Kenny Joe Johnson
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 from excerpts from the Dubuque Telegraph Herald’s article, “In Search of Kenny’s Killer,” published July 20, 2008, and written by TH Staff Writer Courtney Blanchard.
Dubuque County in Iowa
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.
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.
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.
When the 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 the Cold Case Unit closed down in December 2011 due to lack of funding, the DCI continues to investigate cases where they were making progress. They also follow up on any new leads provided in these cases.