Questions Linger More Than a Decade After Private LaVena Johnson’s Death

While supporters of her family believe that Johnson was "mysteriously murdered," a military investigation ruled her death was self-inflicted.

  • Published 18 July 2018
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The July 2005 death of U.S. Army PFC LaVena Johnson continues to provoke suspicion and garner media attention over thirteen years later.

“They plucked out part of my heart. I can’t get it back,” her father John Johnson said in 2015. “But I’m going to fight until I get justice for her. We’re just going to keep doing what we can to keep our story alive.”

Johnson was serving in Iraq as part of the 129th Corps Support Battalion when the U.S. Army reportedly told her family that Johnson had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, an explanation her relatives have questioned ever since. Her death has been the subject of the 2010 documentary The Silent Truth, a related website stating that she was “mysteriously murdered,” and a “Justice for PFC LAVENA JOHNSON” Facebook group. As well, images continue to be circulated online that question the military’s assessment of her death:

After an autopsy supported the military’s assessment of his daughter’s death as a suicide, John Johnson said he received photographs of her body showing “abrasions to the face, burns, a broken nose and signs of sexual abuse.” Fellow service members, he maintained, told another family member that her body was found in a military contractor’s tent and not her barracks, as officials had reported to him.

Buoyed by public support from Democratic Rep. William Lacy Clay, Jr. of Missouri, the elder Johnson obtained documents and photographs related to LaVena’s death after filing a Freedom of Information Act request. The St. Louis American, who reviewed the documents in June 2008, reported that the material “suggested foul play”:

The victim’s nose appeared to be broken and pushed inward to the left side. There was an imprint that appeared to be a bullet lodged in the front of her head above her left eye, on the side of what was described by medical examiners as an exit wound.

A copy of a sketch in an official investigative document her father received from the Army, titled “Rough Sketch Depicting Crime Scene,” raises questions about how Johnson could have shot herself with her own rifle, when, as outlined in the sketch, a cot is located neatly between the body and her weapon.

However, the Army Criminal Investigation Command said in an August 2008 statement that:

CID’s extensive investigation found PFC LaVena Johnson’s death to be from a self-inflicted gunshot. This finding coincides with the opinion rendered by the Office of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner, whose findings also determined the death to be from a self-inflicted gunshot.

CID conducted a very thorough investigation, as well as a very thorough review of the case and stands by the findings of our investigation.

As with all CID cases, if new information pertinent to this investigation becomes available, CID will reopen the investigation if warranted.

In January 2011, the non-profit Cold Case Investigative Research Institute (CCRI) began looking into the case. But after a three-year investigation, CCRI director Sheryl McCollum said, the group found no evidence that could counter the military probe’s determination that LaVena Johnson had killed herself.

“There was nothing about this case that we could go back to the Army to say you need to re-look at it,” she reported in 2015. “We didn’t have anything new. We didn’t have anything that suggested wrongdoing.”