a trying family ordeal.

A "bittersweet victory" indeed.

Despite Sarah Johnson's conviction, there are questions about the Sept. 2, 2003, murders of Alan and Diane Johnson that may never be answered. Idaho Attorney General Investigator Scott Birch, who assisted prosecutors, called the case "one of the more complex" ones he has seen.

How did Sarah Johnson get in her parents' room? Did she enter through the sliding glass door from the outside or from the home's hallway? What were the mechanics of the crime?

"I don't know that it's the verdict we expected, but it's the verdict we hoped for," Birch said.

Following the verdict, members of the jury were reported to have met with Judge Wood and were also reported to be in a state of emotional distress. They declined to meet with reporters.

Johnson was arrested Oct. 30, 2003, nearly two months after her parents were killed. She will be jailed in Blaine County until her May sentencing hearing. Femling said she could have been transported back to Blaine County as early as Wednesday afternoon.


Teen accused of slaying her parents chooses not to testify

Emanuella Grinberg - Court TV

March 9, 2005

BOISE, Idaho (Court TV) -- With her family sitting behind her, an Idaho teen facing life in prison for murdering her parents tearfully declined to testify in her defense Tuesday.

Sarah Johnson's brother and relatives shook their heads as the 18-year-old defendant squeaked, "No, I do not," when Judge Barry Wood asked whether she wished to take the stand on charges she killed her parents, Alan and Diane Johnson.

With that, the defense said it would rest its case Wednesday by showing a police video from the morning of September 2, 2003, when Alan and Diane Johnson were shot dead in their bedroom in Bellevue, Idaho.

Prosecutors contend Sarah Johnson shot her parents when she was 16 because they disapproved of her 19-year-old boyfriend, an undocumented Mexican immigrant.

Defense lawyers for Sarah Johnson, now 18, maintain she could not have pulled the trigger because an investigation failed to produce DNA evidence linking her to the gruesome crime scene.

On Tuesday, the defense called the only two witnesses in the trial who have characterized the defendant as a "caring" and "loving" person.

Sarah Johnson's legal guardian, Patricia Alder, blew a kiss to the defendant as she identified her for the record, just as she did when she testified for the state.

"I'm here because I believe Sarah is innocent of what she's been charged with," Alder told the jury, fixing her gaze on them. "I love her."

"You're not even trying to hide your bias?" Blaine County prosecutor Justin Whatcott asked on cross-examination.

The witness did not respond.

Alder gained custody of Sarah Johnson in July 2004 while she was in prison awaiting trial, after petitioning to have her removed from the care of the defendant's aunt, Linda Vavold.

In her petition, Alder said Vavold was unfit to care for the defendant, and implied she felt Vavold was partly responsible for her incarceration and charges.

The defense has made similar claims in response to testimony from the defendant's family that her allegedly callous behavior after the murders signaled her guilt.

Alder denied that Sarah did not grieve for her parents.

"We had to go through Diane's birthday, then Thanksgiving, and then Christmas," she said. "Going through each holiday and birthday was very hard and very difficult. There were a lot of phone calls, a lot of visiting."

"Was she upset because of the loss of her parents?" attorney Bob Pangburn asked.

"Yes, very much so," Alder said.

Alder, who met Sarah Johnson when she attended the child daycare she ran, testified that the "up and down" relationship she observed between Sarah and her parents seemed nothing beyond what she'd expect from a normal teen's relationship with her parents.

"She had a great relationship with her father, probably better than with her mother, which is how it was in my house," Alder said. "She loved her parents."

Family friend Margo Ros said she entrusted the care of her three boys to Sarah Johnson and considered the Johnson family "dear to her heart."

She also said she observed a normal relationship between Sarah Johnson and her parents, but conceded that she only observed the Johnsons in social settings and rarely in their own home.

Blood spatter

The defense also called retired Oregon State crime scene technician Rocky Mink to bolster their "no blood, no guilt" argument.

Experts for both sides have sparred over the blood-spatter pattern produced when Diane Johnson was shot in the head with a .264 Winchester Magnum rifle.

