The Peculiar Tale of Jimmy Dean Johnson

May 22, 2009 § 4 Comments

How a Boy Lay Nameless for 35 Years

This week, a new monument was laid at the grave of “Boy X.” It is a modest stone of red granite, matching the one that has marked this spot in the Dayton Memorial Park since May of 1974.

The old one reads “On Behalf of Those Who Cared Boy X Died May 20, 1974.” The new one has a name, and a date of birth and finally answers a mystery nearly three times as old as the boy whose bones lie below.

He was James “Jimmy” Dean Johnson, a handsome sandy-haired boy with a wide smile and big ears that stuck out just a bit. He was born on the 3rd of September 1960, to a woman named Cora Walls.

Jimmy must have been among the last of her eight children (six boys, two girls) as when he was just a baby, his mother is said to have stepped out a window during an epileptic seizure. She didn’t die. In fact, she remains alive today, though her mind is clouded with dementia.

In the 1960s epilepsy was considered a non-remitting, progressive disease. Treatments were rudimentary and often not effective. By the time her baby boy was two years old, Mrs. Walls’ children had been placed in foster care.

For a period in the early seventies, three of the siblings, Rosie, Wayne and Jimmy, were reunited in the care of their mother’s sister Sarah in Cincinnati. But in 1973, Sarah Zuern left her husband, took her children and moved to Dayton. Her niece and nephews returned to foster care.

This week, little Jimmy’s cousin, Esther Zuern told the Dayton Daily News that she remembered the boy as “sweet; not rowdy or mean like most kids in foster care.” More than one relative recalled that he was small for his age. Nonetheless, Jimmy apparently became something of a “behavior problem” and in a matter of months found himself a resident of the gothic campus at Longview State Hospital. He was just 13.

In March 1974, all hell was breaking loose over Watergate. We were in the clutches of an oil embargo. Terry Jacks’ “Seasons in the Sun” was the number one song. And little Jimmy Dean Johnson walked away from the Longview State Hospital and disappeared into the Ohio streets. His absence was not reported to any authority, and apparently no one ever looked for him.

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The incidents of Monday, May 20, 1974 are not precisely recounted anymore. The coroner’s report is reported as stating that the body of a male child was found at 1853 Stanley St, on a railroad embankment, behind a warehouse.

The news media has alternatively reported the body found on the banks of the Great Miami River near Leo and Stanley Streets, at 1383 Stanley; still others say the body lay up against the railroad tracks. Whoever had the unhappy discovery is long forgotten (though no doubt it is etched irrevocably in their own memory.) Perhaps it was a dockworker clocking in on Monday morning. Perhaps it was a brakeman on a passing train, or a beat cop patrolling the area late at night. It doesn’t matter anymore.

What was found was the body of a male child, somewhere between 11 and 14 years old. With sandy hair and ears that stuck out a bit. He had a homemade tattoo on his arm depicting a cross with three teardrops. His skinny little broken body was naked to the elements. He had been beaten and strangled; he was still bound when they found him.

There were no active missing persons cases matching the boy’s description. Ken Betz, the director of the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office told reporters during a February 2009 press conference that records show five different families came to see if the child belonged to them, but none of them could positively identify him. For their sakes, one hopes that some were able to positively say that he was not theirs.

Among those families was Sarah Zuern, who is said to have arrived with a photograph of her nephew, missing from the state hospital in Cincinnati. Sarah’s family claimed she never heard back from the Coroner’s office. Even in the seventies a forensic anthropologist could have made a positive identification, a reasonably good medical examiner could have made an almost certain one. Of course, none of the Coroner’s office personnel are the same now as they were thirty-five years ago.

These cases weigh on the men and women that work them. The death of a child is not something easily forgotten, and an unidentified child even more so. No one would have carelessly lost a photograph of a potential match, or overlooked calling the presumed next of kin. But the boy remained nameless, and finally, through the generosity of the community, his small body was buried in Dayton Memorial Gardens under a red granite stone that read “Boy X.”

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Rosie Johnson, Jimmy’s older sister, lives in Alabama now. Last year she saw Jim DeBrosse’s retrospective story in the Dayton Daily News about the mysterious “Boy X” and she wondered, again, if that boy could be her long lost brother. This time she contacted the Montgomery County Coroner’s office.

Jim DeBrosse is owed a great debt in the work he did to help Boy X regain his identity, his history, his belonging. In remembering Boy X and making his readers remember Boy X, he helped to nudge Rosie Johnson to find the answer for her decades-long question about her little brother. His thorough research into who that child was in life is very touching, and his coverage of the family’s memorial to that boy has been remarkable. Every community should have someone like DeBrosse who so eloquently keeps the unidentified lost from being forgotten.

The Coroner’s office took the photograph that Rosie Johnson supplied them, and they took a DNA sample from her. They visited Cora Walls in a nursing home and took a DNA sample there too. They exhumed the body of Boy X, and on January 28, 2009, they had a match.

Ruby Simpkins is the daughter of Sarah Zuern, and the cousin to little Jimmy. She became the focus of media attention during the memorial held in Dayton this week, as it seems she is the most readily approachable family member for sound bites and quotes.

