Friday, March 11, 2005

State pigeonholes Johnson defense arguments

Aunt recounts living with Sarah

Express Staff Writer

Linda VaVold, left, who testified Wednesday in the double murder trial of her niece Sarah M. Johnson, came to the Wood River Valley last fall for a scholarship fundraiser in memory of her sister and brother-in-law, Diane and Alan Johnson, who were slain in Bellevue in 2003. With VaVold, a Caldwell resident, are her nephew Matt Johnson and her sister Debbie Davis, of Kuna. Photo by Willy Cook

Sarah M. Johnson's aunt testified Wednesday in a Boise courtroom that her niece had all the emotional support she and her husband could give in the months following the murders of the Bellevue teenager's parents, Alan and Diane Johnson, two years ago in their home.

There was no time that Sarah Johnson was isolated or ostracized from the family, said Caldwell resident Linda Vavold, who is the older sister of Diane Johnson.

"I told Sarah that I loved her and that I knew she was going through a difficult time. I told her I didn't know how to help her but that I would find someone who could," Vavold said in reference to her efforts to find her niece a grief counselor.

The double murder trial of Johnson, 18, opened Feb. 1 with jury selection in 4th District Court at the Ada County Courthouse. The trial was moved to Boise early in January when 5th District Judge Barry Wood ruled it was impractical to attempt to panel a non-biased jury in Blaine County where the crimes were committed. Johnson is charged with two counts of first-degree murder. If convicted, she faces life in prison.

Vavold's testimony Wednesday was an apparent response to allusions during the defense's case that the Johnson family had abandoned the then-16-year-old girl after she was accused of killing her parents.

Vavold, who was granted legal custody of her niece in the months following the Johnson murders, said she never gave up on Sarah Johnson.

She attempted to visit her niece in jail.

"She refused to see me," Vavold said.

She wrote her niece letters several times.

But when Hailey resident Patricia Alder petitioned the court to let her take over as Sarah Johnson's guardian in the summer of 2004, Vavold did not put up a fight. That's the way Sarah wanted it, Vavold said.

Vavold characterized her niece as a strong-willed, independent and mature woman.

She talked about college. She owned her own car. She had a lot of freedom and responsibility, Vavold said. She had a job. She was dating a 19-year-old young man.

In making its rebuttal Wednesday, the state called seven witnesses. Most took little more than 15 minutes. One expert witness, Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations Investigator Iris Dalley, testified for more than an hour. In a nutshell, she corroborated testimony from experts who had previously testified on behalf of the state. Most importantly, she agreed that a sheet and/or quilt was over Diane Johnson's head when she was shot and that the shooter could have escaped the murder scene with relatively little blood on him or her.

Another Johnson family friend, Lorna Kolash, testified she has known Sarah Johnson her entire life. She was Sarah Johnson's Godmother.

Kolash said her family treated Sarah Johnson very well.

"Whatever she needed, whatever she wanted," Kolash said.

Even after police informed Kolash that Sarah Johnson was a suspect in the murders, she and family members tried to stay supportive.

"We still supported her, cared for her," Kolash said. "We just loved her."

In a cross-examination, defense attorney Bob Pangburn questioned Kolash about her motives and asked if she was participating in the trial to convict Sarah Johnson.

"I'm here to tell the truth," Kolash said. "...This is probably the hardest thing I've ever had to do," she continued through a shaky voice.

The state also called New Jersey resident Brian Higgason, who is Alan Johnson's half-brother. The weekend before the Johnsons were murdered, Higgason was married at the home. He said Sarah Johnson was very helpful at the wedding.

She "was a huge help at our wedding. In fact, my wife thanked her for her help. She called her her mini maid of honor."

During a rehearsal dinner on Friday night, a thunderstorm blew through Bellevue, and 30 to 35 people ran inside the house for cover. The power went out.

Finally, prosecuting attorneys questioned several witnesses about a shower cap that was said to be kept in Sarah Johnson's bathroom. Following the murders, it was never recovered.

The allusion, which has gone unspoken, is that the killer could have worn the shower cap to avoid being sprayed with blood during the murders.

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