Mink testified that based on the spatter patterns he observed in the state's crime scene photos, he would expect the shooter was covered in blood.

"I concluded that the shooter was in such proximity to the explosive environment that produced misted blood that he would have either had blood spatter on their person or on his items of clothing," Mink said.

Previous witnesses have testified they did not find any blood or DNA samples on the defendant belonging to her parents.

Other witnesses, however, have implied that Sarah Johnson may have cleaned up after shooting her parents and before running across the street to her neighbor's house.

One police witness who examined Sarah Johnson for the presence of biological fluids after the murders testified her hair was perfectly coiffed in a slick ponytail.

To rebut that implication, hairstylist Shirley Hurley from Boise testified that many women sleep with their hair pulled back.

"Putting it in a ponytail keeps it nicer," she said. "If you pull it back, it doesn't get tangled when you sleep."

Hurley said an examination of the defendant's hair on Feb. 21, 2005, led her to believe she was the perfect candidate for a ponytail.

"If you have nice, thick hair, it's easier to wake up in the morning and look the same than someone with fine hair," she said.


Cell mate: Teen admitted killing parents

Emanuella Grinberg - Court TV

February 24, 2005

BOISE, Idaho (Court TV) -- With the slip of a tongue, a teenage girl admitted to brutally gunning down her parents in their bedroom, according to an inmate who shared a jail cell with her.

Convicted felon Malinda Gonzales told jurors Wednesday that Sarah Johnson talked freely while she awaited trial on charges of first-degree murder for her parents' deaths.

"I would ask her questions over and over again," Gonzales said. "One time, she said, 'When I killed ...'." Then she stopped herself and was like, 'When the killers ...'."

"What did she say to that?" Blaine County prosecutor Jim Thomas asked.

"She just looked at me, and I was like, 'Don't worry, I'm not going to rat on you,'" Gonzales said. "I didn't think I would."

More than a year later, the two "bunkies" were reunited in Ada County Courthouse Wednesday, where prosecutors are arguing that Sarah killed her parents, Diane and Alan Johnson, because they disapproved of her Mexican boyfriend.

Johnson faces life in prison if convicted.

Gonzales and several other witnesses who spent time in custody with Sarah testified that she freely volunteered details about her rocky relationship with her parents -- particularly her mother -- and of her acrimonious relationship with relatives in the wake of the murders.

But for all Sarah's talk, each witness -- except Gonzales -- conceded that the defendant never admitted to killing her parents on September 2, 2003.

"She said she'd have knock-down, drag-out fights with her mom because she favored her brother and would give him anything," Gonzales said.

Members of Sarah's family in court, including her brother, Matt, winced as the five-time convicted drug trafficker offered her blunt assessments on the witness stand.

"But she loved her dad; she was a daddy's girl. She said her father had changed the life insurance and she was going to get everything because her brother was not really his kid," Gonzales said.

Sarah, now 18, has been in custody since October 31, 2003, when she was arrested almost two months after the murders.

One of her former inmates said Sarah claimed her brother Matt refused to post her bond, even though he had the means to do so.

"She pretty much despised him because after the murders, he spent the insurance claims on a [Chevy] Suburban and a house and getting married, while she was in jail," said Autumn Fisher, who spent 16 days in jail with Sarah.

Novetta Hartmann, who spent 10 days with Sarah, said things were not much better with her aunts and uncles.

"She talked about how her family had kind of dismissed her and when she was living [with them], they tapped her phone and conned her into going to the burial so they could arrest her," Hartmann told jurors.

"She talked a lot about the insurance money and about taking her guardian, Pat, on a cruise to Mexico or something," she said.

The guardian, Pat Alder, blew Sarah a kiss from the witness stand Wednesday, and was dismissed quickly when she refused to answer prosecutors' questions.

Hartmann testified that her parents seemed to be the least of Sarah's concerns when she was in prison.

"She was upset a couple times because she went to court and it wasn't on TV. She would say, 'It should be on TV,'" Hartmann said. "When the case was going, she was upset she couldn't wear regular clothes, had to wear her oranges."

