After a man reported to police that an elderly friend had wandered away from home on April 28, 2001, two officers entered a brushy, wooded area in Kansas City to search for him.
Within minutes they learned he’d been found. But as the officers retreated toward their car, they noticed something else: the headless body of a naked girl.
Who was she? Who killed her? Had anyone reported her missing? Did anyone care?
The last question became the first answered. Innumerable people cared.
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Among the first was a 51-year-old man aware police needed to find the girl’s head. On May 1 he headed into the brushy area, sometimes walking and sometimes on hands and knees. After about four hours he paused to rest, heard insects buzzing and spotted a plastic trash bag wedged between an old tire and a rock. He traced it with his cane. Its contents felt like a face.
Inside the bag, police found the child’s deteriorated head. Reconstruction experts generated a computer image of a girl with large bright eyes and her hair in cornrows. She was thought to have been 3 to 4 years old. Her body was thought to have been in the woods only a few days.
Move UP, an organization that merged efforts of earlier groups to battle crime and drug abuse, named her Precious Doe.
Volunteers raised reward money, handed out fliers and organized rallies. A reward fund grew to $33,000. TV’s “America’s Most Wanted” featured the case several times. Experts created a bust of the head.
Yet scores of leads fizzled.
In December 2001, the Jackson County medical examiner released the body for a funeral and burial.
Later, a sketch artist offered a third likeness. Even later, police and cemetery workers exhumed her body so that another bust could be created.
Still angry over the killing, community members grew frustrated as the maddening mystery dragged on.
In spring 2005, an Oklahoma man called police saying he knew Precious Doe’s identity, the identity of her mother and the name of her killer. Though he’d called many times before, detectives either hadn’t found his story credible or hadn’t followed up.
This time, they listened. Thurmon McIntosh’s story checked out.
On May 5, 2005, Precious Doe became 3-year-old Erica Michelle Marie Green of Muskogee, Okla.
Her mother, Michelle Johnson, 30, a prostitute, had given birth to Erica in prison. Johnson had fallen in with a customer, Harrell Johnson, 25, who also had a prison record.
In spring 2001 they went to Kansas City to look for work. They took Erica and stayed with relatives.
One night Erica refused to go to bed. Harrell Johnson, drunk and drugged with PCP, kicked her in the head. Erica collapsed. Worried that they would be arrested on outstanding warrants, the Johnsons did not seek help. After at least two days, Erica died. Harrell Johnson decapitated her with hedge trimmers to hide her identity.
In 2002 Michelle and Harrell Johnson married. From prison, where he was serving time for an unrelated case, Harrell Johnson wrote letters to his wife expressing regret for some undefined act. Later, McIntosh read the letters and heard Michelle Johnson threaten his grandson, Harrell, with life in prison.
McIntosh first had called police about Erica’s case in 2004. He called about 50 times in the months to come. The last time he reported that he had confronted his grandson about the murder. In that call, McIntosh relayed details only the killer would have known.
Michelle Johnson pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in September 2007 and received a 25-year sentence. She testified against Harrell Johnson, who was convicted in October 2008 and sentenced to life in prison.
When: April 28, 2001 | What: Headless body of naked girl found in woods | Outcome: Four years later, police identified girl as Erica Green, 3, and arrested her killers.