'Headless' Murder Case Goes to Jury

Times Staff Writer

A San Bernardino County jury deliberated the fate Tuesday of Marcia Ann Johnson, who first told police she shot a Korean War veteran and dismembered his corpse with a chain saw, only to later blame her statement on bipolar disorder and alcohol.

Johnson said in intercepted cellphone calls to her family and friends that she killed Jack Irwin, 71, in September 1999 outside his Mt. Baldy cabin, according to evidence presented to the jury in her murder trial. His body has never been found.

In a videotape made in a San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department interrogation room, Johnson, 44, is heard saying she shot Irwin in the back of his head after he criticized her lesbian partner, called her "a nasty girl" and then exposed himself to her.

"He [Irwin] got the repercussion for everything that's happened to me in my whole life," Johnson told a detective.

"I was so mad at him for making me kill him. It was like everyone that's ever done a thing to me never paid for it. I felt justified in making him pay. I just wanted him to stop. I wanted him to shut up."

During the interrogation, Johnson offered a detailed description of the grisliest part of her story: how she cut off Irwin's head with a chain saw and later pushed it down a steep hill on Mt. Baldy, screaming angrily at the head as it rolled away.

"I just took it out of the bag and I watched it roll down the mountain, [thinking] 'I can't even ... believe this,' " she said. "I was screaming at him for making me do that [and] I just thought, 'No [expletive] is going to hurt me again.' "

Prosecutors called Johnson's claim of self defense a diversion, saying her real intention was to collect on money she and her partner, Judy Gellert, had been promised by the single man.

Johnson told Upland Police she and Gellert first met Irwin when they inquired about renting his Mt. Baldy cabin on Ice House Canyon Road. Johnson said she felt sorry for him and befriended him after she noticed his near-empty refrigerator, broken toilet and frigid living conditions.

Within months, the couple had convinced Irwin to make them partners in his financial trust and allow them to live in the cabin as he purchased a home in Upland, according to court testimony.

During and following Irwin's 1999 disappearance, Johnson and Gellert collected an estimated $430,000 by making withdrawals from Irwin's bank account and by selling his car and the Upland home before they were arrested in October 2002.

Johnson's attorney, Stephan J. Willms, argued that Johnson suffered mental problems that contributed to grandiose claims -- delusions further warped by alcohol use. Willms said Johnson had been drinking the night she said to deputies that she killed Irwin, pointing to one of her first statements: "It's not the alcohol talking ...."

Willms called mental experts to detail Johnson's troubled mental history and ridiculed the idea that murder could be alleged when no body, no gun, no chain saw or no physical evidence of a bloody slaying had emerged.

Johnson later said in her Oct. 11, 2002, statement that she had dropped Irwin off at the Upland Metrolink station Sept. 13, 1999, because he intended to visit Seattle. In a missing-persons report filed in 1999, Johnson told police Irwin wanted to see the Space Needle but never returned.

A San Bernardino County Sheriff's homicide team took over the case from Upland police in 2002 and began a series of "tactical events," such as the filing of embezzlement and theft charges, subpoenas and a vehicle seizure focused on Gellert, to prompt Johnson and Gellert to discuss Irwin's disappearance on recorded phone calls.

In the confession, Johnson also said she set fire to Irwin's cabin.

"I kept on seeing ghosts; I just, like, kept on seeing him," Johnson said.

"I just never wanted to go back there again, you know, because he was there, so I just [lighted] up a piece of paper towel and threw it in the trash can.... It burned up pretty good."

Gellert accepted a plea bargain in June, pleading guilty to one count of receiving stolen property in exchange for testifying against Johnson.

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