Primetime Crime: Teen Charged With Parents' Gruesome Murder

PHOTO Sara Crime

Sarah Johnson has one last chance. One last try to convince a judge that she did not shoot her parents to death because they tried to prevent her from seeing an older man.

In late June, judges in the Idaho Supreme Court upheld a jury verdict that Sarah had brutally murdered her parents in 2003, a case solved by DNA and the then-16-year-old's suspicious behavior shortly after the bodies were found.

It was a case that made headlines and tore apart the Johnsons' family. Now Sarah Johnson's last chance hinges on convincing a trial judge in Hailey, Idaho that her attorney didn't provide her with proper representation.

Five years ago, Alan and Diane Johnson seemed to have a picture-perfect life. The longtime sweethearts, who had been together for 20 years, lived in a beautiful home on the outskirts of Sun Valley, Idaho. Alan was part owner of a landscaping company and Diane worked at a medical clinic. They treasured their family, which included two children, 22-year-old Matt and 16-year-old Sarah.

Sarah Johnson
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But just after Labor Day weekend in 2003, that happy family life abruptly came to an end -- Alan and Diane were brutally executed in the bedroom of their home.

For investigators, the first clues in the shocking case came when they discovered that Sarah had fallen in love with an Mexican man, who was in the country illegally. Alan and Diane did not approve of their daughter's relationship with Bruno Santos, a 19-year-old high school dropout from a poor home across town.

'She Could Do a Lot Better'

Santos became the source of heated family arguments and relatives and friends feared that the relationship was tearing the once close-knit family apart. Syringa Stark, one of Sarah's friends, said, "I felt she could do a lot better. He was a high school dropout and was selling drugs and she was from a nice family. It just didn't seem like it was right."

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Tensions mounted the Saturday of that Labor Day weekend, when Diane and Alan discovered that Sarah was sleeping over at Santos' apartment. When Alan picked up Sarah, he told Santos that he was to stay away from his daughter. He even threatened to report him to the police for having sex with an underage girl.

But Alan never went to the police. The next Tuesday morning, he and his wife were dead. Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling said it was the most disturbing crime scene he had ever seen.

"There was blood and hair on the carpet," he said. "It was on the ceiling. It was on all the walls. There was part of a skull cap in the hallway."

Femling immediately closed down the street and in doing so stopped a garbage truck that had just made its rounds. The garbage truck turned out to contain the key evidence in the case: a bloody bathrobe, a left-handed leather glove and a right-handed latex glove; all containing someone's DNA.

As family and friends began arriving at the house, everyone began to worry about Sarah and talk about Santos. Investigators fully expected Santos' DNA to tie him to the evidence they'd found in the garbage. But while they were focusing on Santos, devastated family and friends noticed something troubling about Sarah.

Sarah's Suspicious Behavior

As investigators removed Alan and Diane's bodies from the house, they too noticed a coldness and distance from Sarah, something Femling remembers asking his team to take note of.

"I said, 'There is something going on here.' I mean, most 16-year-olds would be hiding," he said. "They would not want to sit there on a fence and watch their parents come out in body bags. No way!"

Sarah's friends were also becoming suspicious. Her grief, they decided, didn't appear genuine, and she was oddly preoccupied with hair and nail appointments. Hardly the expected behavior of a girl who'd just lost her parents. Sarah's friend Chante Caudle remembered a chilling moment during volleyball practice.

"She came up to my side, and she said, 'Chante, find Bruno and tell him that I love him no matter what happens,'" she said. "And when she said that, it was just this awful feeling and my heart just sunk, and was just like, 'She did it!'"

Police also wondered if Sarah had some part in the killing of her parents, and after hearing about the heated arguments she had with her parents, investigators took her fingerprints and DNA samples and questioned her.

Though there was no evidence of a break-in, Sarah stuck to her story about an intruder who'd committed the murders. By now, her mom's sister, Linda Vavold, didn't believe her niece.

"Every time she went in to be interrogated by the police, her story kept changing," Vavold said.

The forensic evidence that came back from the lab showed that there was no match to Santos. Sarah's grandfather Dean Dishman remembers talking to Femling about the case.

"I finally just asked him. I said, 'Walt, who pulled the trigger? Was it Bruno?", Dishman said.'" He said, 'No.' I said, 'Then who?' And he said, 'Sarah.'"

'We Got Her'

By mid-October, six weeks since the brutal murders of Alan and Diane Johnson, the wait was finally over.

"When the state lab came back, and they said we have Sarah's DNA inside the glove," Femling said. "We said, 'There it is! We got her!'"

Convinced they had the final piece of forensic evidence in place, investigators questioned Sarah one last time, hoping for a confession. She wouldn't budge. After 45 minutes, Femling made the move he had dreaded: he arrested the high school junior on two counts of first-degree murder.

Sarah's arrest made headlines everywhere -- a rare case of a 16-year-old girl charged with the murder of her parents. It's called parricide and typically involves boys. One recent study shows that only four girls have been convicted of such a horrific crime here in the United States over a period of 24 years.

As the trial began in February 2005, lead prosecutor Jim Thomas believed his team had the forensic evidence to convict Sarah but worried whether they could prove that a bright, athletic high school girl suddenly became a killer.

Defense attorney Robert Pangburn still thought Santos was involved in the crime, "Bruno very easily could have recruited cohorts of his." However, Pangburn decided not to question Santos.

The trial took a toll on family and friends as many were called to testify against Sarah. Her brother Matt spoke in court of the open warfare between Sarah and their mother.

"Her and my Mom didn't get along," Matt testified. "It was fairly rocky. Constant fighting, bickering back and forth!"

'No Blood, No Guilt'?

Sarah's lawyer, Robert Pangburn, built his entire defense on a "no blood, no guilt" strategy. He thought the fact that Sarah had no blood on herself proved that she could not have possibly pulled the trigger.

"Her mother's head literally exploded in a spherical fashion," Pangburn said. "The gun itself had blood on it. Yet there was none on her. Absolutely none."

After a five-week trial, Sarah's fate was in the hands of an Idaho jury. Her family, nearly at the breaking point, was convinced of her guilt.

"It takes a lot of evidence to convince a grandma that her granddaughter killed her daughter," her grandmother Pat Dishman remembered. "I mean, it had to be overwhelming."

Then, the verdict: guilty on both counts of first-degree murder. Sarah was sentenced to two consecutive life terms, plus 10 years for murdering her parents with a gun. She has no chance for parole.

Time has done little to ease the devastation for Alan and Diane Johnson's family and friends who continue to grieve the loss of their loved ones. Diane's mother, Pat Dishman, struggles with the words to explain how she feels.

"It's indescribable, it really is, the heartache and the sorrow."

There has been no date set for Sarah's final appeal.

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