Kenny Joe Johnson

Kenny Joe Johnson (Courtesy Dubuque Police Department)

Kenny Joe Johnson


Kenny Joe Johnson
14 YOA
Maus Park, Dubuque, IA
Dubuque County
(Home Residence: New Liberty, IA)
Case No. 87-21572
DCI Case No. 8705013
October 10, 1987

The following case summary has been compiled using excerpts from the Dubuque Telegraph Herald article, “In Search of Kenny’s Killer,” published July 20, 2008, and written by TH Staff Writer Courtney Blanchard.

Iowa map showing Dubuque County
Dubuque County in Iowa
Dubuque, IA
Dubuque in Dubuque County

Around 9 a.m. on Oct. 10, 1987, an elderly fisherman discovered 14-year-old Kenny Joe Johnson’s body near a floodgate in Dubuque’s isolated Maus Park. He was rolled in a 5-foot-by-9-foot piece of yellow-orange nylon carpet that had been dumped at the park, and an autopsy revealed he had been strangled by hand and sexually assaulted. He also had a small amount of alcohol in his system.

His black-and-gray ski jacket was partially off and covered his right arm, under which he wore a purple-and-gray sweatshirt. His underwear was pulled down around his mid-thighs, even though his blue jeans were pulled up and fastened over his briefs.

Following the murder, police implored anyone who knew anything about the case to step forward. Despite more than two decades of searching, police still haven’t been able to establish a clear picture of Johnson’s whereabouts in the two days leading up to his death. The case is a mystery, and the killer still could be at large.

The lanky, brown-eyed boy did not call Dubuque home. In his short life, he bounced around from school to school and lived in several different towns. He had behavioral problems, which likely stemmed from a learning disability that wasn’t always handled appropriately, said his sister, Crystal Licht, 37, of Davenport, Iowa, in a phone interview with the TH.

When he was in first grade, Kenny Joe’s teacher made him sit in the front row of class with a dunce cap on, Licht said. Throughout his life, he encountered impatient adults.

Teachers interviewed after his death recalled him as extremely hyperactive and impulsive. Some said he craved attention, others said he seemed sad.

Dubuque Telegraph-Herald interview with Crystal Licht, Kenny’s sister. Aired July 20, 2008

The summer before he came to Dubuque, Johnson moved from Davenport to rural New Liberty, Iowa, with his mother. He channeled his attention on the farm’s horses and his behavior started to improve, Licht said.

The farm was the perfect place for the “outdoorsy” teen to begin to calm down and discover who he was, Licht said. But then he received an unexpected and abrupt court order to enroll in the Hillcrest Family Services program in Dubuque because of behavioral issues, she said without elaborating. He had no family there. He desperately wanted to stay in New Liberty with his mother and the horses, she said.

On Sept. 22, 1987, Johnson began his short stay at Hillcrest House, a residential treatment facility operated by Hillcrest Family Services. He started classes at Central Alternative High School in early October. A few days later, he got into a dispute with a teacher. Instead of going to the principal’s office, at 9:30 a.m. on Oct. 8, 1987, Johnson ran away. It was the third time he ran away in the two weeks he’d been in Dubuque.

It was also the last time he was seen alive.

The way his body and evidence of the assault was haphazardly disguised gave investigators insight into the personality of the killer.

In 1988, Steven Conlon, with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, profiled the killer and speculated that he was a loner who had poor interpersonal relationship skills and had trouble making friends. Conlon theorized that even with antisocial tendencies, the killer had difficulty coping with the murder and probably told someone.

kenny_johnson_mur_scCourtesy photo Dave Kettering/Telegraph Herald
Capt. Mark Dalsing, head of the Criminal Investigation Division at the Dubuque Law Enforcement Center, points out the area where the body of Kenny Joe Johnson was found in Maus Park more than 20 years ago.

At the time, some Dubuque investigators thought the killer was a local person because the park is neither well-known nor easy to stumble upon by accident. Today, Dubuque Police Capt. Mark Dalsing said investigators still haven’t pinned down whether it was a local or someone passing through, perhaps on U.S. 61/151.

