The Unsolved: LaVena Johnson

          As stated in my previous post, I will be focusing on black victims of crime for my True Crime posts (John/Jane Does, Missing Persons, Unsolved Murders) to amplify the message that Black Lives Matter. These stories deserve to be told and we need to say their names. Our first post will examine the unsettling death of LaVena Johnson while she was stationed in Iraq.

LaVena’s Story

           LaVena was born on July 27, 1985 in Florissant, Missouri. By all accounts she had a very stable and loving childhood and maintained good relationships with both of her parents. Her father was Dr. John Johnson, who had served in the military. It’s likely that her father’s status as a veteran helped inform LaVena’s decision to enlist. She maintained a spot on the honor roll at Hazelwood Central High, continually demonstrating her intelligence. Everyone who knew the young woman described her as capable, intelligent, and fun-loving. It seemed unanimous that LaVena Johnson was a good person with a bright future ahead of her.

(LaVena during her deployment.
via the St. Louis American)

          Once she graduated high school, LaVena chose to enlist in the United States Army. It’s likely that her father’s status as a veteran helped inform LaVena’s decision to enlist. LaVena completed basic training and AIT and after a short time, her unit was deployed to Balad, Iraq. LaVena reported a sexual assault in the time before her death, though no action seems to have been taken as a result of this report. After eight weeks in Balad, tragedy struck the Private First Class (which is alternately known as Rank E3 in the Army). LaVena was found dead in her tent and the death was quickly ruled a suicide.
          According to Army records, LaVena hung out with a male soldier on the night of her death, though the records claimed she and the man parted ways around 8 PM. At around 1:20 AM on July 19, 2005, LaVena was found dead inside a military contractor’s tent. She was found laying on the ground with a pool of blood around her head, an M16 rifle nearby. Little is known (or has been released, at least) about the period of time between her leaving her male companion and the point at which her body was found.


          There are two trains of thought when it comes to speculation on what actually happened to LaVena: she truly did complete suicide, or she was murdered. The official ruling was that LaVena had taken her own life. The logic behind the suicide ruling is shaky at best, and most speculation revolves around the previous sexual assault. The autopsy claimed that the barrel of the gun was in her mouth when she fired, but there are so many holes in the official accounting of events.
          LaVena’s family and internet sleuths have been disputing the official ruling since it happened. LaVena had excitedly spoken to her family about her plans for the future just a few days prior to her death. In addition to their skepticism that LaVena would take her own life, the autopsy and accompanying photos furthered their conviction that the Department of Defense ruling was incorrect. First, the entry wound looked far too small to have come from the M16 that was found with her –  and the wound was found on the side of her head, not in her mouth as the Army originally claimed. Second, LaVena’s face had extensive damage – including a broken nose, cut lips, loose teeth, and a black eye. These injuries are not consistent with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Third, and this is by far the most gruesome detail, some kind of corrosive liquid was poured over her genitals – an act, it would seem, that was meant to destroy any DNA left behind. Fourth, no rape kit or fingernail scrapings were taken during the autopsy. Fifth, no bullet was ever recovered from the scene. Sixth, LaVena’s gloves were glued to her hands, something that defies explanation.
          Regardless of what you believe is the truth, it does seem like the Department of Defense had a hand in covering something up. They may have attempted to keep a suicide out of the papers so as to not damage their reputation and subsequent recruitment numbers – it seens logical to me that news of someone feeling so mistreated that they take their own life may sway some potential enlisters. I also think it is absolutely possible the DoD is shielding someone from blame, whether that blame be for sexually assaulting LaVena (sexual assaults are notoriously underreported in the military, and often not taken seriously when they are reported) or for killing her. This point especially strikes true to me if the person responsible was of a higher rank. 

(LaVena’s burial marker.
via St. Louis Public Radio)

The bottom line here is that we do not have the whole story, thanks to several factors. Personally, based on the evidence, I believe that LaVena died at someone else’s hand, not her own. I don’t know who, and I don’t want to cast aspersions on any suspects without all the information. All I can say at this point is that I hope one day, the rest of the information comes out. LaVena’s family and her legacy deserve closure.


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