In the dead of winter 1977, a suspected serial killer moonlighting as a military police officer abducts four teenagers who were out on a double date in the heart of the Ozarks. Johnny Lee Thornton’s diabolical mind and dark deeds are revealed when the snow melts and the facade of his seemingly normal personality disintegrates. The question still lingering to this day is, did this predator have more victims in the Ozarks?
- “Ft. Wood MP Charged In Slaying” by Julie DelCour for the Springfield Leader and Press
- “MP is Arraigned In Fort Wood Killing” by staff for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch
- “Military Policeman held In Fort Wood Massacre” by staff for The Daily Capital News
- “Town Shocked By 3 Deaths At Fort Wood” by Ann Telthorst for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
- “G.I.’s Trail To Be Moved Again” by Joe Henderson for The Kansas City Times
- “Jury Panel Quizzed In Triple Murder Case” by Joe Henderson for The Kansas City Times
- “Defense In Fort Wood Case Won’t Dispute Some Counts” by Kevin Horrigan for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
- “Thornton Named Teens’ Murderer” by The Associated Press
- “Defense Of Insanity Is Focus In Fort Wood Killings Trial” by Kevin Horrigan for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
- “Insanity Defense Built In Thornton Case” by Joe Henderson for The Kansas City Times
- “Childhood Trauma Cited by Psychiatrist In GI’s Slaying Trial” by Joe Henderson for The Kansas City Times
- “Good Soldier Lost Tug-of-War” by Joe Henderson for The Kansas City Times
- “Psychiatrist Analyzes Thornton” by Joe Henderson for The Kansas City Times
- “Thornton Video Tapes Show ‘Split Personality’” by Joe Henderson for The Kansas City Times
- “Mother Describes Conflicts In Thornton’s Life” by Joe Henderson for The Kansas City Times
- “Youths’ Murders On Fort Wood Reservation Prompt General To Seek Land Clarification” by staff for The Houston Herald
- “Families Sue Over Deaths of Plato Trio” by staff for Springfield Leader Press
- Patti Jean Thornton vs. Johnny Lee Thornton Divorce Announcement Albany Democrat-Herald
- “Families’ Suit Claim Army Liable” by Joe Henderson for The Kansas City Times
- “Specialist Derides ‘Jekyll-Hyde’ Murder Theory” by Kevin Horrigan for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
- “Chilling Tale Ends Thornton’s Defense” by Kiley Armstrong for the St. Joseph Gazette
- “Military Policeman Found Guilty in Slaying of 3” by The Associated Press
- “Insanity Plea Dismissed; MP Guilty of 3 Murders” by staff for the Arizona Daily Star
- “Ex GI Is Sentenced To Three Life Terms” by staff for The Kansas City Times
- United States Court of Appeals Eighth Circuit December 15, 1983
- “Appeals Court Denies Damages in Rape-Murders By Soldier” by The Associated Press
- “Recent Ozarks Killings With 2 or More Victims” by Staff for The Springfield News-Leader
- “Book Penned On A Crime That Shook Plato” by staff for The Houston Herald
- “Frozen Tears” by J.B. King and Sandra Miller Linhart
- Teresa Joanna Gossage – Charley Project
- Alfred Elmer Hoffman Marshal – Charley Project
- “FBI Checks Similarities In Disappearance, Deaths” by Julie DelCour for The Springfield News-Leader
- Johnny Lee Thornton US Department of Corrections Inmate Profile
- Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri Facts
- Fort Leonard Wood Photos
- Fort Leonard Wood Location Google Maps
- Ozarks National Scenic Riverways Facts
Hi park enthusiasts…
I’m your host Delia D’Ambra. The case I have for you today is a bizarre one.
It takes place in and around Fort Leonard Wood army installation just South of Lake of the Ozarks State Park and slightly west of the Mark Twain National Forest in south-central Missouri.
The Fort Leonard Wood base covers over 3,000 square miles and according to its website trains over 80,000 service members a year.
