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Suspect who died in prison named in 30-year-old murder case studied by EHS students

John Thompson • Updated Dec 20, 2019 at 4:55 PM

ELIZABETHTON — The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation announced Thursday a suspect had been identified in one of the six 1980s murders — popularly called “The Redhead Murders” — which an Elizabethton High School class researched two years ago.

An investigation by TBI special agents led to a Campbell County grand jury finding implicating a convicted felon in the more than 30-year-old murder. In a TBI press release issued Thursday, the agency reported Jerry Leon Johns was developed as the suspect in the murder of Tina Marie McKinney Farmer, who was reported to be a woman in her 20s who was missing from Indiana.

Johns was later arrested and charged with a similar attack on another woman, who survived. Johns was convicted in that case and died in prison in December 2015 at the age of 67.

Farmer was one of six victims from the 1980s that Elizabethton High School students had studied in teacher Alex Campbell’s sociology class.

Campbell said Friday that when the class began only one of the six murder victims had been identified. Now there were three identified and on Thursday there had been one suspect named.

Campbell believes the renewed publicity given to the Redhead Murders as a result of the students’ efforts has led to the recent progress in the cases.

He said the class study led to a feature story in the “XQ Live Event” in the segment, “Cold Case Class,” numerous local and regional newspaper stories, three podcasts, one national radio show, and features on the ID Network, Oxygen Network website and “Sociology Lens” magazine. Campbell said only one of six had even been identified, and there had been no breaks in the case in more than 30 years.

Campbell said he felt the publicity helped TBI in being able to identify the three victims, publicity that included “social media and internet tips they received within the last year. They will not say, but I know that our students had an impact on getting the cases out in front of people again.”

The Farmer case dates from Jan. 1, 1985, when TBI special agents were requested to investigate the murder of a woman whose body was found along Interstate 75 in Campbell County.

Autopsy results revealed the victim had been strangled and likely died several days before her body was found. Investigators were unable to determine the identity of the victim and she was listed as a Jane Doe. All leads were exhausted, and the case remained unsolved.

The TBI said a break in the case came in November 2016.

The press release said TBI Special Agent Brandon Elkins had been investigating the case for a decade; in November 2016 he resubmitted to the TBI Crime Lab for testing the victim’s clothing, along with the blanket that was wrapped around her body. When the items were analyzed, semen was detected. A DNA profile was then entered into the Combined DNA Index System, resulting in a match.

The profile matched that of Jerry Leon Johns.

The TBI said the next break came in August 2018 when agents became aware of a blog about missing persons cases. Farmer was one of the missing persons on the website. She was 21 at the time of her disappearance and matched the description of the unidentified woman found in Campbell County.

TBI Intelligence Analyst Amy Emberton was able to track down a fingerprint card on Farmer from the early 80s. Those fingerprints were compared against the postmortem prints of the Campbell County Jane Doe, resulting in a positive identification.

The TBI press release indicated agents learned that two months after the body was found on I-75 in Campbell County, “Jerry Johns picked up a woman in Knox County and proceeded to strangle and bind her before dumping her body along Interstate 40. The woman resembled Tina Farmer, and the circumstances in both cases were strikingly similar.”

The woman survived. Johns was arrested on numerous charges, including aggravated kidnapping and assault. He was convicted on those charges in 1987 and died in prison in 2015, before new leads were developed in the Farmer case.

The TBI press release said that on Wednesday, the Campbell County grand jury found that if Jerry Johns were alive today, he would be indicted on a charge of first degree murder.

“While I am extremely disappointed that this case has not ended in the prosecution of Jerry Johns, I am pleased that this investigation has answered questions for Ms. Farmer’s family that heretofore had gone unanswered for over 34 years,” said District Attorney General Jared Effler.

“We hope this will help provide long-sought answers for Tina Farmer’s family,” said TBI Director David Rausch. “We also want this case to provide hope for other families in our state who are still waiting for answers. Our team will never give up on unsolved cases like this one as long as there are viable leads to follow.”

Campbell said “we have heard law enforcement rumors that there could be links to several of the other murders forthcoming, but nothing could be confirmed yesterday.”

He said he had spoken with Farmer’s sister.

“She was so appreciative of our students' work. There are more families still waiting for those answers.

“We feel there is much more work to be done to understand who Jerry Leon Johns was, possible connections with other murders, and if further information would further allow us to evaluate our students' work.”

Campbell said that from what they have learned about Johns so far, he matches much of the offender profile that the students had developed, including: job type, area where he lived, height, weight, age, sex, race, place of origin, and previous criminal history.

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