A death with two stories evidence
Inside the tidy suburban St. Louis home of John and Linda Johnson, no photos of their eldest daughter grace the walls. Army Pfc. LaVena Johnson was just 19 when she died in Iraq in 2005; to this day her parents cannot bear to display reminders of her life.
John Johnson does possess other photos of his daughter -- explicit color shots of her autopsy and death scene. He shows them to a visitor. They are horrifying: LaVena in a pool of blood. LaVena’s corpse on a coroner’s table.
Johnson does not let his wife, Linda, and his four children see these images, but he studies the photos for hours at a time, trying to determine how his daughter died.
Army investigators ruled that LaVena committed suicide by firing her M-16 automatic rifle into her mouth. Her body was found beside the rifle in a contractor’s storage tent on a U.S. military base in Balad, Iraq, on July 19, 2005.
There was no suicide note, no recovered bullet and no significant gunshot residue on her hands. But the Army cited fellow soldiers’ reports that she was depressed and had spoken of killing herself.
Johnson maintains that his daughter was raped and killed, and that her death scene was staged to make it appear as if she shot herself. He accuses the Army of covering up for a killer or killers to conceal a soldier-on-soldier slaying, explaining that military personnel would have had unrestricted access to the area where his daughter died and therefore would not have attracted undue attention.
If LaVena’s death were investigated as a homicide, Johnson added, it would raise questions about base security and discourage women from enlisting.
In 2005, in response to concerns about sexual assaults against female service members, the Pentagon established the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. Citing a reluctance among female service members to report rape for fear of stigma or reprisals, the office does not share information with law enforcement or the military command.
Like the Johnsons, other families have questioned the military’s suicide findings in the deaths of their daughters in Iraq or Afghanistan. They too accuse the military of jumping to conclusions and ignoring evidence of murder.
But these grieving families have discovered that there are no clear answers and few conclusive facts, only murky evidence that can be interpreted more than one way. The result is a climate of mistrust and suspicion that leaves the military on the defensive and the families feeling deceived.
Christopher Grey, a spokesman for the Army Criminal Investigation Command, called its investigation of the Johnson case “thorough and complete.” He said the command was ready to reopen any case in which “new, credible information warranting further investigation is brought to our attention.”
Of the 115 female service member deaths in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, 16 have been ruled suicides. Overall, 205 of the 4,868 military deaths in those wars through Jan. 31 were ruled suicides. The 128 reported Army suicides in 2008 were the most in one year since the Pentagon began keeping track of suicides in 1980.
The Johnson case and several others involving women service members have been championed by retired Army Col. Ann Wright, a former U.S. diplomat.
Wright accuses the military of withholding evidence pointing to sexual assaults and other attacks on female service members.
She contends that the military has been too quick to close the cases of some women’s deaths as suicides without conducting thorough homicide investigations. She accuses the military of stonewalling families who question its findings.
“What the military is doing is egregious,” she said. “In many cases, they have the information the families want but refuse to release it. These families are really fighting upstream.”
Joy Priest, whose daughter Pfc. Tina Priest, 20, was found dead in Iraq in March 2006, said the Army had not convinced her that Tina killed herself with her M-16, as an investigation found. She died two weeks after accusing a male soldier of raping her.
Priest said it took the Army almost six months to provide her with investigative documents and nine more months to supply color photos of the autopsy and death scene.
“They have you jump through hoops, then they back you up and make you jump through more,” Priest said. “It’s so painful -- just mind-bending.”
Wright said she believed there were enough unanswered questions in the Johnson and Priest cases, among others, to warrant new investigations.
For the Johnsons, the circumstance of their daughter’s death has become an obsession. It is a wound that may never heal.
For more than three years, John Johnson has studied every aspect of his daughter’s death. He keeps cross-referenced stacks of investigative reports, crime scene photographs, lab reports and his angry letters sent to the Army, the Pentagon and Congress.
The Johnsons, both former Army employees, say they feel betrayed by a military they and their daughter served honorably. In his family room, Johnson stabbed his finger at an Army autopsy report, his voice rising in indignation.