If you drive 30 minutes to an hour in either direction you’re surrounded by Clark National Forest, the Ozark National Scenic Riverways and the Northern edges of the Ozark Mountains.
A lot of people who live and work on the army base visit these recreation areas to go on long drives or hike and camp in the summer and spring time.
In the winter though, snowfall and icy roads keep most people indoors or traveling only short distances.
On a car ride in 1977, four teenagers who ventured out into a cold January night for a double date came face to face with a deadly predator who used the snowfall to cover up his crimes.
But when his horrific deeds were uncovered, the facade of his military persona was unmasked and everyone was left asking the question…who is officer Johnny Lee Thornton?
This is Park Predators.
*Card deck shuffling & glass bottles clinking*
On January 12th, 1977 Donna Bates Stenger was hosting a game night at her house on Fort Leonard Wood army base.
The evening of playing cards and hanging out was winding down and her younger brother Anthony and his three friends were about to head out and get some late-night pizza.
18-year-old Anthony was on a double date with his girlfriend 16-year-old Linda Needham, her friend 19-year-old Juanita Deckard, and 18-year-old Wesley Hawkins. Anthony and Linda had been a steady couple for a while and Juanita and Wesley had only recently started dating.
Around 10:30 pm, Donna and her husband called it a night and went to sleep. Another friend who’d been hanging out, named Ruth Keen went home around that time too and Anthony and his friends piled into his car and headed out to find food.
The next morning around 7:00 am Donna and her husband were driving to work and noticed something odd. There on the side of the roadway, a few minutes away from their house, they saw Anthony’s car pulled off with no one inside. Donna knew Thursday was her brother’s day off work. So, she figured maybe he’d just left his car there to visit friends or he and Linda were out with her family in their car.
Donna had no idea what the story was behind Anthony’s empty car…but she was about to find out in a terrible way.
*Rotary phone ringing*
A few hours later, around 1:15 pm the Missouri State Police got a call from Linda Needham’s father. He told troopers that his daughter had not returned home Wednesday night after going out with her boyfriend. He said he’d been searching for her and Anthony for hours but had no luck in finding them.
He said around 1:00 pm he’d received a call from Juanita Deckard, a girl who’d been with his daughter and her boyfriend on Wednesday night. Juanita had told Mr. Needham that she herself had been shot and the shooter had also shot and killed Linda and the boys.
Linda’s father told troopers that he’d driven to meet Juanita at a rural mobile home in a nearby county where she said she’d walked to for help. He immediately saw that she’d suffered two superficial gunshot wounds and was in need of medical attention. Using the home owner’s phone, he’d called Missouri State troopers to report what Juanita had told him.
He told the dispatcher that Juanita was shot but not seriously injured and he was going to load her into his car and drive her to a local hospital. He asked that Missouri State troopers meet him on the way so they could get a statement from her and start looking for Linda, Anthony, and Wesley.
The trooper who drove to meet Mr. Needham was named J.B. King. In his book, Frozen Tears, J.B. wrote that from the moment he saw Juanita sitting in Mr. Needham’s passenger seat he knew something terrible had happened.
On the side of the rural road, while she was still bleeding, Juanita gave J.B. a quick statement of what had happened.
She said that she’d been shot in the left breast and arm by a military police officer the night before and all of her friends were dead. J.B. learned that Anthony, Linda, and Wesley’s bodies were somewhere in the nearby area, buried in a snowdrift.
The trooper quickly radioed in the incident to his superiors and asked for nearby military police captains from the army base to respond to his location and start searching the woods for the missing teens.
While he waited for backup, J.B. continued to ask Juanita more questions about what had happened. She explained that after leaving Anthony’s sister’s house the night before, around 10:30 pm, the group went to find a nearby gas station and get pizza. Around midnight they were driving on roads in Fort Leonard Wood and noticed a car following close behind them.
