cover_story (2005-42)

Photo with no caption

Johnia with her parents, Joan and Mike Berry.

Johnia and two of her beloved nieces.

Johnia and her fiancé Jason White.

Johnia and her brother Kelly Burke on her 21st birthday.

Johnia Berry on a beach vacation.

It’s been 10 months since Johnia Berry’s puzzling slaying at a West Knoxville apartment, and her family wants to know why her case is still unsolved

by Ellen Mallernee

“It was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it.”

Sunday, Dec. 5 - Monday, Dec. 6, 2004

By all accounts, Berry always approached life with this sort of pragmatism and energy. Besides Zales, she worked with teenagers at Peninsula Hospital. Friends and family members describe Berry as self-possessed, sassy, smart, beautiful and unfailingly sweet.

Johnia (pronounced John-uh) had moved to Knoxville just six weeks earlier to pursue her graduate studies in psychology at UT. In only three years, the honor student had garnered both a criminology and psychology degree from ETSU, where she’d also cheered for the football team and worked in the child-studies department. In little more than a week, she was scheduled to return to Johnson City to collect her diploma. And she and her boyfriend of four years, Jason White, were preparing an April wedding. 

White attended Thomas Cooley Law School in Lansing, Mich., and the 600-mile separation was difficult for the close couple. One of Johnia’s co-workers says she was visibly lonely in Knoxville, even as she worked diligently to ingratiate herself to those around her.

As she roamed the aisles that night in Walgreens, she spoke with her mom on her cell phone, chatting even as she checked out.

Now, Joan Berry’s grim, deflated voice relates an account that she’s gone over numerous times in her head. “I said, ‘Well honey, you know you have to get up early, you better hurry and get your things together and get ready for bed.’ She said ‘I’m actually checking out, Mom, and I’m right by the apartment.’”

“We have that on video,” says Knox County Assistant Chief Deputy Keith Lyon, head of the Johnia Berry Task Force. “We reviewed the video and everybody that was in [Walgreens] during that time. We know what time she left. We know how she paid.”

Berry drove her Chrysler Sebring convertible home to Brendon Park apartments in Cedar Bluff, where she lived with her best friend’s ex-boyfriend Jason Aymami. She and Aymami had both attended ETSU, and he had moved to Knoxville six months earlier to accept an assistant manager’s position at a local Sherwin-Williams paint shop. When Berry got the job at Peninsula, Aymami offered her his extra bedroom until she could find a place of her own.

Between 9 and 10 p.m. that evening, Aymami came home from the gym and found Berry Indian-style on the floor, wrapping presents in front of the TV set. They watched TV together. She took a shower, called her parents to say goodnight, as she did every night, and then called her fiancé.

“We just sort of had a routine, and every night she would talk to me on the phone,” says White. “She would stay on the phone with me until she fell asleep, and whenever I heard her fall asleep I’d hang up the phone, and that’s what we did that night, just like any other night.”

Around 11:30 p.m., Berry went to bed, and an hour later, Aymami followed suit, falling asleep with the TV in his bedroom still on.

Three and a half hours later, at 4 a.m., Aymami heard a sound that woke him. In retrospect, he can’t recall the exact sound, though it was likely the sound of Berry screaming. “At the time, I didn’t think anything of it,” he says. “I thought it was just a nightmare. She had those sometimes, where she’d wake up and either yell or cry, and I didn’t think anything different on this night.” Climbing from bed with the purblind demeanor of one just out of sleep, he opened his bedroom door and was instantly shoved backward onto his bed and stabbed in the chest, hands and face. Aymami estimates the encounter took 30 seconds. The sheriff’s department has confirmed that the knife came from Aymami’s kitchen.

“The only thing I remember [him saying] was in a whisper kind of telling me to be quiet and just shut up,” says Aymami.

In the blue light from his television, he caught a glimpse of the assailant that would later generate a composite sketch. The man was relatively short, white, fair-haired, roughly 180 pounds, wearing an Atlanta Braves ball cap. “I was able to get him off me, and at that time I made a run for it,” he says.

With adrenaline overwhelming the blinding pain, White stumbled from the apartment, down the front stairs and out into the cold, drizzly morning air. Desperate knocks at the doors of a neighboring apartment complex, Warren House, went unanswered.

Aymami then jogged to the Weigel’s a half-mile away on Fox Lonas Road. There he called 911.

There are few certainties about what happened to Berry before or after Aymami fled the apartment, but it is known that after she was stabbed—and Aymami says he was told “it was too many times to count”—in the face, neck and body, every neighbor reported hearing her knock on their door. She knocked first on F, the door just beside hers; She then rushed down the stairs, wailing and screaming, and banged on the doors of apartments C and D, tripped further down the stairs to apartments A and B, smearing blood on each door, stamping bloody hand prints on the walls, before climbing back up the stairs and collapsing in the hallway of the ground floor.

One neighbor called 911, but hung up before reporting anything. No one came out from their apartments. The policeman first on the scene found her, still alive.