Each day before court, when Sarah arrives to the Ada County Courthouse from the county jail, a member of the defense team provides her with business-casual attire, jewelry and make-up. Her hair is always neatly coiffed.


Aunt testifies against teen niece accused of parents' murder

By Emanuella Grinberg - Court TV

February 21, 2005

BOISE, Idaho (Court TV) -- The aunt of an Idaho teen said it took her less than two weeks to decide her niece was responsible for killing her parents in their upscale suburban home.

Linda Vavold said she didn't want to believe her sister's teenage daughter, Sarah Johnson, was to blame for shooting Diane Johnson and her husband, Alan, early in the morning on September 2, 2003.

Nevertheless, from the witness stand in Sarah Johnson's first-degree murder trial in Boise Friday, Vavold ticked off examples of Sarah's "inappropriate" behavior that led her to believe otherwise.

"When we would be discussing Alan and Diane and someone would be upset, she would roll her eyes and act disgusted," said Vavold, Diane Johnson's eldest sister.

At her parents' memorial service, she said her niece "seemed more concerned with who was there" and asked to attend a volleyball game later that evening.

Vavold also testified that the day before the service, she overheard Sarah telling someone in the beauty salon where she was getting her nails done that she wanted "to get on with her life."

Linda Vavold and her husband Jim were Sarah's legal guardians after her parent's death. She lived with them until she was arrested on October 29, 2003.

During cross-examination, Vavold acknowledged that she had been communicating with investigators as early as September 14 about evidence they believed implicated Sarah.

"Isn't it true from the very start of your being her guardian, you worked with police in an effort to prosecute her?" defense lawyer Bob Pangburn asked the witness.

"No," said Vavold, the owner of a Christian bookstore in Caldwell, Idaho, about 30 miles from Boise.

"But you thought she was guilty from very early on?" Pangburn said.

"I'm not sure when I determined that," Vavold said. "It was by the time I took her home."

Vavold also described a dream Sarah recounted to her while staying in their home.

"She was walking into our home, but when she got inside, she was in her home in Bellevue," Vavold said, referring to the affluent community where the Johnsons had lived. "She said she could see her mom, but she could not see her face, like it was digitally blocked out.

"She said her dad was also there, but his chest was blocked out, also digitally. She said she wanted to hug him, but she couldn't because she didn't want to hurt him. He said to her, 'You can't hurt me now,'" Vavold testified as the defendant, dressed in a light-blue argyle sweater over a collared shirt, quietly sobbed.

Diane Johnson died from a gunshot wound to the head as she lay in her bed, still under the covers, at about 6:20 a.m. Alan Johnson was shot in the chest in his shower and stumbled out of the bathroom before falling to the floor next to the bed where his wife lay. He bled to death.

Blaine County prosecutors believe Sarah Johnson killed her parents after they threatened to file statutory rape charges against her 19-year-old boyfriend, an undocumented Mexican immigrant.

Troubles at home

Vavold testified that she and her husband were staying with the Johnsons in their Bellevue, Idaho, home the morning they discovered their 16-year-old daughter had lied about her whereabouts and spent the night at her boyfriend's home.

Vavold's husband, James, testified last week that he accompanied Alan Johnson to confront Bruno Santos and bring Sarah home.

The Vavolds both testified that they left the house that day so the Johnsons could sort things out with Sarah.

When they returned, Linda Vavold said, the family continued with their plans for Labor Day weekend. Sarah pouted the rest of the day and refused to get out of the car at the various garage and antique sales they attended. "She seemed angry," Vavold said.

Sarah told police she spent the rest of the weekend in the family's guesthouse doing homework, although Vavold testified she never saw her carrying books to the house.

Prosecutors claim Sarah hatched the murder plot while staying in the guesthouse. The murder weapon, a .264 Winchester Magnum rifle, and shell casings linked to the firearm were traced to the renter, Mel Speegle.

Speegle was cleared as a potential suspect when authorities confirmed he was away in Boise for the weekend.

At one point that weekend, Vavold claimed, Sarah asked her mother for the key to the family gun safe. Seemingly unfazed, Diane Johnson told her to ask her father.