Juanita said around 12:30 am a police officer driving in that car stopped them on Missouri 17, a main road on the west side of the military base. She said the officer flashed his red light behind Anthony’s car and called out from a speaker for them to pull over.
The young man who got out of the patrol car was wearing an Army uniform and the vehicle he was driving had the number 327 or something close to that stenciled on the left front bumper. She said she recognized the make of the vehicle because she’d seen game wardens driving similar ones on the army base before.
*Car engine idling & car window opening*
She said when Anthony obeyed, the officer came up to the driver’s side window and explained to the group that their car matched a description of a stolen vehicle that had been seen leaving an armed robbery call near the south gate of the army post the night before.
Juanita and her friends were totally confused and Anthony tried to explain to the officer that the vehicle he was driving wasn’t stolen, but the officer insisted all of the teens get out of the car immediately.
Within 30 seconds of everyone piling out, the officer handcuffed Anthony and Wesley and said he was arresting them for armed robbery. With their arms secured behind their backs, he put the boys in the back seat of the patrol car and corralled the girls huddled together outside.
Juanita said the officer then loaded Linda in the back with the boys and put her in the passenger seat next to him.
Suddenly, he turned in the driver’s seat and shot Wesley and Anthony at point-blank range. He then drove the patrol car to a deserted cabin near the edge of the army base and unloaded the girls.
According to J.B King’s book, Juanita said the women’s assailant sexually assaulted them multiple times over a period of four hours inside the cabin.
Juanita reported that after assaulting them the officer made the girls walk outside in the cold snow and stand side by side. She said their captor shot Linda first a few times, then fired twice at her. She said she instinctively raised her arm at the last second to try and defend herself and two gunshots grazed her arm and chest, creating visible wounds.
Juanita said she knew she wasn’t seriously injured but pretended to be dead anyway. She said her assailant then loaded all the victims’ bodies into the patrol car and drove off into the nearby national forest.
As she laid piled with her dead friends inside of the officer’s car, Juanita said she noticed that the officer was headed deeper and deeper into the woods outside of Fort Leonard Wood.
She says when the car came to a stop she continued pretending to be dead and let the officer grab her shoulders and drag her body into a snowbank. She said she laid still and tried not to breathe while he dug out two shallow holes for her and Linda. After kicking snow over their bodies, he returned to the patrol car and fired another shot at Anthony, who Juanita said had somehow regained consciousness and started making noises.
She said the officer then put Wesley and Anthony’s bodies next to her and Linda in the snow and scooped several more piles of snow over all of them. After he was done, he drove off.
Juanita said after waiting what felt like an eternity she climbed out of her shallow snowy grave and tried to shake her friends to see if they were still alive. None of them responded and she realized they were all dead. After that, she bundled herself up as best as she could and started walking to find help.
For three hours she stumbled around in freezing temperatures and half a foot of snow. After walking about six miles, she said she saw a faint light in the distance and as she got closer, realized it was coming from a mobile home. When she made it up the steps and knocked on the door a woman inside answered and helped her.
She told trooper J.B. that the first call she made was to Linda’s dad, Mr. Needham, then she dialed the number for Douglas Hawkins, Wesley’s older brother. She explained to Douglas what had happened and where she thought Anthony, Wesley, and Linda’s bodies were and emphasized that police needed to go get them.
According to J.B. King’s book, by two o’clock in the afternoon news of the missing teens had made its way to more police officers in the area and a search party was organized. Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office and Missouri State Police arrived at the scene around the same time two carloads full of the victims’ family members did.
Tempers flared when the authorities would not let the families trek through the snow to where the other teens’ bodies were.
J.B. said he was finally able to convince everyone to calm down. As more and more military police showed up the families realized authorities had a job to do and the top priority was to secure the scene and get Juanita safely to the hospital.
*Walking through crunching snow*
When the search party followed Juanita’s tracks in the snow they quickly found Anthony, Wesley, and Linda’s bodies partially sticking out of a large drift. The burial site was located in a heavily wooded section of the base that had long since been abandoned and was pretty much taken over by wilderness. The nearby cabin that Juanita said she and Linda had been held in was the only structure left in that section of the post.
