The Springfield News-Leader from Springfield, Missouri on June 25, 1989 · Page 15
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The Springfield News-Leader from Springfield, Missouri · Page 15

Springfield, Missouri
Issue Date:
Sunday, June 25, 1989
Page 15
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JOHNNY LEE WILSON Sunday, June 25, 1989 1 5 A Wilson ofiteim toirmemited foir disabilities ,JamiIy says The News-Leader By Chris Whitley The News-Leader Doctors can't 6ay when it happened. ; ";' ; . They only know that sometime early in Johnny Lee Wilson's life possibly even before his birth on Aug. lft, 1965 he suffered significant organic brain damage. It left him mentally retarded. . v Susan Wilson says she'll never know exactly what dealt her son the critical blow, It could have been the time she slipped and fell during pregnancy. It could have been when 4-year-old johnny jumped out of bed and hit his head on the floor. Whatever the cause, the effect made learning and growing up a major task. Compounding the struggle was the constant ridicule from classmates, co-workers, townspeople and strangers who made Johnny the butt of jokes and abuse. His cocoon was an admittedly overprotective home environment. His mother and maternal grandmother looked out for his every need without help from Johnny's father, who left home before Johnny was born. Susan Wilson never received a child support check. Hint of Johnny's retardation came early. ' "Johnny didn't talk until he was 1," Susan Wilson says. "He was a good baby, just the sweetest little boy. But we knew, we could tell, he was , having problems. He spent two vears in kin dergarten be- Susan Wilson cause he was thought not to be mature enough for first grade. ' Then, at age 6, it was confirmed by a visit to a Joplin clinic: Johnny was mentally retarded. Separate testa administered through the Aurora public schools concurred: Johnny was mentally retarded. Capable of being educated to an extent but mentally retarded. ' For the next 12 years, Johnny attended special education classes at Aurora. Teachers told investigators that Johnny tried hard in his studies, was seldom if ever a discipline problem, but suffered constant hassles and rejection from his peers. ; He was different. ' - "Johnny never started fights with anyone," says his grandmother, Nellie Maples, "Other kids would be so mean to him, though. He was real shy almost afraid of kids and if he got into a fight, it was because someone went after him, giving him trouble. He, was picked on." i Not all of his classmates gave 'Johnny such a hard time, Susan Wilson says. "Johnny had a few friends, but they were almost always younger than him," she says. I'The boys nis own age didn't seem jo like him." Teachers and administrators were more understanding. In high 7 Prisoner confesses to arson, murder Officials dismiss Joplin native's story because of inconsistencies, motives fey Chris Whitley he News-Leader ? The ashes of Pauline Martz's home were still smouldering when investigators first heard the name Chris Allen Brownfield. They dismissed it then; they dismiss it now. It was Monday, April 14, 1986. t The night before, authorities had pulled the 79-year-old widow's blackened corpse from the rubble. fhe had been tied up with rope and puct tape and left to die in the. fire. The .morning after, -Lawrence County Sheriff Dave Tatum organized a major case squad to probe .the killing.. '. ' ") One of the first tips came from Joplin Police Lt. Dick Schurman. It focused directly on Brownfield, who . was being sought for a 1984 escape from an Oklahoma prison. . I Schurman noted that the Joplin native "has been known to tie up nd beat old ladies and is more than capable of murder." The tip was quickly dismissed. Six "days after Martz was killed, a retarded Aurora man confessed to the Crime. i Not until February 1988 did Brownfield's name resurface. By then he had begun a life sentence at .the Kansas State Penitentiary for aiding and abetting first-degree murder. , The crime: the armed robbery and shooting of an elderly Pittsburg, Kan., couple op April. 29, 1986. The man survived ': to testify against -Brownfield and his wife's killer. t Brownfield, now 32, says his attempts to confess to the Martz slay-mg which occurred 16 days before the murder in Pittsburg iprouted from a conversation with a fallow inmate, Donald G. Waymire. Waymire told Brownfield he aeeded to raise money for legal fees o appeal a conviction. ' -I "I told Donnie I knew about this murder and arson in Lawrence 4fc... -.V........ . .