Concern for boyfriend

Sarah's friend and volleyball teammate, Chante Caudle, also testified Friday that, in the aftermath of her parent's deaths, Sarah seemed more concerned about Santos.

"She said she couldn't call me because she was under surveillance, but she told me to find Bruno and tell him she loved him," said Caudle, who admitted she never fulfilled her request.

Caudle said that the day after the shootings Sarah attended volleyball practice, where someone asked about the possibility of an inheritance.

"She said she and her brother would be taken care of for life, but she said she wished she could get an apartment now because she didn't like the people she was going to be living with," Caudle testified.

Caudle also said Sarah bragged about having sex with Santos and said they were engaged to be married, a claim Sarah denied in her statements to police.

Bathrobe stains

Blaine County prosecutors also presented more DNA evidence that linked Sarah to the crime scene.

DNA analyst Amber Moss, who works for a Texas-based DNA analysis laboratory that does pro bono work for the legal defense fund The Innocence Project, testified that several pieces of evidence were stained with blood belonging to Alan and Diane Johnson mixed with Sarah's DNA.

The morning of the shootings, investigators found a pink bathrobe later identified as Sarah's in the garbage outside the Johnson home, along with a leather glove and latex.

Moss testified that both the front and back of the robe contained blood samples belonging to Alan and Diane. Sarah's DNA was also identified on the robe.

On Thursday, prosecutors called other DNA analysts who identified biological matter belonging to Sarah and her parents on the gloves. Fingerprint analysis failed to directly link Sarah to the murder weapon or crime scene.

Prosecutors are expected to wrap up their case next week. Sarah Johnson faces life in prison if convicted of murdering her parents.


Expert: Daughter's DNA found on evidence at slain parents' home

February 18, 2005

Items collected from the garbage of a murdered Idaho couple showed traces of DNA from the couple's 18-year-old daughter, an expert testified Thursday in the teenager's murder trial.

In a garbage can outside the home of Alan and Diane Johnson, detectives found a latex glove, a left-handed leather glove, and a blood-spattered pink bathrobe belonging to their daughter, Sarah Johnson, who was 16 at the time.

"The DNA profile obtained from the latex glove matched the profile obtained from the blood sample said to belong to Sarah Johnson," DNA analyst Cynthia Hall of the Idaho State Police testified.

Hall also matched blood on the bathrobe and DNA samples found on the brown leather glove to Sarah's mother, Diane, she testified. Sarah has acknowledged the bathrobe was hers.

Hall also testified that blood found on the bottom of wool socks collected from Sarah on the day of the shootings, Sept. 2, 2003, also matched Diane Johnson's DNA.

Blaine County prosecutors contend Sarah killed her parents, who disapproved of her relationship with a 19-year-old Mexican immigrant, after her father threatened to report him to police if he continued seeing their daughter.

The police analyst said she collected DNA samples from Sarah, Alan and Diane Johnson, as well as Sarah's boyfriend, Bruno Santos, and a former housekeeper whom Sarah implicated early in the investigation. Hall was able to exclude Santos and the housekeeper, Janet Sylten, from the evidence test results, she said.

Defense lawyer Mark Rader challenged the implications of Hall's findings.

"Alan, Diane and Sarah Johnson lived in the same house. Wouldn't you expect to find their DNA mixed everywhere throughout the house?" Rader said. Hall agreed.

Police also found two live cartridges in Sarah's room containing her mother's DNA. Detectives identified the murder weapon, a .264 Winchester Magnum rifle, as belonging to the Johnsons' guesthouse tenant, who was eventually dismissed as a potential suspect.

Prosecutors say Sarah gained access to the gun while staying in the guesthouse the weekend before the shootings. A trace evidence examiner also testified that gunshot residue was found on the right sleeve of Sarah's pink bathrobe.

Previous forensic testimony from a fingerprint analyst and firearms experts failed to produce direct evidence linking Sarah to the murder weapon or the crime scene.

The defendant struggled to remain composed during the testimony of an uncle and a family friend Thursday. It was a rare display of emotion since Judge Barry Wood admonished her for outbursts earlier in the week.