Very quickly after the bodies were found, local authorities called in FBI agents from the Kansas City field office. The feds were lead on the investigation because Fort Leonard Wood and the surrounding area where the victims were buried is federal property.
Missouri State Troopers, the Army as well as Pulaski County Sheriff’s deputies continued to assist with the case. The feds especially wanted to talk with trooper J.B King. He’d been the first person to interview Juanita and the FBI needed him to bring their agents up to speed.
J.B. wrote in his book that while he waited for the FBI agents to arrive, a few military police officers from the army base came to the scene to get briefed on the situation.
One of the military police sergeants who’d arrived on scene was listening to J.B. ‘s information and leaning against a game warden patrol car.
A few words into his first sentence, J.B. noticed something surprising about the car. He did a double-take and saw a clue that made everyone’s jaws drop.
As Missouri State trooper J.B. King was briefing military police officers about the deaths of Anthony, Linda, and Wesley, he was stopped dead in his tracks.
A sergeant from the base who’d been leaning against a patrol car caught his attention.
The patrol car had the letter “X” and the number “37” stenciled on the left front bumper.
J.B. asked the sergeant where the car came from and the sergeant told him he’d just checked it out of the base. J.B. told the sergeant that the vehicle Juanita remembered her assailant driving had the number 327 or something similar to that written on the front left bumper. X37 looked a whole lot like 327.
Immediately, everyone stepped away from the patrol car, realizing it could be what the killer had used in the attack.
The military police sergeant ran a quick check to find out who’d used the International Scout four-wheel-drive vehicle the previous night and the records showed that 23-year-old game warden officer Johnny Lee Thornton was the last person to check it out.
According to news reports, in 1977 the military police at Fort Leonard Wood only had three International Scout four-wheel-drive vehicles in their fleet. The night of the killings two of them were in the shop for repairs, which left only one in service.
The investigation kicked into high gear at that point.
Military police supervisors immediately called back to the base to speak with Johnny. They learned from several men working that when news of a teenage shooting survivor had come across the radio, Johnny had abruptly left the post.
His fellow officers told their superiors that before Johnny left he checked out a .45 caliber pistol and several magazines of ammunition from the armory.
That news did not sit well with ANY of the investigators. Not only was Johnny their prime suspect, but he was now armed and out in the community.
Right around that time FBI investigators from Kansas City had made the three-and-a-half-hour drive to Fort Leonard Wood and took over the case.
Agents learned from military police records that on Wednesday night Johnny had been working an overnight game warden shift patrolling the base. On Thursday morning he’d returned his patrol car to the base and a colleague noticed it had bloodstains in the back seat. When his coworker asked where the blood had come from, Johnny claimed the stains were from several stray dogs he’d shot while on duty.
*Dogs barking in the distance*
At the time, his colleague didn’t argue with him because shooting stray dogs was something the game wardens were authorized to do in order to keep the base free of rabid or nuisance animals that could be threatening.
At that time, the army’s game wardens were responsible for randomly patrolling the base, assisting hunters, and checking permits. Johnny’s duties also included writing citations to trespassers, trash dumpers, and poachers.
The job also required little to no supervision and a high level of competence. If the occasion called for it, game wardens were authorized to arrest military personnel and detain civilians for suspected crimes.
*Sirens & cars driving fast*
FBI agents and military police on base fanned out across Fort Leonard Wood and began stopping every car in and out of the base looking for Johnny. While the manhunt was happening, FBI agents also took a closer look at the four-wheel-drive vehicle Johnny had been driving during his shift. Agents found the traces of blood in the backseat along with a bullet hole in the tailgate. They knew that evidence matched Juanita’s story that Anthony and Wesley had been shot inside the car.
By four o’clock on Thursday, the FBI had a signed arrest warrant for Johnny Lee Thornton. Now, they just needed to find him.