- .. -- ichool, Johnny woa manager of the football team. A letter jacket was one of hi proudest possessions. He also worked as s port-time school janitor, cleaning up after basketball and football games, He was trustworthy. And trusted. When he graduated from Aurora High School in May 1984, Johnny seemed content to Keep on living with his mother and grandmother, earning money by mowing lawns and dotng odd jobs for neighbors. Career opportunities for an 18-year-old with an IQ of 71 were prae-tically non-existent. His intellect allowed him to function independently, but his attention span was short His judgments and emotions were those of a sensitive 12-year-old, a psychologist's report said. He could read at 'a sixth-grade level, but apparently . not well enough to pass his driver's license exam. He failed in two attempts. His only try at formal employment was a disaster. Hired as a janitor for Dave's Custom Woodworking, Johnny hung on for three months but his abilities proved limited. Some of his co-workers ridi-' culed Johnny, but no more than others in the community, manager Guy Brammell said. "It "got to the point where he couldn't even eat lunch with the rest of them," Susan Wilson says. "He'd take his lunch and go eat it in the bathroom." One day Johnny came home from work, eyes flaming red. Someone at the shop had turned on a machine while Johnny was cleaning it. Sawdust flew in his face. It took four days for his vision to return to normal. For reasons that Brammell declines to discuss, Johnny was dismissed from the job. He went back to mowing lawns. "He'd bought a new mower and was making payments on it," his grandmother says. "It was going to be like a little business." On the afternoon of April 13, 1986, his customer was Helen Wilson, no relation but a friend of the family for years. Shortly after 5 p.m., Susan Wilson went to Helen Wilson's home to pick up her son. He'd finished the yard and was ready to bring the mower home. Three hours later and eight blocks away, firefighters responded to a blaze at the home of another family friend, Pauline Martz.. Martz and Johnny's grandmother had known each other for decades. They played cards almost weekly. Johnny regarded her as a second grandmother, Maples says.. . About a month before the fire, Mart? ended her regular visits to Johnny's house. It may have been due to the death of a friend and routine card partner, Maples says. Martz's. death that Sunday night put a lasting end to the visits. Investigators pulled the 79-year-old widow's charred body from the , rubble. Someone had beaten her, tied her with rope and duct tape, sacked her home and set it on fire. Johnny Lee Wilson did it, a for- They're not wanting to embarrass themselves for sending this retarded kid to the pen.' Chris Brownfield County, Missouri, that had never been solved," Brownfield says. "I knew it had never been solved because me and another guy did it." Thinking there might be a reward for information, Brownfield says he told Waymire what he knew. Waymire wrote to Lawrence County Sheriff Dave Tatum in late February 1988. Tatum replied March 7, saying a "young Aurora subject" had pleaded guilty to killing Martz and was serving a life sentence. But the sheriff invited Waymire to submit any information "which may implicate someone other than who stands convicted." . Brownfield says he couldn't believe Tatum's response. It was at that point, he says, that he abandoned any attempts to help Waymire with the reward. Now it was a matter of "freeing an innocent man" Johnny Lee Wilson. He called the only person he knew in Lawrence County: Warren Ormsby, a bail bondsman who had befriended Brownfield in 1975. With Ormsby's encouragement, Brownfield sent letters to the FBI and U.S. attorney in Kansas City. In response, Lawrence County Deputy Steve Kahre went to the Lansing prison for an interview with Waymire in early May. Over the next two months, Brownfield was interviewed several times by Lawrence County deputies, lie knew details about the Martz killing that at first puzzled his ques V.. Dave Tatum: "The only aspiration I have Is to seek the truth, and that's what I've tried to do. We've done as much or more follow-up on Brownfield as we did on the murder and arson itself. I feel confident we've done everything we can do." mer special education classmate, told police at the fire scene. . Five days later, during formal questioning, Gary Wall explained that he approached Johnny among a group of bystanders at the fire. ' "I asked (Johnny) what was going on," Wall told officers, "and he said that the lady was tied up, beat up, and burned. I asked him if he was involved and he said, 'No.' I said, 'John, I'm not going to tell on you, I don't want to get you into trouble.' I said, 'Was you in on it?' - "He. said, 'Yes.' And he said, 'If you tell anyone that, I'll beat you up, and I'll get some other guys.' " Wall was polygraphed. The test showed his claim was truthful.'' Later that night, during a 3 hour and-40 minute interrogation, John--ny Lee Wilson confessed. He was charged with first-degree murder the next day, April 19. The town was shocked. Johnny had never been in trouble with the law. His mother and grandmother steadfastly maintain his innocence. They concede the possibility that Johnny could have sneaked out of the house through a back door between 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., but insist tioners including the discovery of a stun gun in the rubble. Tatum