James Vavold testified he was staying the weekend with his wife, Linda, in the Johnson home on the morning Sarah's parents discovered their 16-year-old daughter had lied to them about her whereabouts.

"He was completely disgusted, as anyone would do when they find out their kid is doing something stupid," the elderly man said of Alan Johnson, his brother-in-law of 15 years.

Vavold said he accompanied Alan Johnson to the Balmoral housing projects where Santos lived with his mother, sister and brother-in-law. They found Sarah there.

"She looked at me sort of surprised, like she was embarrassed to have her uncle see her in that situation," Vavold testified, as Sarah shifted in her seat, biting her lip.

The Johnson household seemed calm the rest of the weekend, he testified. The couple was murdered the following Tuesday.

After the killings, Sarah went to live with the Vavolds until she was arrested on October 29, 2003.

Prosecutors have said that Sarah killed her parents so she could collect money to start a life with Santos. When asked if Sarah had ever talked about insurance money, Vavold replied, "Her only concern was that [her brother] was getting everything and she's not getting anything."

He also noted that she talked about her parents as if they were still alive.

"You're not saying she ever admitted to you she killed her parents?" defense attorney Bob Pangburn asked during cross-examination.

"She said, 'I'm sorry to put you guys through this,'" Vavold repeated.

"So because she said, 'Sorry to put you through this,' the jury should believe she killed her parents?" Pangburn asked before the judge stopped the line of questioning.

In statements to police before her arrest, Sarah denied being engaged to Santos, but her longtime friend told the jury otherwise Thursday.

Megan Sowersby testified that Santos had proposed to Sarah at a dinner for her volleyball team. "She said her and Bruno were going to go to Boise to pick out engagement rings," said the 17-year-old, prompting the defendant to roll her eyes.

Megan also testified about Sarah's behavior after the murders.

"On the day of the murders, when she was hugging her grandmother Pat, she mouthed to me to go check if Bruno was okay," she said.

She also said Sarah told her Bruno had been cleared as a potential suspect by DNA evidence one day after the murders.

"Is Sarah known for being sweet and nice?" Thomas asked her.

"Yes," Megan said, eliciting a smile from the defendant.

"Is she also known to stretch the truth?" asked the prosecutor.

"Yes," the witness replied, and Sarah's smile disappeared.


16-year-old charged with murder of parents

Sarah Johnson enters not guilty pleas

By Greg Stahl -

November 5 - 11, 2003

Following a two-month investigation, Blaine County law enforcement officers on Wednesday, Oct. 29, arrested Sarah M. Johnson, 16, and charged her as an adult for the Sept. 2 murders of her parents, Alan and Diane Johnson of Bellevue.

Though she is charged with two counts of first degree murder, which is punishable by 10 years to life in prison, or by death, Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Thomas said he would not seek the death penalty should she be convicted.

"I have elected not to pursue imposition of the highest penalty for these murders," Thomas said. "Justice can be served with punishment other than death."

Johnson is incarcerated at the Blaine County Jail in Hailey. Bail was set at $2 million.

On Monday, Nov. 3, in 5th District Court in Hailey, Johnson entered pleas of not guilty on both counts of murder in the first degree. Judge James May conditionally scheduled a trial for Feb. 10, 2004, but Thomas and Johnsonís attorney, Public Defender Bob Pangburn, agreed that may be too soon for all parties involved to review all of the evidence involved in the case.

In an interview following the 9 a.m. hearing, Pangburn said he is uncertain that Johnson can receive a fair trail in Blaine County. He also said he will ask the judge to enact a gag order to limit information issued by lawyers and law enforcement officers involved in the case.

Publicity "could affect and probably already has affected Ms. Johnsonís right to a fair trial," he said. "We have seen that from the Sheriffís Office, and I think we need to put a stop to it."

As for the case against Johnson, Pangburn appeared optimistic.

"From what Iíve seen so far, it looks like a very tryable case," he said.