In a lucky twist, around six o’clock that night Johnny called his superiors at the army base and agreed to turn himself in.
He asked them to pick him up on a nearby highway and when they arrived he peacefully surrendered. When federal investigators had him in custody they retrieved the .45 caliber pistol he’d checked out of the armory and began questioning him about his whereabouts on Wednesday night.
The next morning, Friday, January 14th, the FBI charged Johnny with Anthony Bates murder and transported him under armed guard to a medical center for federal prisoners about 90 miles away in the town of Springfield, Missouri.
According to reporting by the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, the reason Johnny was only charged with Anthony’s murder at the time was because the FBI said it had stronger evidence connecting him to that murder, versus the others.
That seems kind of strange to me, but that’s what they said. The FBI had no doubt that Johnny was responsible for all three killings and the attempted murder of Juanita, but according to the arrest affidavit, agents just felt better about moving forward with murder charges for Anthony’s death first.
A man named Bill Williams was the FBI special agent in charge of the case. Bill told newspaper reporters that the authorities in Fort Leonard Wood had received several death threats against Johnny after he was taken into custody.
These callers promised that the defendant would not make it to the prison hospital in Springfield alive because of what he’d done. Every time Johnny was moved, investigators had to make special arrangements to protect him from the citizens who were outraged by the murders.
The brutal nature of Anthony, Linda, and Wesley’s death, plus the attempted murder of Juanita had everyone in South Central Missouri worked up.
The victims were all well-liked young people who seemed to be completely random targets. The public was outraged that a military police officer had gone rogue and murdered some innocent victims.
Anthony, Linda, and Wesley were from the nearby town of Plato, Missouri. They’d grown up in a community of less than 70 people and were known by most everyone in their hometown.
Juanita was from Lynchburg, Missouri, which was also a very small town just a few miles away from Plato. Her friends told the Saint Louis Post Dispatch that she was a strong-willed person and they weren’t surprised that she made it through the horrifying ordeal. They said Juanita was always very intelligent and knew how to survive the worst.
Anthony and Wesley had recently graduated high school the May before their deaths and were both well-liked athletes, musicians, and students. One of Linda’s school principals described her to the Springfield Leader and Press as a quiet girl who was a good student and never got involved in drama or problems at her high school.
According to the FBI, the accused killer, Johnny Lee Thornton had grown up in California and enlisted in the army in May of 1975. By all accounts, he had an exemplary military record during his time of service and had positive reviews from all of his superiors.
Investigators didn’t find any history of medical problems or psychological issues on his record. They also had no evidence supporting that he knew any of the victims in any way.
At the time of his arrest, Johnny lived in Russellville, Arkansas and was legally married to a woman named Patti who lived in California. The couple had two young sons and were in the midst of going through a divorce.
FBI agent Bill Williams told local newspapers that after Johnny’s arrest, agents had found a letter in Johnny’s possession that was addressed to Patti. In it Johnny told his wife that he’d been suffering from severe headaches for months and that he loved her. He told her that when he got the headaches he would blackout and couldn’t remember anything that had occurred while he was experiencing them.
On January 27th, a federal grand jury in Kansas City officially indicted Johnny. By then though his charges had changed slightly.
He was now charged with three counts of first-degree murder, attempted murder, and the kidnap and rape of Linda and Juanita.
In terms of forensics, the FBI presented evidence to the grand jury that proved on the night Johnny was working six cartridges had been fired from his .45 caliber service weapon. That evidence combined with Juanita’s eyewitness testimony and positive identification of Johnny as the man who tried to kill her was enough to secure a formal indictment for murder along with all of those other charges I just told you about.
Five months after the killings, in June 1977, Johnny’s trial date and location had been moved twice. The public defender appointed to his case filed two motions for change of venue. He argued that no one in the state of Missouri could be impartial if they were selected to sit on a jury.