If anything, the passage of time has improved chances of police finding an exact DNA match with samples found on the body, Dalsing said. More than 20 years ago, investigators could only compare blood and fluid samples and deem them “similar,” he said. Now, those samples can be determined to be a nearly perfect match. DNA analysis has helped police rule out potential suspects over the years, he said.

One person who held a secret stepped forward 10 years ago and cleared the shroud of mystery around the origin of the carpet. After a story about the case ran in 1997, the owner of the carpet called police, which let investigators know that the killer found it at the park.

The case file takes up 30 binders and is the department’s largest open case. Over the years, fresh pairs of eyes have scanned it, hoping for a new lead or different perspective.

Dalsing now leads Dubuque’s criminal investigation unit, and he said there’s still an investigator assigned to it at all times — currently Cpl. Dwaine Prine. Licht keeps in close contact with the Police Department and Cpl. Rick Hanten, who worked the case from the beginning until he retired in 2003.

The case remains unsolved.

Copyright (c) Woodward Communications, Inc. 2008, All Rights Reserved.

About Kenny Joe Johnson

Kenny Joe Johnson was born Dec. 28, 1972, in Moline, Rock Island County, Illinois.

He was killed on Saturday, Oct. 10, 1987 in Dubuque, Iowa.

He is buried at Mount Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Davenport, Iowa.

Information Needed

When the Iowa DCI established a Cold Case Unit in 2009, Kenny Joe Johnson’s murder was one of approximately 150 cases listed on the Cold Case Unit’s new website as those the DCI hoped to solve using latest advancements in DNA technology.

Although federal grant funding for the DCI Cold Case Unit was exhausted in December 2011, the DCI continues to assign agents to investigate cold cases as new leads develop or as technological advances allow for additional forensic testing of original evidence.

The DCI remains committed to resolving Iowa’s cold cases and will continue to work diligently with local law enforcement partners to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice for the victims and their families.

Anyone with information about Kenny Joe Johnson’s unsolved murder is urged to contact Cpl. Chris Gorrell at 563-587-3806 or by email.



10 Responses to Kenny Joe Johnson

  1. michael paulsen says:

    call me 563-513-7313 mike paulsen,22 orchard lane court lot 22 mancester iowa

    • Crystal says:

      Who is this?

      • chris says:

        crystal. i hope some day you will find closure on your brothers death. my family and i was subjected to dna analysis for this crime. i keep hoping that someday they will find the real monster who has done this to your brother. chris

  2. chris says:

    Mike. maybe you should contact the authorities if you have information regarding this case.

  3. Theresa says:

    Now that being gay or bi-sexual is more accepted, and lots of people are out of the closet, I think a bit of research in that direction might be a good idea. Back when this happened there was lots of homophobia, and whoever did this may have had difficulty dealing with his feelings.

  4. Crystal says:

    Believe me Mikie, Kenny has not been forgotten. I recently spoke with a reporter from the TH on an article they did a couple of months ago and remain in contact with Hanten. I am meeting with the new detectives on the case very soon for updates. Thank you again Mikie for being such a good friend to him, it fills my heart with joy knowing that he had you to stand by him.

  5. chris says:

    mike paulsen evidently has something to get off of his mind. did anyone ever do a backround check on him? just wondering.

  6. Lori says:

    I am so sorry Crystal. What was done to Kenny is horrific and the killer needs to be brought to justice. God speed to the police and may some sense of closure be given to Kenny’s family and friends.

  7. Kim(Darrough)Wilson says:

    Crystal, Sure you don’t remember me it has been SO many years!!! But we were good friends in jr high! I actually tried finding you on FB a while back! Never got to say how sorry my brother and I were to hear about Kenny. We had moved to California in ’85. When we got the news from a friend about Kenny we were truly heart broken!!!! I never new they didn’t solve the crime up until Mike Rump and another friend posted your interview on FB!! I hope they find the person who did this and your family is able to heal!! We talked(still do) about him numerous times over the years. Please know he is still in our hearts and thoughts as the rest of your family!!
    Sincerely, Kim

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