“I’m not just a grieving father guessing at things,” he said. “I’m going strictly by the facts. I’m going by the Army’s own evidence.”
Search for truth
After Johnson filed a Freedom of Information Act request and enlisted the aid of his congressman, the Army in June 2007 provided original color photos of the autopsy and crime scene.
As he studied the photos, he said, he saw blood inside and outside the contractor’s tent. Other evidence suggested to him that LaVena was killed elsewhere and her body dumped in the tent: what appear to be boot prints in blood and on a bag of cement, the absence of blood and brain spatter on the tent, and the Army’s failure to find the fatal bullet.
A small fire next to the body was evidence, he said, that someone tried to cover up her slaying. A caustic substance appears to have been poured on her vagina, he said, to eliminate signs of rape.
The abrasions on LaVena’s face suggest to Johnson that she was beaten, and scratches on her arms appear to be defensive wounds, he said. And he does not believe his 5-foot-1 daughter’s arms were long enough to pull the trigger of an M-16 cradled between her legs, as described in the Army report.
A gunshot residue test, performed on LaVena’s hands to determine whether she had fired a weapon, found “insignificant” residue, the report said.
The report quoted three soldiers as saying LaVena seemed depressed and spoke of suicide. But two of them also said she told them that she was only joking and would never take her own life. “She didn’t want to hurt her family,” one soldier said.
A statement by her company commander, Capt. David Woods, said: “This soldier was clearly happy and seemingly very healthy physically and emotionally.”
One soldier said LaVena was upset over a breakup with a soldier she had met in the U.S., the report said. Ten days before her death, the report said, she learned she had condyloma, a sexually transmitted disease.
Grey, the Army spokesman, said the only blood found outside the tent was on a bench that had been removed after LaVena’s body was discovered. Investigators are not aware of any boot prints in blood or on a cement bag, and they found no cuts, bruises or abrasions on her body “that would have led us to believe that they had been created by suspicious means,” Grey said.
Investigators believe the bullet went through an open tent flap window, Grey said. They concluded that LaVena had started a small fire inside the tent and burned pages from her journal before she shot herself.
Grey said investigators demonstrated that it was “easily possible” for a person of LaVena’s stature to shoot herself through the mouth with an M-16. And because investigators found no evidence of sexual assault, Grey said, there was no reason to collect vaginal or fingernail swabs.
Paul Stone, a spokesman for the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, said the damage to LaVena’s face was consistent with the rapidly expanding gases discharged by an M-16, which he said could break bones and leave bruises and abrasions. The institute also concluded that LaVena committed suicide.
‘Not giving up’
After John Johnson met in April with House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), the oversight and investigations subcommittee reviewed the case. It concluded that further review “would not find anything to change the findings and conclusions” of the Army.
Johnson called the subcommittee’s conclusions “insulting.”
The Johnsons had LaVena’s body exhumed in 2007 for an autopsy, conducted by Dr. Michael Graham, the St. Louis city medical examiner.
Graham concluded that LaVena died of a gunshot wound fired through her mouth. In an interview, Graham said he could not determine whether the wound was self-inflicted because Johnson did not provide him with crime scene photos and other material. Johnson had not yet received the photos from the Army at the time of the autopsy.
“I saw no evidence that it was not self-inflicted,” Graham said.
Johnson called Graham’s conclusions “disappointing” and said a lawyer was advising him on what to do next.
Linda Johnson wept as she recounted her final phone conversation with her daughter, two days before she died.
“She was her normal jubilant self,” Linda said. “She talked about coming home and Christmas plans. She loved Christmas. She told me make sure her father didn’t start decorating till she got home. This was not a girl getting ready to harm herself.”
The family has not celebrated Christmas since LaVena’s death, she said.
John Johnson was stoic as he thumbed through his daughter’s autopsy photos.
He spread the photos before him once more, convinced that they contain the answers he is seeking.
“I’m not giving up,” he said, “until somebody tells me the truth about what happened to my baby girl.”