The judge granted these motions and the trial was moved for the third and final time to a federal court in Council Bluffs, Iowa. According to the Kansas City Star, this was the first Missouri murder case to be moved out of state in 25 years.
On July 18th, the court had a jury seated and opening arguments got underway.
It was clear from the get-go that Johnny was going to claim he was not guilty by reason of insanity. The defense argued that Johnny suffered from dissociative identity disorder. This psychological disorder meant that he had two distinct people living in his mind and controlling his body.
One personality the defense referred to as “Bad John” often overpowered and controlled the other personality which the defense referred to as “Good Johnny.”
It was “Bad John” who’d overpowered “Good Johnny” and killed the teenagers that snowy night in January. The defense claimed that the dominant personality inside Johnny could not help himself and had to commit acts of extreme violence.
Kevin Horrigan reported for the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch that Johnny’s attorneys didn’t deny the fact that their client had killed the teenagers and raped Juanita and Linda. They told jurors Johnny just couldn’t be considered the same as everyone else in society.
Johnny was mentally ill and at the time of the murders, he did not know the difference between right and wrong. His attorney told jurors quote — “a person in the body of Johnny Lee Thornton committed one of the most vile heinous crimes ever committed.”—end quote.
Winning jurors over on this strategy was tricky though because, to the jurors in court at the time, Johnny didn’t look like a man plagued by an epic battle between dual personalities warring in his mind. He was a clean-cut handsome man in his early 20’s who sat the entire time at the defense table with an expressionless face and motionless posture.
Government psychiatrists who’d evaluated him before trial at the federal prisoners’ hospital determined that he was mentally capable of standing trial and could communicate with his attorneys.
Both sides announced they planned to put doctors on the stand who would support or refute the insanity defense.
The Sedalia Democrat reported that Juanita Deckard was one of the first people to testify as a witness. Her story was terrifying for everyone in the courtroom to hear. Juanita never looked at Johnny except to positively identify him as her attacker.
She explained to the court that when she climbed out of the snowy grave Johnny put her in, she called for her friends to wake up. She dug around in the snow for several minutes and quickly uncovered the cold lifeless face of her boyfriend, Wesley. She said she tried talking to him to see if he’d wake up, but he didn’t. She did the same to Linda and even tried giving them both mouth to mouth but they could not be revived. She said she wasn’t able to find Anthony’s body but knew he had to be close by.
She said the last thing she did was put Linda and Wesley’s coats over their faces so snow wouldn’t fall on them and bury them again…then she began walking to find help.
It was hard for the defense to argue with Juanita’s riveting testimony, so they didn’t push her on cross-examination.
Instead, they quickly moved on to questioning some of Johnny’s military police supervisors.
These men were the ones who’d initially interviewed Johnny after he turned himself in. On the witness stand, they told the court that after his arrest Johnny often went in and out of crying and said quote — “I know I’ve done something bad, but I don’t remember what it is…what have I done? What happened to the people”– end quote.
His supervisors also said that Johnny admitted he and his wife Patti were having marital problems at the time of the murders but Johnny said they were in the midst of working them out. The officers mentioned that the entire time he was being questioned, Johnny complained of having a severe headache.
One of the most explosive moments at trial was when Patti Thornton’s testimony was read out loud to the jurors.
According to The Kansas City Star Patti’s deposition transcript explained that on several occasions throughout her complicated marriage to Johnny he’d often complained of suffering from severe headaches and would commit violent acts.
The couple had met in California when Patti was 17 and stayed together and eventually got married in October 1974.
Shortly after that, they moved to Arkansas when Johnny joined the army in 1975. Patti said after the birth of their first son, her and Johnny’s relationship was constantly up and down due to aggressive hostility from Johnny’s mother, Deanie, and Johnny’s tendency to have affairs.
Patti said that in 1975 while Johnny was at a basic training camp in Alabama he’d started seeing another woman and when Patti found out about the affair she moved with their son back to California.