now maintains an Aurora businessman whom he refuses to name . fed Brownfield details of the crime: - --. On July 13, Kahre and investigator Bill Merritt questioned Brownfield again. This time, Brownfield warned that if the confession failed to result in Wilson's freedom, he would take his story to the press. Two weeks later, Tatum declared Brownfield's "confession" was part of an escape plot in which Brownfield hoped to break free during his transfer to testify in Missouri. Additionally, Tatum said, Brownfield's stories were full of holes. Brownfield said Martz had silver hair. Her hair was brown. He described furniture that wasn't in the house. He couldn't pick Martz from a group photograph. To this day, Tatum stands by his assertion that Wilson did the killing. Likewise, Brownfield is adamant that he is the guilty man. . "They been trying to pick my story apart from the first day I started talking," Brownfield said. "They're not wanting to embarrass themselves for sending this retarded kid to the pen." In a telephone interview from his cell block last week, Brownfield told how he and an unnamed accomplice robbed and killed Martz: He says he ransacked the house after his partner zapped Martz with an electric stun gun. When a search Johnny Lee Wilson: "Everything they told ms about what happened just went Into my tart and came out my mouth. I didn't know nothing about It ... I Just kept on denying It, but then I just confessed to It, I'd been questioned so many times about this and that and I was thinking, 'How the hell am I going to got out of this and got them oil my bacfcT " i t i , , j that he didn't. "He was with us the whole time, from when he finished mowing Helen's yard to when we heard the fire sirens," Maples says. "There's just no way on earth he did this." Two broth- , ers, Matt and Map,es Wayne Reed, taped records with Johnny from about 5:15 p.m. until 7 p.m., Susan Wilson says. When the Reeds left the house, she and Johnny ate supper and hung posters in Johnny's room, she says. "" But Matt Reed now 17 and living in Iowa Falls, Iowa says he left Wilson's house "no later than 6:15 p.m." In a telephone interview from Iowa Falls, Matt Reed says he arrived at Wilson's house at 5 p.m. He remembers the time because Wilson had just returned from mowing. "We taped records ACDC and stuff like that. We really liked Kiss," says Reed, who was ques of several rooms failed to yield money, Brownfield went outside to search Martz's station wagon. After a few futile minutes of searching, Brownfield returned to the house and told his partner it was time to flee. There was no money. But his partner ? who had removed a small amount of cash and a driver's license from Martz's purse was in a panic. The stun gun, bearing his fingerprints, was lost in the debris of the ransacked house. Arson was the answer. "I told him, 'Fine. Let's tie the old lady up in a chair and bring her out here in the back yard before you' torch it. The firemen will find her after we leave.' " Brownfield went outside to resume a search of the station wagon. He became startled when he turned around and saw his accomplice ; standing outside the back door, a . piece of lighted paper in his hand. The accomplice opened, the door and tossed the paper inside. ' "When he put the paper in there, a big ball of flame shot out the door," Brownfield says, "I heard this woman screaming and I said, 'What did you do to the woman'?" It was too late to save her. The two jumped in Brownfield's car and drove off, leaving Martz to perish in the flames, Or so Brownfield says. "I don't put much stock in anything Chris Brownfield says," Tatum says. "Look at the man's record. He's a career criminal." In the telephone interview. Brownfield sounds irritated when asked how he could have heard Martz screaming inside the burning house when an autopsy showed that duct tape had been placed across her mouth. "Buddy," he says, pausing, "I could put tape over your mouth and you could still make a lot of racket." nmwmm. .... Mt . f. Dee Wampler: "You take a guy with a personality of Johnny Lee Wilson, a meek, mild-mannered little milquetoast guy with a low IQ who wants to be accepted; he doesn't want bad publicity and he doesn't want shame, he just wants to get along in life. He wants to be a janitor and mow yards and watch his television. Would a guy like that go out : and commit a bizarre act like this and sexually molest an older woman that he knew?" tioned by police in the days after Wilson's arrest but not summoned to court. "I was there about 45 minutes to an hour. Maybe a little longer than that ... (but) J left by 6:15." . Around .7:30 p.m., Susan Wilson says she and Johnny left to mail a letter and pick up groceries. When the two stepped out of Ramey's Supermarket, it was. shortly after 8 p.m. : . . : Sirens wailed across town; - Susan Wilson says she and Johnny got in their car and followed the smoke to Martz's house. She says they returned home briefly to tell Maples, then went back to the fire, where