She told Jim DeBrosse that the family had held out hope that they’d run into Jimmy somewhere, all grown up, a handsome young man.

“But,” she said brightly, “We’ll see him again in heaven.” The television media coverage was upbeat, the anchor pursing her mouth in a little moue at the bittersweet nature of this resolution. A child is murdered, and yet he is at long last returned to his family. Comments to online print stories and websites devoted to missing persons were equally simple-minded. Even the biddies at websleuths.com didn’t seem to get it.

But the Dayton Police Department certainly seems to get it, and Detective Patty Tackett made a statement to the press that the investigation into James Dean Johnson’s murder has been reopened. She urged the public to get in touch if they have any information that may be useful. She added that they are particularly interested in “a situation of sexual assault that may have occurred on a boy of 13—we’d like to have them come forward.” The original autopsy showed no evidence of sexual assault per se, but when a body is found nude, it certainly isn’t ruled out.

The local NBC affiliate carried an interview with Ruby Simpkins in which she offered up a graphic vision of her cousin’s death. She imagines him “lying there crying as they beat him,” but “as his spirit slipped away he saw Jesus coming toward him with arms outstretched. Finally, he found the love he’d searched for so long. At last Jimmy’s home!”

Rosie Johnson didn’t make it to Ohio for her brother’s memorial. Sarah Zuern was planning to read a poem at the service, but she slipped away on April 26th.

Her obituary lists her age as 73, and notes among her survivors her daughters Esther and Ruby, her sister Cora. It quotes the words spoken with her last breath: “Before she passed on, she said ‘I hope to see you all again someday, in Heaven. I’ll be waiting.’”

There is a list of those she expected to find waiting for her in heaven, having been pre-deceased by her ex-husband, three of her special friends, Jesus Christ, (way predeceased by him) and her three sons, James, Johnny and William. Her recently identified, long dead nephew does not merit a mention. Something about the names in Sarah Zuern’s obituary stands out though, something no one seems to have noticed.

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It is the name of her son, William Zuern. William Zuern who was executed by the State of Ohio on June 8, 2004 for the murder of a Hamilton County Sheriff’s deputy, Philip Pence.

The deputy was killed while Zuern was incarcerated awaiting trial for the murder of Gregory Earls, an informant who had testified against Zuern’s father. Zuern was angry with prison officials because he didn’t get his full five minutes of telephone time.

Authorities had been tipped off that he had a weapon and three of them had gone to search his cell. Zuern got off his bunk naked, and lunged at Deputy Pence, stabbing the officer to death with a 7” shank he’d fashioned from a bucket handle.

William Zuern’s life of crime officially began when he was 13, with the “malicious destruction of property.” He’d gone on a tire-slashing spree in Cincinnati. His 2004  request for clemency details his many brushes with the law, including his juvenile record: burglary, drugs, delinquency, and as adult: theft, felonious assault, murder, murder, murder. On the cover of the Request for Clemency Report, a notation is written neatly, by hand, in the upper right hand corner: EXECUTED 6/8/04

In December of 1973 William Zuern had been released to the care of his mother in Dayton, Ohio. In September 1975, he was remanded to Ohio Youth Services. A photograph displayed by Ken Betz at a press conference shows Jimmy Dean Johnson among the Zuerns: a slight blond boy surrounded by enormous people. William Zuern, at 15, had a significant height and weight advantage over his younger cousin.

Real life homicide is not so much like fictional murder mysteries. Rarely found are those clever twists, those surprising endings where the villain turns out to be the last person you’d suspect. Most of the time the answer to the mystery is the most depressingly obvious one.

Rosie Johnson speculated that perhaps her little brother had headed for Dayton looking for his aunt and cousins.

It appears that he may have found them.

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§ 4 Responses to The Peculiar Tale of Jimmy Dean Johnson

  • Jeanne says:

    Poor little Jimmy Dean Johnson, a boy who was probably just trying to find his family again. How sad an ending, but yet good that the family is now able to rest, knowing that he has been found and that he’s with his Lord. Just as sad is the fact that they may never know, for certain, who his true killer was.

    This is the one of the best articles I have ever read! You paid such lovely homage to Jimmy, a young boy that you never met, and you should be proud. I can certainly see how these stories can frame your mind for weeks and days before, during and after you write it. It has to be all comsuming. Awesome!

  • Bart says:

    riveting. Thank you for telling Jimmy’s story.

  • DJ says:

    This is a very well written post.

    I guess now we know why no one claimed his body back then, or why the relative who apparently knew he was missing never reported his disappearance, it’s because if he was identified, it would have made the task of looking for the perpetrator easier.

    If the investigators knew who he was, it wouldn’t have taken long for them to start looking at the obvious direction.

    Some people should be invited for questioning. And they should start with the family.

    Hopefully, Jimmy will find the justice that has long evaded him.

    God bless all those who cared enough to help this little boy find his identity once again.

    • Linda Brown says:

      Well since he was in foster care or state care maybe they should start with state records? Kids are dying in foster care, but it is just swept under the rug because “they were just trash anyway”. That is what I have heard these kids described as, by caseworkers of the state.

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