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Decades on Death Row: A killer faces his sentence

On Monday, the Missouri Supreme Court turned down a convicted Columbia killer’s request to have a judge consider evidence that he is mentally disabled.

More than 20 years after a gruesome triple murder at a Casey’s convenience store on Ballenger Lane, Ernest Lee Johnson is set to die in less than 24 hours.

It’s a crime that has been called unforgettable by those who were involved in the case. It’s a case that former Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm said to this day is unique, based solely on the gruesome and violent nature of the act that left three people dead.

“The impact that it had on the community, particularly that neighborhood, that there was just a lot of fear, a lot of people who had felt like it was okay for their kids to be out playing in the front yard that now did not feel like that was okay and how that changes the mentality of that community,” Boehm said.

“To his brother Ted, I said, something’s wrong,” Ethel Vinson, mother of murder victim Fred Jones, told ABC 17 News back in 1994. “And he said, ‘momma you worry too much.’ And I said no, something is wrong.”

“It was very clear from the beginning that it was a horrific crime scene and that something very violent had occurred,” Boehm recalled.

Boehm was a captain at the department in February of 1994. Although not directly involved with the investigation, he said he remembers the Johnson case well.

Officers were called to the Casey’s on Ballenger Lane after a deputy stopped to check on the business and noticed blood on the front door lock. He also noticed the cash register was open.

Ernest Lee Johnson, a known crack addict, was known to frequent the Casey’s store.

On the day of the murders, Johnson stopped by the Casey’s store three times. The fourth stop was deadly.

“There was certainly a lot of pain and a lot of passion,” Boehm said. “At first it was very chaotic because it was a very gruesome scene, as I know you’re aware, with three victims and the way they were killed, by use of the hammer, a lot of blood, and so it wasn’t immediately known even how many victims that we had or how they were killed or what the motive might be.”

The three victims, Mary Bratcher, 46, Fred Jones, 58, and Mabel Scruggs, 57, were all employees at the Casey’s.

Boehm said the scene was so gruesome, investigators initially thought the victims were shot to death.

“We guessed yesterday that it was a shotgun or a very high caliber weapon because of the massive destruction to the heads of the victims,” they told ABC 17 News back in 1994.

Investigators later would find out the victims were bludgeoned to death with a claw hammer.

“There were a lot of searches of the area that were done, looking for evidence and recovered some evidence,” Boehm said. “At that time, across from that Casey’s, was a lot of open field and so a lot of that area had to be searched, which obviously took a lot of staff to do that and a lot of time.”

Investigators learned that Johnson had revealed to his girlfriend’s 18-year-old son, Rodriguez Grant, his plan to rob the Casey’s.

“We have learned that, just prior to the robbery, Johnson had told Grant that he was going to rob the Casey’s store and that he needed a gun,” an investigator said back in 1994. “And Grant furnished him with a 25 caliber semi automatic, and just prior to the robbery, they test fired the weapon to make sure it was working.”

When Johnson came back to the house that night, his face and clothes were spattered with blood.

He put the clothes in a bag and gave it to his girlfriend’s other son, 16-year-old Antwane Grant, and told him to get rid of the bag.

When police searched Johnson’s girlfriend’s home, they found money and a Casey’s receipt.

Grant later told police where he hid the clothing and the gun.

Arrested in 1994, then convicted and sentenced to death in 1995, Johnson’s attorney filed multiple appeals, bringing the case to the present. It’s now more than 21 years later.

The only way Tuesday night’s execution could be stopped is if the Governor grants clemency or the U.S. Supreme Court halts the execution.

“I guess at the end of the day our hope is that by this getting completely resolved in some fashion, whether that be the execution, or whatever ultimately occurs, will help the family and friends have some closure for this,” Boehm said.

Another appeal made on Johnson’s behalf was denied last week. His attorney requested he be executed by gas chamber instead of injection because Johnson has a brain tumor.

“There’s no doubt in my mind at all that that’s the person responsible,” Boehm said. “I think it’s a horrific crime and certainly justice is being served. And again, my hope is that that brings some closure for the family and friends.”

“While we can answer certain questions, eventually we could answer who did it and we could answer to some extent why, it was robbery based, but as far as why that person would do it in that way, you know we still can’t answer that kind of a question,” Boehm said. “There really is no answer to that. Only one person, Ernest Johnson, is the only one who really knows, if he does, why he decided to do it in the particular way that he did it.”

Johnson declined ABC 17 News’ request for an interview.

ABC 17 News also reached out to both Rodriguez and Antwane Grant. Antwane declined and Rodriguez never responded.

A niece of Fred Jones commented on a previous story about the case. ABC 17 News talked with the woman. She did not want to be interviewed for the story but said in a message, ” My uncle was the most wonderful man..He was also slightly mentally handicap. He had a twin brother and elderly mother who depended on him..He meant the world to me and when I was told the night he was murdered that he was dead my family was devastated..Earnest Johnson stole my uncle from me..His Mother wasn’t even allowed to any court hearings because the photos of her son was so bad. Nobody deserves to die that way..nobody.”

After the story began previewing, ABC 17 News received several calls from family and friends of the three victims.

On Monday morning, a friend of Mabel Scruggs called ABC 17 News and said her friend Mabel was an incredible person who was always willing to help anyone.

ABC 17 News crews will be covering the execution Tuesday night from Bonne Terre.

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