The news of Johnsonís arrest was issued at a press conference at the Old Blaine County Courthouse in Hailey on Thursday, Oct. 30, where nearly 70 members of the media, courthouse employees and law enforcement officers gathered.

At the press conference, authorities said they believe the 16-year-old acted out of revenge when her parents forbid her from seeing her fiancť, 19-year-old Hailey resident Bruno Santos.

Santos was deported to Mexico on Sept. 12 but, as a result of the murder investigation, he was brought back to Blaine County to testify as a witness in the case, said Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling.

"He is considered a material witness to this case, and he testified to the grand jury," said Femling. "I canít release what he may or may not know as a witness in this case."

Santos is not considered a suspect or conspirator in the murders but was one of five "people of interest" previously under investigation, Femling added.

Earlier on Oct. 30, Johnson was arraigned in 5th District Court, and Pangburn was appointed as her public defender. Monday was Johnsonís first appearance with her attorney.

On Tuesday and Wednesday preceding her arrest, a 16-member grand jury indicted the teenager for the murders, Femling said. Johnson, who was living with her motherís sister in Caldwell for the last two months, was arrested at 8:20 p.m. following the indictment.

Femling said the teenager seemed "upset, angry, defiant" upon her arrest.

"She didnít say much," he said.

Femling said that, though the investigation is not yet concluded, waiting for an arrest was difficult for the Johnson family and for residents of Blaine County.

"I know itís been a long eight weeks, a lot of painful weeks for the Johnson family," he said. "And itís been hard for the residents of this community as well."

According to Femling, the events of Sept. 2 allegedly unfolded as follows:

Sometime after 6 a.m., Diane Johnson died of a single gunshot wound to the head while she was in bed. A second shot killed Alan Johnson while he was in the coupleís bathroom. Sarah Johnson fled the scene, going to a neighborís home.

The Johnsonsí home, at 1193 Glen Aspen Drive in Bellevue, has a detached garage with a rented apartment. Sarah Johnson had a key to the apartment, where a Winchester .264 rifle and ammunition were stored.

Femling said. authorities believe that "Shortly after her dad entered the shower, she went into her parentsí room and shot her mother and then her father."

Upon arriving at the crime scene, authorities sent a garbage truck away before searching the garbage cans that had been set out for the morningís curbside pickup. Femling said authorities found a blood-soaked bathrobe, a latex glove and a cloth glove in one of the trash cans.

Femling said crime lab research concluded that Sarah Johnsonís DNA was in the right hand latex glove and that Diane Johnsonís blood was on the bathrobe,

The DNA analysis of the glove was the crux piece of information authorities were waiting for during the last two months, Femling said.

As for a motive, Femling highlighted a theory:

Johnson did not return home on Friday, Aug. 29, and on Aug. 30 her parents eventually found her at her fiancťís apartment, he said.

"They discovered that she had become engaged to him on Friday night," Femling said. "As the family dealt with this over the weekend, one of the resolutions was to get law enforcement involved. We believe that this incident, that she was about to lose her boyfriend, was a contributing factor."

Femling said law enforcement officers obtained a detention warrant for Johnson on the day of the murders and took fingerprints and hair and blood samples. Femling said they also discovered a bruise on her left shoulder, which could have been caused by the recoil from a rifle.

In a follow-up interview, Femling said Johnson claims to be ambidextrous. Backing up her assertion, he said she writes with her right hand, but spikes a volleyball with her left.

For his part, Bellevue Marshall Randy Tremble stressed the cooperation among law enforcement agencies that was required to pull the case together.

"The cornerstone of our success has been and will continue to be our collaboration," Tremble said.

Femling said there is a lot of information yet to process in the ongoing investigation. Investigators have interviewed "probably 50 or 60 people Sarahís age and more than 100 people total" in conjunction with the investigation, and collected more than 200 pieces of evidence.

"We still have evidence to process and much work to do in this case," he said.

As for the toll the case has taken on law enforcement personnel, Femling was blunt.

"Itís been extremely tough for everybody," he said. "Going through the emotions of the shock for everybodyówe knew the Johnsons. Itís been an extremely difficult case, very emotional for everybody involved."


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