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Family disputes Army's suicide finding in daughter's death

A father combs through the evidence, looking for answers to a case already closed by the military. He says she was raped and shot.

March 08, 2009|David Zucchino

FLORISSANT, MO. — Inside the tidy suburban St. Louis home of John and Linda Johnson, no photos of their eldest daughter grace the walls. Army Pfc. LaVena Johnson was just 19 when she died in Iraq in 2005; to this day her parents cannot bear to display reminders of her life.

John Johnson does possess other photos of his daughter -- explicit color shots of her autopsy and death scene. He shows them to a visitor. They are horrifying: LaVena in a pool of blood. LaVena's corpse on a coroner's table.

Johnson does not let his wife, Linda, and his four children see these images, but he studies the photos for hours at a time, trying to determine how his daughter died.

Army investigators ruled that LaVena committed suicide by firing her M-16 automatic rifle into her mouth. Her body was found beside the rifle in a contractor's storage tent on a U.S. military base in Balad, Iraq, on July 19, 2005.

There was no suicide note, no recovered bullet and no significant gunshot residue on her hands. But the Army cited fellow soldiers' reports that she was depressed and had spoken of killing herself.

Johnson maintains that his daughter was raped and killed, and that her death scene was staged to make it appear as if she shot herself. He accuses the Army of covering up for a killer or killers to conceal a soldier-on-soldier slaying, explaining that military personnel would have had unrestricted access to the area where his daughter died and therefore would not have attracted undue attention.

If LaVena's death were investigated as a homicide, Johnson added, it would raise questions about base security and discourage women from enlisting.

In 2005, in response to concerns about sexual assaults against female service members, the Pentagon established the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. Citing a reluctance among female service members to report rape for fear of stigma or reprisals, the office does not share information with law enforcement or the military command.

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More cases

Like the Johnsons, other families have questioned the military's suicide findings in the deaths of their daughters in Iraq or Afghanistan. They too accuse the military of jumping to conclusions and ignoring evidence of murder.

But these grieving families have discovered that there are no clear answers and few conclusive facts, only murky evidence that can be interpreted more than one way. The result is a climate of mistrust and suspicion that leaves the military on the defensive and the families feeling deceived.

Christopher Grey, a spokesman for the Army Criminal Investigation Command, called its investigation of the Johnson case "thorough and complete." He said the command was ready to reopen any case in which "new, credible information warranting further investigation is brought to our attention."

Of the 115 female service member deaths in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, 16 have been ruled suicides. Overall, 205 of the 4,868 military deaths in those wars through Jan. 31 were ruled suicides. The 128 reported Army suicides in 2008 were the most in one year since the Pentagon began keeping track of suicides in 1980.

The Johnson case and several others involving women service members have been championed by retired Army Col. Ann Wright, a former U.S. diplomat.

Wright accuses the military of withholding evidence pointing to sexual assaults and other attacks on female service members.

She contends that the military has been too quick to close the cases of some women's deaths as suicides without conducting thorough homicide investigations. She accuses the military of stonewalling families who question its findings.

"What the military is doing is egregious," she said. "In many cases, they have the information the families want but refuse to release it. These families are really fighting upstream."

Joy Priest, whose daughter Pfc. Tina Priest, 20, was found dead in Iraq in March 2006, said the Army had not convinced her that Tina killed herself with her M-16, as an investigation found. She died two weeks after accusing a male soldier of raping her.

Priest said it took the Army almost six months to provide her with investigative documents and nine more months to supply color photos of the autopsy and death scene.

"They have you jump through hoops, then they back you up and make you jump through more," Priest said. "It's so painful -- just mind-bending."

Wright said she believed there were enough unanswered questions in the Johnson and Priest cases, among others, to warrant new investigations.

For the Johnsons, the circumstance of their daughter's death has become an obsession. It is a wound that may never heal.

For more than three years, John Johnson has studied every aspect of his daughter's death. He keeps cross-referenced stacks of investigative reports, crime scene photographs, lab reports and his angry letters sent to the Army, the Pentagon and Congress.

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