Hue and Cry

The Death of PFC LaVena Johnson

The Death of PFC LaVena Johnson

Location: Balad, Iraq  |  Year: 2005

LaVena Johnson grew up in Florissant, Missouri with her father Dr. John Johnson, a service veteran, her mother Linda Johnson, and her four siblings. After high school, LaVena decided to enroll in the US Military. Her father had previously served and she wanted to continue the family tradition.

LaVena became a Private First Class in the United States Army and was stationed in Balad, Iraq. She worked in the communications building and wrote home frequently to update her parents on her experience.

LaVena Johnson
LaVena Johnson (St. Louis American)

On July 17, LaVena called her parents with the good news that she would be coming home early for Christmas and that she was looking forward to decorating the tree and spending time with everyone. Her mother recalled her being her usual jubilant self during this conversation.

A couple of days after this call, the Johnson family received a visit from a soldier. He was there to tell them that LaVena had died, even alluding that LaVena had taken her own life, which struck her family as unusual. They had just spoken to her days before, and nothing seemed to have warranted her taking her own life.

As more information came in about LaVena’s death, her parents started to get a clearer picture of the events that transpired that day. LaVena got off work sometime between 4 and 5 pm but never made it to her physical training appointment. The Army claimed that LaVena had met up with a male soldier who she hung out with for approximately 4 hours in his room, and then both went to the shopping area to pick up some items before the two went their separate ways.

At 1:20 am her body was found in a contractor’s tent in a pool of blood with her hand covering her face. Next to her body was an M16 rile and some scattered papers.

After an autopsy was done, LaVena’s death was officially ruled a suicide by the Army. They claimed she was upset that her boyfriend of two months had broken up with her and that she burned letters from him and then committed suicide by firing an M-16 automatic rifle into her mouth.

The Army recommended that the family have a closed casket funeral but the Johnson family decided on an open-casket funeral, and it was here where they began to see several discrepancies with the Army’s story. For one, LaVena’s nose looked like it had been broken, and her lips cut. The only sign of a gunshot wound was a small bullet hole on the left side of her head, but the Army told them she had shot herself in the mouth. The entry wound also looked like it came from a 9MM, not an M-16 rifle.

LaVena’s gloves had also been glued onto her hands, which was not normal protocol. When LaVena’s dad finally got his hands on the autopsy report months later, he discovered more suspicious information.

He discovered that no rape kit was done and no fingernail scrapings were ever taken. It was evident that the medical examiner who conducted the autopsy had already determined that the cause of death was a suicide beforehand.

At this point, the family decided to hire their own criminal investigator to look into the case. After months of back-and-forth with the Army, they were finally given the case documents, which included original color crime scene photos.

The photos showed that LaVena had severe damage to her face, resembling someone who had been hit with a blunt object. Her nose was broken, she had a black eye and loose teeth, and some type of corrosive liquid had been poured into her genitals, most likely to destroy any DNA evidence. The gunshot wound was also inconsistent with suicide. LaVena’s father did not believe his 5-foot-1 daughter’s arms were long enough to pull the trigger of an M-16 cradled between her legs, as described in the Army’s report.

The Army said they did not do a rape kit because it did not look like there was any evidence of a struggle. Even though there was no suicide note, no recovered bullet, no significant gunshot residue on her hands, and a trail of blood found outside the tent—the Army claimed that she was depressed and unstable days before her death and that her death was a suicide, and closed the case.

LaVena Johnson and her father, John Johnson (The Sleuth Journal)

LaVena’s father, John Johnson believes his daughter was assaulted and killed, and her crime scene was staged to look like a suicide to cover up for somebody on that base with high rank or prestige. The Johnsons are not the only ones fighting this uphill battle. Several families have lost daughters in the Military to mysterious deaths and “suicides.” In many cases, they are left with unanswered questions, unrealistic conclusions, and a lifelong fight for the truth from the Military.

Below you can find some ways to help, and resources to dig deeper into LaVena’s case and other instances of military injustice.

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