they stayed their car trapped by fire hoses strung across the streets until almost 11:30 p.m. "-"There's nb way Johnny did this; Maples says. "That Wall boy is a pathological liar, and he's the only one who put the police onto Johnny. The deputies kept browbeating Johnny until he told them what they wanted to hear. "But he didn't tell them that because he did it. He told them that because he was scared to death." In a search of Johnny's home the morning after his confession, deputies seized 40 items, including sever r Johnny Lee Wilson says he didn't kill Pauline Martz despite confessing to the 1986 crime. A Kansas prisoner admits to the crime. Here . is a chronology of Wilson's case. April 13, 1986 At 8:05 p.m., Aurora firefighters respond to a blaze at the Pauline Martz residence, 601 W. Pleasant St. As the fire is put out, police and arson investigators discover Martz's body bound with rope and duct tape in the charred rubble. April 14 Police pick up a tip that Johnny Lee Wilson's brother has information about the killing. Officers go to the home of Susan Wilson and Nellie Maples Wilson's . mother and grandmother and learn Wilson has no brother. They do not interview Wilson. They also receive information . on Chris ' Brownfield, an escapee from an Oklahoma prison with a history of tying up and robbing elderly people. That tip is later dismissed because of lack of evidence. April 15 An autopsy at a Colurri-'. bia hospital shows Martz was ' struck in the head and chest with a blunt object. Cause of death; carbon . monoxide poisoning frorn smoke inhalation. April 17 Police interview Wilson. . He denies any involvement in Martz's death. ., ; April 18 Wilson is escorted from an Aurora theater by police and questioned for 3 hours and 40 min-; utes. In the last half-hour of the interview, he admits killing Martz. Wilson is charged with first-degree murder and pleads innocent. Oct. 1 Wilson is ordered to stand trial after a preliminary hearing. April 30, 1987 Wilson pleads - guilty to first-degree murder and is sentenced to life in prison with no parole. He is taken to the Missouri I. Chris Brownfield: "They could nave juat solved this whole situation, I think, a long . time ago. But, you know, they ; . kind of got an attitude towards me. Like I say ... I believe that they ust bungled the investigation from the very beginning.", . f v. J' al pieces of women's lingerie, two bags of jewelry, a gas.can and three nude photos of Susan Wilson-. ,C -. "That jewelry wasold costume jewelry that I used to make dplte with," Maples says. "All of the uru derwear was ours, too." .: . The gas can was . the one Johney used with his lawn mower, she say The nude photos, taken years ago by a friend of her daughter's, wer just an embarrassment, she saysj Psychological reports show Johnny attributed little significance, to. the pictures. - " -" - "The sheriff and the prosecutor have gone to great lengths to build this case against Johnny, and there's nothing to it," Susan Wilson says. "I don't understand why. they keep after him while this Browir-field fellow keeps saying he's the one who did it." The Missouri State Highway Patrol officer who gave Johnny a lie detector test that supported his confession doesn't dispute that Johnny is a likable young man. "He was a nice kid," Sgt. J.J. Bickers said. "He was polite 'yes sir, no sir.' He was easy to talk to. "The only problem is, he killed her." , . State Penitentiary in Jefferson City the next day. , February 1988 Kansas prison inmate Donald Waymire writes to ; Lawrence County authorities and ' claims Chris Brownfield killed Martz. April 16 Brownfield calls Aurora ;J bail bondsman Warren Ormsby 1 J and says Wilson is Innocent. .-I Brownfield is interviewed by police and reporters over the next weeks, each time insisting he and a "partner" killed Martz during a robbery. ' Police say they find inconsistencies " A in Brownfield's confessions. . ; July 29 Lawrence County Sheriff Dave Tatum dismisses Brown-field's confession as false and says it was part ot an elaborate escape plot. Brownfield and Waymire had ; hoped the confession would result in their being moved to Missouri, providing them with an escape op- portunity, Tatum says. . : ' '" orans launch a petition drive calling for a grand jury to investigate " Martz's death " c ; Oct. 20 The Missouri attorney general's office announces plans to investigate Brownfield's confession; . . ' ."; ' , .: Jan. 7, 1989 Wilson's story receives national attention in a broadcast segment of the Fox Television's "The Reporters."" April 26 Wilson appears in Jasper County Circuit Court to change his plea from guilty to not guilty by v reason of mental disease or defect. But after talking with his mother and grandmother, Wilson instead ; cnanges nis piea 10 innoceni ang asks for a trial. Judge Davia uar- nold orders a June 27 hearing w determine whether Wilson's guilty . plea should be set aside. , It I'1 2 Iff i mmmW " ! mm m aim tart

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