A man has been charged with murder in the death of Lisa Johnson, a 25-year-old Quinhagak woman whose body was found off a trail near the Western Alaska village in early February.
Harold Smith, 26, was arrested by troopers on suspicion of first-degree murder and tampering of evidence on Monday in Quinhagak. He was arraigned Tuesday afternoon and is being held in the Yukon Kuskokwim Correctional Center in lieu of $500,000 bail.
Smith is accused of killing Johnson, a substitute teacher in the Lower Kuskokwim School District and the mother of a 6-year-old girl. Johnson's body was found Feb. 3 off an ATV trail. She was last seen by family members the night of Jan. 31. Her mother, Annie Johnson, told investigators that Lisa Johnson answered a call on the land line at the family home, and then left the house, according to a charging document in the case.
She was reported missing Feb. 2. The next day, the Quinhagak Police Department and community volunteers launched a large-scale search for Johnson. Her body was found about 3 miles from town, according to the charges.
A set of snowmachine tracks that appeared to have been pulling a sled were found about 30 feet from where Johnson's body was located. The tracks left the main ATV trail, turned around and headed back to the main trail toward the village, the charges say.
When a trooper requested the phone records for Annie Johnson's residence, the records showed an incoming call from a number belonging to Quinhagak resident Harold Smith, according to the charges. Police contacted Smith, who said he had been trying to reach Lisa Johnson's brother, Walter, the charges say.
On Feb. 5, an autopsy revealed signs of slight hemorrhaging on Lisa Johnson's throat, and more visible hemorrhaging on her throat and tongue, according to the charges.
A preliminary cause of death was identified as asphyxiation due to strangulation, the charges say.
On Friday, Harold Smith called troopers to say that Lisa Johnson had visited his home on Jan. 31, the charges say. He told troopers she wanted to buy a gram of marijuana, but he didn't have any to sell, and he pushed her out of the home after she became angry, according to the charges.
In a Monday interview with investigators, Smith said he had known Johnson since the two were in elementary school, according to the charges. He said she came to his residence around 1 a.m. Saturday night after she called earlier and asked to buy marijuana, and came over even though he told her he didn't have any to sell, according to the charges.
Smith told investigators Johnson appeared intoxicated and became mad when he told her again that he didn't have marijuana to sell, and then she bit him on the chest, the charges say.
He said he opened the door and shoved her out, and Johnson fell off the stairs and hit her head on a 2x4 board connected to the staircase, the charges say. When he went to check her, she wasn't breathing, he told investigators.
"Harold then described that he panicked and hid her body near his house until that afternoon, when he put her in his father's sled and drove to the location where the body was later found," the charges say. Smith also allegedly told investigators he burned Johnson's clothes and his own clothes and some snowmachine parts at the dump, as well as the sled he moved her body in.
Following the interview, troopers arrested Smith on murder and tampering with evidence charges.
Johnson's aunt, Louise Hansen, described her niece as kind and helpful, a loving mother who wouldn't let her young daughter miss school. Her talents included baking, beading and sewing, Hansen said. An adopted child, the youngest of six children, Johnson grew up asking her older brothers if she could come along on hunting and fishing trips.
Hansen said the death shocked the family and the village of Quinhagak, a community of about 690 people on the Kanektok River.
"We're still having a hard time," Hansen said.
In 2006, Johnson received her high school diploma through the Alaska Military Youth Academy in Anchorage, a high school completion program for at-risk youth. Kelly Rittgers, who was in the same graduating class at the academy, recalled Johnson as a straightforward young woman who was timid about sharing her feelings, and often homesick for her village.
A preliminary hearing for Smith has been set for March 7.
Reach Devin Kelly at email@example.com or 257-4314.
By DEVIN KELLY