After Johnny left basic training and was assigned a new post in the army, the couple reconciled and a few months later Patti became pregnant with their second son. She said when he found out, Johnny asked her to get an abortion. She refused and filed for divorce.
She said during the years they were together she’d learned that when Johnny was a little boy his older brother had struck him in the head with a metal pipe. He’d also suffered years of abuse from his biological father who’d tried to kill him as a toddler.
Johnny’s mother was also abusive, both physically and mentally. Patti said that Deanie would frequently threaten to kill Johnny and Patti over the smallest things. When the couple had announced they were expecting their first baby, Patti said that Deanie told her she would beat the child out of her if she chose to keep it.
Patti said that on several occasions Deanie tried to convince Johnny to divorce her and find another wife. Patti said that Johnny’s grandfather also threatened to kill her and on one occasion one of his uncles sexually attacked her.
Throughout their relationship, Johnny often complained that he suffered from debilitating headaches that would radiate from a permanent knot on his head. On two separate occasions while having these headaches Johnny had destroyed furniture and appliances in he and Patti’s home. One time even threw a glass jar at her and caused her to collapse to the floor.
Patti’s testimony also described another incident while they were playfully wrestling in bed, Johnny had suddenly got a headache and attempted to suffocate her with a pillow. She managed to survive that attack and came out with a black eye and swollen lip.
She said that every time her husband’s headaches would recede he would often cry and apologize and state he could not remember what had happened. Patti said Johnny never sought medical attention. The only thing he’d do to treat the headaches was take aspirin.
She said she never saw him use drugs or drink their entire marriage.
After Patti’s testimony was read the defense called Johnny’s mother to testify and she also spoke at length about how terrible Johnny’s childhood had been.
Deanie detailed how Johnny’s father had tried on three occasions to kill him as a toddler. She claimed she took Johnny and her older son and hid from her ex-husband for years, eventually divorcing him and remarrying.
She admitted that she left her sons alone most of the time while working as a cocktail waitress and eventually learned that a babysitter she’d hired had sexually molested them.
After Deanie testified, the defense called their expert witness. He took the stand to explain how it was possible Johnny’s long history of abuse could have created multiple personalities.
And that’s when things got REALLY bizarre.
A psychiatrist who testified for the defense told jurors that because Johnny had suffered so much abuse in his childhood and adulthood, he projected identities of people he hated onto the teenage victims he’d murdered.
For example, the expert claimed that Linda and Juanita, in Johnny’s mind, represented Deanie and Patti. Anthony and Wesley, to Johnny, represented a series of men who he feared were going to take away his wife and mother.
During this psychiatrist’s interviews with Johnny after the murders, he said that Johnny admitted to sexually molesting one of his half-sisters while growing up but never had a desire to rape women or commit murder. He would often go back and forth between his two dual personalities while speaking.
When “Good Johnny” was talking, he said that when Patti left him and moved back to California in October of 1976 it was an extremely difficult time for him mentally and he experienced a lot of headaches. While separated from his wife, Johnny said he’d moved in with another woman named Betty who lived a very unstable lifestyle and drank a lot. “Good Johnny” told the psychiatrist that Betty’s actions triggered a lot of painful memories of when his own mother would have multiple male partners and leave him alone as a kid for days at a time.
According to the Kansas City Star, all of Johnny’s conversations with the defense’s psychiatrist were videotaped. A few times while under hypnosis the stark differences between Good Johnny and Bad John would emerge. When the three-hour-long tape was played for jurors they could hear Johnny’s voice clearly speaking in two different tones, presumably delineating his identities between “Bad John” and “Good Johnny”
The voices went back and forth describing the events that unfolded the night of the murders. Towards the end, the dominant personality referred to as “Bad John” was heard boasting about how easy it was to murder Anthony and Wesley while they were handcuffed in the back seat of his patrol car.
The psychiatrist’s final diagnosis according to publication at the time was that Johnny suffered from quote– “borderline personality disorder created from an unstable childhood”– end quote.
