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)
Investigating Agency: Dubuque Police Department
Case No. 87-21572
DCI Case No. 8705013
October 10, 1987

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

Dubuque County
Dubuque County in Iowa
Dubuque, IA
Dubuque in Dubuque County

On Saturday, October 10, 1987 around 8:45 a.m., an elderly fisherman discovered the body of a young white male lying on the sandy beach area near a floodgate in Dubuque, Iowa’s isolated Maus Park.

Upon arrival police found the lanky, brown-eyed boy deceased, and ultimately identified him as 14-1/2-year-old Kenny Joe Johnson.

At the time of his death, Kenny Joe resided at Hillcrest Family Services and attended Central Alternative High School. He originally resided in the Davenport area and had been in Dubuque about one month prior to his death.

The fisherman found the boy rolled in a 5-foot-by-9-foot piece of yellow-orange nylon carpet dumped at the park.

An autopsy report stated the teen died by manual strangulation and also had been sexually assaulted. He also had a small amount of alcohol in his system.

He wore a purple and gray sweatshirt beneath a black and gray ski jacket, and officials found the ski jacket partially taken off and covering the teen’s right arm. Kenny Joe’s underwear we found still down around his mid-thighs, even though the assailant took time to pull up the boy’s jeans and fasten them.

In the days and week after the slaying, police followed up on hundreds of leads and implored anyone who knew anything about the case to step forward.

Despite searching nearly three decades, investigators still haven’t been able to establish a clear picture of the teen’s whereabouts in the two days leading up to his death. The case is unsolved and the offender(s) responsible for Kenny Joe’s death remains unknown.

Learning disability led to school-to-school bouncing

The lanky, brown-eyed boy did not call Dubuque home. In his short life, he’d already been 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 Telegraph Herald for an article published July 20, 2008.

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, Kenny Joe 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 in Dubuque, his sister said, and desperately wanted to stay in New Liberty with his mother and the horses. It was not to be.

On Sept. 22, 1987, Johnson began his short stay at Hillcrest House, a residential treatment facility operated by Hillcrest Family Services. Kenny Joe started classes at Central Alternative High School in early October, and a few days later — Oct. 8, 1987 — got into a dispute with a teacher. Instead of reporting to the principal’s office at 9:30 a.m., the teen ran away.

In the two weeks since he’d come to Dubuque, it marked the third time he’d run away.

It also was the last time anyone saw him alive.

Crime scene haphazardly disguised

Investigators said the way Johnson’s body and evidence of his assault had been haphazardly disguised provided them with insight into the killer’s personality.

In 1988, Steven Conlon, with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI), profiled the killer and speculated 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.

In 2008, Dubuque Police Capt. Mark Dalsing told the Telegraph Herald investigators still hadn’t pinned down whether a “local” committed the crime or whether it was someone passing through, perhaps on U.S. 61/151.

If anything, the passage of time 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.

After a story about Kenny Joe’s unsolved case ran in 1997, one person who’d held onto a secret for 10 years finally stepped forward to clear the shroud of mystery around the carpet’s origin. The owner of the carpet called police to say he’d dumped the carpet at Maus Park, which let investigators know the killer hadn’t brought it with him with intentions of hiding a body.

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

Dalsing went on to lead the Dubuque Police Department’s Criminal Investigation Division, and in 2008 said there’s still an investigator assigned to the case at all times. Capt. Scott Engleman has since replaced Dalsing, with Cpl. Chris Gorrell currently taking lead on the boy’s still unsolved case.

Licht told the Telegraph Herald she keeps in close contact with the police department and Cpl. Rick Hanten, who worked the case from the beginning until he retired in 2003.

About Kenny Joe Johnson

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

He died Saturday, Oct. 10, 1987 in Dubuque after being sexually assaulted and strangled.

Kenny was laid to rest 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 about 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 ran out 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 this case is urged to contact Cpl. Chris Gorrell at 563-587-3806 or by email.



20 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

  8. Kim Wilson says:

    Thank you for sharing Kenny’s case!!!!! I went to school with Kenny and his sister!!! My brother played baseball with him. My family had moved out to California. I will never forget when I got the letter in the mail from a friends about Kenny’s death…my brother and I were devastated!!!!!

    • Thanks so much for posting, Kim. It’s so hard losing childhood friends, especially given the circumstances of how he died. He seemed like such a happy and friendly little guy. I’m sorry for your loss. Jody at ICC

  9. So very sad. My heart goes out to his family

  10. Diana Wilson says:

    The teachers didn’t treat him very well….but we’ve come a long way since that time. I feel sorry for the life he had. I hope you can find who did this to him.

  11. Diana Jo says:

    God bless this to be solved, now.

  12. Wow they should really be looking into the staff there at Hillcrest and start with the people who sent him there.

  13. Gina Watson says:

    Thank you for keeping these cases fresh. It’s so important.

  14. please read over this case and help if you ban

  15. Tim Wernke says:

    Wow. Almost 30 years

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