Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Sheriff saw Johnson as suspect early in investigation

Neighbors remember morning-piercing gunshots

Express Staff Writer

Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Thomas, right, and Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Justin Walcott wait outside the Johnson home in Bellevue on Friday as an Ada County jury tours the house as part of the double homicide trial of Sarah M. Johnson that was moved to Boise. Photo by Willy Cook

The first time he interviewed Sarah M. Johnson about her parents' deaths, Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling said he considered her one of several suspects. By the third time he interviewed her, 10 days later, he confronted Johnson with a scenario similar to one prosecutors are piecing together in court this month as they try Johnson for two counts of first degree murder.

"I told Sarah that I believed she had been lying to me during all my interviews. I then went through my whole scenario about how this crime took place, and I finished by saying I thought she had killed her parents," Femling testified in court on Monday. "She stared me down. We stared at each other for quite some time, and she eventually said, 'That's not the way it happened.'"

As the tenth day of Johnson's murder trial unfolded on Monday, prosecutors posed questions to Femling and residents of the suburban-style southern Bellevue neighborhood where the teen's parents were shot and killed by blasts from a hunting rifle Sept. 2, 2003.

Throughout the day Monday, prosecutors called 11 of the neighborhood's residents to the stand to testify in the high-profile double murder trial. One woman who lived next door to the Johnsons said she has already decided that Sarah Johnson is guilty of slaying her mom and dad, Diane and Alan Johnson.

"I have formed an opinion in my mind that Sarah murdered her mom and dad, yes," said Dorothy Schinella in response to questions posed by defense attorneys during cross-examination on Monday morning.

Schinella also testified, however, that Sarah Johnson had confided in her in March 2003 about a tumultuous relationship she had with her mother.

Sarah talked about "only how difficult it was for her to live with her mother," Schinella said. "She said that she absolutely could not stand her mother. All I pretty much did, I kind of said, growing up as young girls, we all have a hard time with our parents at some time. She said, 'You don't know what it's like to live there.'"

And perhaps giving a glimpse of events to come, defense attorney Bob Pangburn posed questions about Diane Johnson's alcohol consumption.

"Did she ever discuss with you her mother's drinking?" Pangburn asked.

"All I can answer is that they did drink," Schinella answered.

"You don't recall telling (an Idaho Attorney General investigator) that Diane was a heavy drinker?" Pangburn asked.

Schinella did not answer clearly.

The central line of questioning prosecuting attorneys asked the neighbors centered on a half-hour block of time surrounding the shootings, which occurred around 6:20 a.m. on Sept. 2, 2003. Prosecutors generally procured information from neighbors who testified they did not see any cars or people mysteriously running or driving into the morning.

Defense attorneys, in general, asked questions to elicit responses declaring that there was room for error in those judgements. Someone might have been able to slip through the neighborhood undetected.

But it was Femling who started connecting some of the dots in the vast collection of evidence submitted to the court so far.

Among the things he explained in his two-hour testimony was the suspected nature of Sarah Johnson's relationship with Bruno Santos Dominguez. That relationship, and Alan and Diane Johnson's reaction to it, is something prosecutors suspect contributed to the girl's decision to murder her parents.

"She had been dating Bruno, she said, for about three months," Femling said. "She said she had a ring from Bruno and something she described as a promise ring, identical rings. She said she was not engaged to be married to Bruno. She said her parents were not happy about that relationship. She said her dad thought he (Bruno) was a waste and did not want her to see him."

On the Friday before the murders, Johnson's father retrieved his daughter from Santos Dominguez's apartment. She was grounded, and her car was taken from her, Femling said.

On Sept. 2, Bruno was to travel with Alan and Diane Johnson to one of Sarah Johnson's volleyball games in Gooding, Femling said Sarah Johnson told him. But Femling said the Johnsons were adamant about stopping the relationship.

Femling said he asked Sarah Johnson several times if Santos Dominguez could have committed the murders.

"Every time I brought that up, she said there was no way he could have been involved. She said he had a kind heart," Femling said. "She never gave me any indication that he was (involved). In fact, she said he was not."

Santos Dominguez, who was arrested on charges of possession of methamphetamine, is expected to testify Tuesday or Wednesday of this week.

In the course of investigating the murders of Alan and Diane Johnson, Femling said his agency interviewed "upwards of 400 people," the largest investigation he has been involved with. They compiled more than 11,000 pages of reports, the largest number of pages for a single investigation in his career. They amassed more than 400 pieces of evidence, also a career high.

As of December 2004, Blaine County had spent $517,000 on the case, and "that certainly doesn't include all the salaries and benefits of the people who have been assigned to this case for a year and a half," Femling said.

Finally, defense attorneys continued to hound Femling and other investigators about potential evidence at the murder scene that was not collected. Items included a quilt that was over the body of Diane Johnson, a lampshade and clock that were beside the bed where Diane Johnson's body was found and a throw rug from the floor of the bathroom where Alan Johnson was shot.

"If you don't collect them, how do you test them," asked defense attorney Mark Rader.

"You can't collect everything that was there," Femling answered. "Our lab would never get through it. So you take the things you believe are most important at the time, and that's what we did. It's possible you could make a mistake (when picking and choosing evidence to collect)."

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