On the morning of the 2nd of September, 2003, 16-year-old Sarah Marie Johnson from Bellevue, Idaho, ran to her neighbor’s home in hysterics. When Kim Richards opened her front door, Sarah screamed that somebody had shot her parents, Diane and Alan Johnson. She told Richards that she was at home at the time of the shooting but hadn’t witnessed it. According to Sarah, she was asleep in her bedroom when she heard gunshots echo out. While she didn’t know for sure, she said she presumed that they were dead for when she called their names, there was no response.
Alan was an executive and director of Webb Landscape and Garden Centres and Diane was employed at the Hailey Medical Clinic. Their daughter, Sarah, was a student at Wood River High School and their son, Matt, was attending the University of Idaho. The family lived in Glen Aspen Drive, an affluent street where the $500,000 homes sit nestled among towering cottonwood, pine and aspen trees.1
After letting Sarah inside her home to calm down, Richards approached the Johnson home and slowly opened the front door. She recalled that as soon as she opened the door, she smelt a strange odor. She said there was “debris, pieces or hair, skin and a sogginess under my feet.” In the main bedroom lay the lifeless body of Diane. She was tucked up in bed and presumably killed while still asleep. Laying on the floor next to the bed was the bloody body of Alan.
It was theorized that Diane was killed first and then Alan was shot while in the shower. However, Alan lived long enough to get out of the shower and walk to the bedroom where he collapsed beside his wife and bled to death. There was a trail of blood and footprints on the carpet leading from the bathroom to the bedroom. 2
One of the first officers on the scene was Marshall Randy Tremble. He said that the crime scene “took him aback.” Skull fragments sullied the bedroom floor and walls and blood spatter stained both the bathroom and the bedroom. There was a Winchester rifle on the bedroom floor which was typically kept in an adjoining guest house. Eerily, a crucifix that fell from the wall lay on top of the murder weapon. “There was quite a bit of carnage,” recalled Tremble.3
Initially, it was believed that this may have been a murder-suicide. However, by the following day, investigators announced that they had ruled both deaths as homicide. The sheriff announced that they had several persons of interest that they were wishing to speak to as soon as possible and had “two or three motives” which could have led to the killing. However, he did not elaborate any further.
Suspicion soon fell upon Sarah who by this point, had changed her story several times. As it transpired, Sarah had been dating a 19-year-old undocumented immigrant named Bruno Santos and her parents had disapproved of him. Allegedly, Alan and Diane had threatened to have Bruno arrested if Sarah didn’t cut ties with him. Grounds existed for an investigation into statutory rape since Bruno was 19 and Sarah was a juvenile.
An investigation of the crime scene turned up a discarded bathrobe and blood-stained latex glove that had been hidden in the garbage can outside the home. They contained the DNA of Sarah, Alan and Diane. Presumably, Sarah had hoped that the garbage truck would have picked the garbage up. However, investigators had sealed off the street and turned away the garbage truck which was making it rounds shortly after the shooting.
Investigators had also discovered that Sarah’s socks were spattered with Diane’s blood despite the fact that Sarah claimed she did not go near the bodies out of fear of what she would find. Furthermore, when Sarah had been brought in for questioning, it was noticed that she had a bruised shoulder which was indicative of recoil from the rifle.4
On the 30th of October, Sarah was arrested and charged as an adult in the double homicide of her parents. Prosecutor Thomas said that despite the fact that Sarah was being charged as an adult, he wouldn’t be seeking the death penalty.
Investigators pieced together the string of events leading up to the murders of Alan and Diane. On the 29th of August, Sarah hadn’t come home and claimed she was staying overnight at a friends. The next night, her parents found her at Bruno’s home. This was the breaking point for Alan and Diane and they went to police to report Bruno for statutory rape. Then on the 2nd of September, Sarah opened a rental unit which was adjacent to the home. She removed the .264 caliber rifle that was stored here and subsequently shot her parents.
Sarah pleaded not guilty to the murders and she was held on $2 million bond. By this point, Bruno had been deported to Mexico but was ordered to return to the United States when immigration officials discovered his importance to the case.5
During Sarah’s trial, the prosecution alleged that Sarah had killed her parents for opposing to her relationship. They contended that Sarah had hoped that with her parents out of the way, she and Bruno could live on their inheritance. Her defense, however, was alleging that it was Bruno who had killed Alan and Diane. “He has committed crimes recently and we have evidence he has the proclivity to do more,” Pangburn said. “We also have evidence part of his previous record has been purged,” said defense lawyer, Robert Pangburn. The other charges they were referring to was controlled substance charges.6
The prosecution refuted the claims that Bruno was involved, stating that there was absolutely no evidence to connect him to the crime scene or even the home. All of the physical evidence pointed towards Sarah. In addition to the DNA evidence, Diane’s sister testified that just the day before the murders, Sarah had asked for the keys to the gun safe.
On the 16th of March, 2005, Sarah Marie Johnson was found guilty of both murders.
During the sentencing phase, Diane’s sister, Debbie Davis, addressed Sarah: “I hope your father looking into your eyes when he was shot will be burned in your mind forever,” while Alan’s sister, Lynne Murrill, said: “She is a spoiled rotten brat that thinks only of herself. I can’t believe how she could kill the two people in the world who loved her the most.”
Sarah’s own brother, Matt Johnson, also addressed his sister, stating: “I think some honesty needs to come out of you, and you need to plead to the court for some for forgiveness. Of all the things I miss, I miss their hugs — their bear hugs,” said Matt Johnson. I lost the two best friends I ever had. Judge, I would like to see the maximum sentence because after tomorrow I don’t want to have to hear about her or this event again. I feel she has no remorse and feel she would do it again, except she would do better planning and she would try to get away with it.”7
She was subsequently sentenced to two concurrent life terms plus 15 years for a firearm enhancement.
- The Times-News, 4 September, 2003 – “Bellevue Couple was Murdered”
- The Times-News, 9 September, 2003 – “Sheriff Bypasses Coroner in Shootings”
- The Times-News, 9 February, 2005 – “Carnage at Crime Scene Took Him Aback”
- The Times-News, 31 October, 2003 – “Daughter Faces Murder Charges”
- The Times-News, 4 November, 2003 – “Girl Pleads Innocent”
- The Times-News, 6 November, 2004 – “Defense Points to Boyfriend”
- The Times-News, 30 June, 2005 – “Family Gets Day in Court”