Day 5: LaVena Johnson Case
Updated: Oct 8
LaVena Johnson’s death was ruled a suicide by the US Army. However, the beaten and burned body that was found totally negates this official theory. Join Stephanie from Uncover True Crime Podcast and I as we dive into all the confusing details.
Listen Here: https://www.spreaker.com/episode/41283215
LaVena Lynn Johnson was born on July 27, 1985. She was the daughter of Dr. John Johnson who was a veteran as well and his wife Linda Johnson. She had three older brothers and one younger sister, so it was a large and loving family. This is shown in every documentary that focuses on her death. Her family is very proactive about trying to raise awareness and prevent things from happening to others that are in the army.
From her birth, LaVena was a very hard worker. She was always an honors student and absolutely loved school. Along with school work she participated in sports and music which created a very full schedule for her throughout her life. This continued throughout high school and LaVena decided that she wanted to be a producer. Due to wanting to do this and go to college out of state, she wanted to be able to pay her own tuition and the army was the way to do that for her.
Her family did not want her to go into the army, even though there was a history of people going into the military in their family. However, LaVena was not one to change her mind so as soon as she brought up going into the army her parents knew her mind was already made up.
LaVena Johnson was deployed to Iraq and stationed in Balad. There she stayed for about two months before her mysterious death on July 19, 2005, when she was only 19 years old. During the time before her death, she worked in the communication department which helped her family feel better with where she was. Due to this, she was able to call her family almost daily and when she wasn’t she would always send letters.
LaVena was often very optimistic while deployed and this shown in letters and phone calls alike. She did state many times that some male soldiers would call the women in the army ‘females, sol’s (because it is half a solider). And more demeaning names like that. LaVena stated that she was fairly unbothered by this because she knew how capable she was.
Two days before LaVena’s death she called home and seemed super excited. She was getting a new job and even better she was going to be home for Christmas this year. This was great news to her because she loved Christmas and decorating for Christmas as well. This was the last time LaVena would ever speak to her parents.
On July 19, 2005, a soldier came to the Johnson household. As soon as her parents saw this they were devastated, it is said her mother would not even go down to talk to the soldier but the father did. The soldier stated that LaVena had died of self-inflicted wounds. That is all he would say despite further questioning from LaVena’s parents.
At this time the family was told that there was an ongoing investigation into LaVena’s death. Her parents and friends stated that there was no way LaVena killed herself because she shown no signs of suicide at all. Her father had a Ph.D. in psychology and studied psychology in soldiers so he was able to make a reasonable decision on this.
LaVena’s death was ruled a suicide by the Department of Defense. This could not be further from the truth based on the evidence that came from the crime scene of LaVena Johnson.
Quickly, after LaVena’s body was found, the military launched an investigation into her death, or what seemed like an investigation. If we are being honest we know that the military knew exactly what had happened to her from the start, but they gave the family the idea that they were looking into it and how she supposedly committed suicide.
Those who were investigating her death stated that she was depressed and mentally unstable due to her boyfriend of only a few months breaking up with her around that time. The story was that she had these emails printed out and in her pocket when her body was found, although there is really no evidence supporting that claim. Also, pure speculation, but LaVena seemed like a very strong woman with a lot going for her in life, it doesn’t seem that she would let a small break up affect her like this.
After printing out these emails she supposedly took her M16 gun and walked out of her barracks alone. She went across the camp to a contractor's tent that was messy, dirty, and dark. There she supposedly decided to set these emails on fire and then start to set the entire tent on fire while she was inside.
Then, as the tent was burning around her she took her M16 gun, that stands at 40” long, stuck it in her mouth, and shot herself once, killing herself.
The army asked the Johnson family to please consider a closed casket at the funeral because of this supposed method of suicide. Obviously, if you are shot in the mouth your face will often be messed up after a death. However, many people speculate that the army actually just didn’t want the family to see LaVena due to their version of events not matching up with what LaVena looked like.
Apparently, this happens often with mysterious deaths in the military. There are tons of stories out there that are from families of soldiers stating that the military essentially forced them to have a closed casket so they are not even sure if they buried their loved one.
LaVena’s family was already suspicious of the army at this point because nothing added up, therefore they decided that there was going to be an open casket at the funeral anyway. This let the family identify that LaVena had many bruises and may be missing teeth, both pointed to a very bad beating that the army never said anything about.
It was later discovered that her white dress gloves were glued to her hands to cover the 3rd-degree the army stated happened. And according to Mr. Johnson, LaVena’s father this was not the shot of an M16 at all. He had seen someone commit suicide while in the army himself and that person's face was completely destroyed. This was not what LaVena looked like.
It was later discovered that her white dress gloves were glued to her hands to cover the 3rd-degree degree burns that were there.
Her autopsy also shown that she only sustained non-serious injuries before her death such as her busted lip and some scratches on her as well. In reality, that is not at all the injuries she had. Through crime scene photos and other reports, it is very clear that there was actually quite a large struggle before her death. However, that would never go along with the military version of what happened to her. Why would there be an intense struggle before someone committed suicide?
LaVena’s father was the one to talk to the Medical examiner about the autopsy. He had so many questions after receiving the autopsy and none of them were really answered. A very specific one that was asked was, Mr. Johnson wondering if the ME did a rape kit. The ME stated that no, there was no trauma to the gentiles so it was not needed.