The prosecution argued that the defense’s psychiatrist was biased and that Johnny was just putting on a grand act during his hypnosis sessions. Prosecutors told jurors that there were no dual personalities plaguing Johnny. They argued Johnny was just a cold-blooded killer who liked to stalk and prey on helpless victims.
The government’s own psychiatrist contended that the defense’s claim that Johnny’s recent lack of sleep and stressful situation with his wife was the reason he’d snapped and killed the teens was a lie. He said the videotaped interviews of Johnny’s writhing between his two alleged personalities was all an act.
The prosecution didn’t deny that Johnny had a horrific childhood and suffered immense amounts of abuse, but that didn’t mean he didn’t know the difference between right and wrong.
When the case went to the jury on July 27th, 1977 they deliberated for two and a half hours and came back with a verdict.
They found Johnny guilty on all counts.
A few months later in September, a judge sentenced him to three consecutive life terms plus 20 years in prison.
That was not the last time Johnny’s name would be brought up in court though.
A year after the trial ended, Juanita Deckard and the other victim’s family filed lawsuits against the army alleging that the government should be held partly responsible because the weapon, handcuffs, and vehicle Johnny had used to commit the murders, while on duty, were property of the US Army. The lawsuits also claimed that the army should have evaluated Johnny’s mental health better before he was assigned his post.
According to the Springfield Leader and Press’s coverage, up until that point the army had only paid $4,414 dollars in medical bills for Juanita. She filed a claim for an additional $105,000 dollars in expenses that the government refused to pay.
The army paid a few thousand dollars to cover the expenses of Anthony, Linda, and Wesley’s funerals but would not pay anything else to their families.
In total between Juanita and the three other teen’s families, they were suing the government for close to $3.5 million.
In August 1981 a federal judge ruled against the families and stated that the government could not be held liable for Johnny’s quote— “outrageous conduct.”—end quote. A higher court upheld that ruling in 1983.
As I was researching this case, I found some articles linked to this crime that I thought were super interesting and leave the door open for so many more questions.
According to the Springfield Leader and Press, after Anthony, Linda and Wesley were murdered and Johnny was arrested, the FBI started looking into another case of missing teenagers who’d disappeared from Fort Leonard Wood just a few months before.
In that case, 16-year-old Alfred Hoffman Marshal and 17-year-old Teresa Gossage vanished while out on a date in Fort Leonard Wood.
According to the Charley Project, on October 9th, 1976 Alfred and Teresa left for a date in Alfred’s car around 7:30 pm and never returned. The next day their car was found locked and abandoned on the side of a road in a remote area of the army base.
Inside police found no blood or signs of foul play, just Alfred’s jacket in the backseat, and his hairbrush.
For a while, local authorities assumed the couple had just run away but in January 1977 when Juanita was attacked and Anthony, Linda, and Wesley were murdered, the FBI revisited Alfred and Teresa’s case. They had suspicions that perhaps Johnny had killed Alfred and Teresa too.
After all, October 1976 is the exact time that Johnny told investigators and jurors that he and Patti split up and he’d begun having his terrible headaches.
When agents compared the two cases, they realized that where Alfred’s car had been found was super close to where Johnny had buried Juanita, Anthony, Linda, and Wesley.
To this day, Johnny Thornton remains a suspect in Teresa and Alfred’s case but their bodies have never been found and authorities have never been able to prove conclusively that they’re even dead, though it is strongly suspected.
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Johnny Thornton is 67 years old and is serving his life sentences at USP Tucson in Arizona.
He’s never spoken about any of his crimes, and even if he did, the question would be which Johnny is talking?
Park Predators is an audiochuck Original Podcast.
Research and writing by Delia D’Ambra with writing assistance from executive producer Ashley Flowers.
Sound design by David Flowers.
You can find all of the source material for this episode on our website, Parkpredators.com.
So what do you think, Chuck? Do you approve? *howl*