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Son of murdered woman felt peace in '91, now closure 23 years later

Lego toys, DNA helped police solve brutal killing of Holladay widow

Published: Thursday, Aug. 28 2014 1:35 p.m. MDT

HOLLADAY — Jerry Johnson remembers heading home from Cedar City more than 23 years ago on Feb. 1, 1991, when he heard his mother's address announced on the radio.

The signal was fuzzy, so he did not hear what happened at that Holladay address. He said he then heard a voice saying, "She's with me." The voice told him his mother was all right.

"I just had a very peaceful feeling come over me," he recalled Thursday. "That peace has been with me ever since."

After more than two decades, investigators say they've finally solved the brutal murder of Lucille Johnson, 78. John Sansing — a prison inmate on death row in Arizona — was charged Thursday with first-degree murder, a first-degree felony, in the woman's death.

"When you hear the details of this particular case, you can see that this individual is, is barely human," Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder said.

At the time, a veteran sheriff's captain called Johnson's death "as brutal as anything I've seen."

A daughter discovered her mother dead in bed with a pillow over her face. Johnson, who was 4 feet 11 inches tall and weighed 122 pounds, had been severely beaten. She suffered a fractured skull, 24 broken ribs, and received "numerous blows to her head," charges filed in 3rd District Court state.

An autopsy revealed that she died from strangulation and blunt force trauma in her home at 4284 S. Holloway Drive (1960 East).

Investigators at the time found Lego pieces on Johnson's living room floor, in the home's entry and on the driveway, Hoyal said. Detectives collected the toys as evidence after family members told them that while Johnson had toys for her grandchildren, she would never leave them lying around, the charges state.

Investigators also learned that a ring and necklace Johnson regularly wore were missing.

Salt Lake County sheriff's investigators worked on the case but were unable to solve it. They stopped investigating in 2006 because they lacked any new leads.

In August 2013, a team led by Unified Police Sgt. Michael Ikemiyashiro reopened the case. The detectives sent scrapings that had been collected from under Johnson's fingernails for DNA testing and recovered a profile that matched a Combined DNA Index System profile for Sansing, Ikemiyashiro said.

A current DNA profile was taken from Sansing in April and it matched the DNA found in the scrapings under Johnson's nails, he said.

Investigators also matched fingerprints from the Lego toys gathered during the original investigation with one of Sansing's children who was 5 years old at the time of the killing, according to the charges.

Police now believe that Sansing's son was present at the time Johnson was viciously killed.

A relative of Sansing recently approached investigators and told them that he had overheard Sansing and his wife arguing on two separate occasions. He said he heard Sansing's wife threaten that "she was going to tell police that he murdered a lady in Utah," charging documents state.

Detectives don't believe that Johnson and Sansing knew each other, but stopped short of saying he was in the house to rob her.

Sansing, 47, lived in Utah until 1995 when he moved to Arizona. He is currently serving time in a Florence, Arizona, prison for a 1998 murder in which he was sentenced to death.

That case involved a woman from the Living Springs Assembly of God Church who came to his house to bring the family food, according to the Tucson Citizen in 1998. The woman was tied up, beaten, raped and murdered.

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