Eventually, when LaVena’s death was ruled a suicide the ME stated the investigator ruled it that but the investigator stated that the ME ruled it that. Blame was just being passed around. LaVena’s father decided that they needed to battle with the US Army for more information and documents about their daughter's death. They put out a lot of freedom of information act orders and started working with a congressman to achieve getting all the pieces of information they needed. They found out a lot from all of this work.
There were many injuries that were not reported on the official reports. The injuries that were sustained before death but were not mentioned in the military’s report include the following:
-bruises, scratches, and bite marks that littered the upper part of her torso
-stomach was completely bruised
-burn that went from her shoulder all the way to above her knee
-a broken nose that was covered up post mortem with plastic surgery
-a broken neck
-badly beaten up all over her body
-a highly corrosive substance, such as some type of acid, poured on her genitals
-Burnt right hand
How is any of that not mentioned in an autopsy report or death report? These all seem like things that point to a very different cause of death than the suicide that the military reported. Also, remember the ME stating that there was no trauma to LaVena’s gentiles? Obviously, that is not the case. It is assumed that this acid was poured on that area to get rid of any DNA from rape.
This was not the end of odd evidence in the case or evidence that was not in the official military report either. They also decided not to mention that there was quite a bit of blood outside of the tent where LaVena’s body was found and that there was debris that suggested her body had been dragged inside after death, including having her back caked in dirt. Supporting this idea was also the fact that a footprint inside the crime scene has never been identified.
Let’s get into some more details about what was not adding up in this case.
LaVena was only 5’1” tall, which is also 61” tall. The M16 that she was issued was 40” long. Her arms would never be long enough to shoot herself with that type of gun. To this information it was suggested that she pulled the trigger with her toe…however, her shoes and socks were on when she was found. Not many dead people can put boots on after shooting themselves. Not to mention, she was technically shot in the left temple while being right-handed.
The medical examiner that did her autopsy stated that the exit wound was on the back of her head. (If you want to you can google pictures of her that her family has made public and it is obvious this was no exit wound.) Then when LaVena’s father asked about the bullet wound on the left temple the ME stated that the wound changes depending on where you look at it from. Stories are changing but neither of them makes sense in the first place. This ME is simply just grasping at straws to explain away anything that came up.
Multiple ballistic experts have stated that her bullet wound is more reminiscent of a 9MM bullet, not an M16 one.
Also, her fingerprints were nowhere on the M16, actually, there were no fingerprints at all, not even of the EMT who moved the gun when they arrived, and no gunshot residue on her hands although she supposedly shot herself. This points to either replacing the weapon after the body was gone or wiping down the weapon after the fact. If it was a suicide this would not have happened.
Now, getting into the crime scene photos, that are available online, there are a lot of things that do not add up at all. LaVena is lying on her back with one arm essentially over her face. You can see a puddle of blood that looks to be coming from her head but it seems there is no blood splatter anywhere. Supporting the facts that there was blood outside the tent and debris inside the tent that suggests LaVena was brought there after death.
In the crime scene photos, she is seen wearing a t-shirt, sweatpants, socks, and running shoes. This means that she obviously did not commit suicide by pulling the trigger with her toe, which is the only way she successfully could’ve shot the M16 at herself. Her clothes also are not burned at all although she has a burn stretching from her shoulder to her knee, acid on her gentiles, and burns on her hands. This shows that she had been naked when these injuries occurred.
Also negating the idea of suicide is that in the crime scene photo there is LaVena’s body, then a cot, and then the M16 gun. It was not found on her or even hear her, it was feet away on the other side of a large object. If she killed herself then how did the gun get there?
At one point in the investigation, it seemed that someone lent the family a hand as there was a printed picture of a CD/DVD in one of the files they received. When the family asked the army what this CD was they refused to give it to the family and stated that there was sensitive information on there pertaining to other soldiers so they couldn’t see it due to privacy reasons.
However, eventually, after a lot of time and effort, the army allowed the family to see the CD/DVD. This CD/DVD had literally everything from the entire case. Photos of the crime scene, autopsy, interviews with people, and tons of documents.
Through these documents, it was found that there were multiple stories that the army stated LaVena’s death was because of. It seemed that they just kept changing their story to better suit the army, not get into the truth of what actually happened.
LaVena’s commanding officer as well as friends that were with her in Iraq stated that LaVena did not show signs of depression and was not acting any differently. This directly goes against what the army stated happened to LaVena.
Eventually, the family decided that they had to exhume LaVena’s body and have another autopsy done. They hired a top person in the field to do the autopsy but right before it was supposed to happen this man stated he could not do it because he was friends with the original ME. So nothing really helpful came out of this second autopsy. However, it was noted that the first autopsy took out chunks from LaVena’s tongue, vagina, and anal area. This was never revealed prior to this second autopsy but it is still unknown what happened to these pieces of LaVena’s body or why they were taken out.
However, if you remember earlier about the bullet wound to the left temple this could be an explanation for why the tongue was taken out. If that was an entrance wound of a bullet then it could’ve gone down into her tongue and gotten stopped there. Then to cover up where the bullet wound actually was the ME took out the tongue that had the bullet in it.
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