A half-hour later, Berry’s best friend and Aymami’s ex-girlfriend, Stephanie McFadden, got a phone call from UT Hospital. “They said that Jason was in the hospital and wanted me to know,” she says. “The furthest thing from my mind was that he’d been stabbed. I just thought he’d had an asthma attack or something. They said that he and his roommate had been stabbed.”

At the hospital, Aymami could hear doctors working on Berry. “I could hear the scanner going off saying that they had a white female, stabbing victim in cardiac arrest. She was still en route, and then they pushed me out in the hall.” Later, a nurse came into the ER to tell Aymami that she had died. The hospital called McFadden again to ask for Berry’s parents’ phone number.

Joan Berry’s cell phone rang at 5 a.m. and a man asked to speak to her husband, Mike. The man on the other end explained to Mike Berry that his stepdaughter had been stabbed, and that they needed to come identify her body. The Berrys, in their Atlanta, Ga., home, were four hours away from UT Hospital, and the rain was coming down in sheets.

Kelly Burke, Johnia’s 31-year-old brother and an employee at Knoxville’s Jewelry Television, got the next call at 5:35 a.m. (Separate last names notwithstanding, both Kelly and Johnia have the same biological father. Johnia took her stepfather’s last name, as he and her mother married when she was 7.)

“My mom was sort of hysterical, crying, and she said that something had happened,” Burke says. “She kept saying that I need to get out there to be with her. ‘She’s by herself, by herself,’ she kept saying, so finally I got out of her that [Johnia] had been stabbed.” Before he knew what was happening, Burke and his girlfriend were out of bed, lacing up their shoes.

At the hospital, they were greeted by a detective, and soon thereafter met Burke’s brother, 34-year-old Tim Burke, a resident of Bristol, Tenn., at the hospital, along with a smattering of family members who lived nearby. Within a few hours, Kelly and Tim were asked to identify Johnia’s body.

“It’s not like the movies,” Burke explains, “where you walk in and see the body. The guy showed us a photograph [of a corpse]. You want to look at the photo and say, ‘I don’t know who that is,’ but that wasn’t the case. They handle you almost like it’s a formality,” he says. “It was kind of callous, like you were signing for a pickup with Fed-Ex.”

In need of fresh air, Burke stepped through the whooshing automatic doors of the hospital and out into the rain, just as Joan and Mike Berry drove up. “Mike was driving, and my mom kind of saw me and they stopped the car and she got out and she was trembling and crying and she said, ‘Is it true?’ and I said, ‘Yeah it’s true, Mom.’ She said, ‘Did they hurt my baby’s face?’ That’s really kind of what she wanted to know.”

In the picture Burke had seen, his sister’s butter-blonde hair was matted with blood, her face punctured with stab wounds, her eyes closed. He didn’t know what to say to his mom.

At 10 a.m., Joan Berry called her daughter’s fiancé. “She said ‘Johnia’s dead,’” White recalls. “I’ll never forget it. I hit the floor. I passed out on the floor. I just couldn’t get myself together. I couldn’t function at all, couldn’t dress myself, couldn’t do anything.”

A concerned neighbor overheard White’s sobbing and came and banged on the door of his apartment. He let the stranger in, and let her pack his suitcase for him. He let her buy his plane ticket and drive him to the airport.

That afternoon, Burke remembers his mother, sitting crumpled on a curb outside UT hospital. He remembers her tears, her saying, “I want to die. I just want to die now.”

“Down, down, down into

Police could find no evidence of forced entrance into White’s apartment, leading many to suspect one of four things—that someone had a key, that the killer was let in, that the roommate was responsible, or that the door was unlocked, an idea that startles everyone who knew the young woman.

Ellen Cantwell, a college friend with a viscous Southern accent, says “[Johnia] was one of those people where she’d be like, ‘Ellen, did you lock the door?’ and ‘I need a night light on.’” Berry stayed overnight at Cantwell’s house several times during college because she had an often-absent roommate and was wary of being alone.

Berry once jokingly told Aymami that she was a “paranoid schizophrenic when it comes to locked doors,” and White agrees, saying it wasn’t unusual for his fiancée to shake him awake in the middle of the night to question whether or not the doors were locked.

Looking back at the days and months leading up to Dec. 6, most everyone has his or her own, disparate ideas about who may have committed her murder, now over 10 months unsolved.

Cantwell believes Johnia’s killer knew her from the Johnson City area. “Jason [White] and I have talked, and we both think it was somebody that was already there [inside the apartment] or was let in. Somebody got jealous or did something to shut her up.”

Cantwell’s not the only one who’s still afraid. Berry’s boss at Zales, Diane Johnson, was vocal with the press after the murder. A month later, she says, a homemade bomb detonated in her front yard. The only thing that makes sense to her is that the incident was related to Berry’s murder.

Johnson said she hired Berry the day she met her, even putting her to work that first afternoon. “She just impressed me. She was the type of person if you had a bad day and she came in the store you didn’t have a bad day anymore.”

Johnson thought so much of Berry that at one point she even invited her to move in with her. Pausing ominously, Johnson recalls that Berry once mentioned being upset about a guy who had made a pass at her. “Not one of the customers,” she clarifies. “It was a friend of hers, but I didn’t know which particular guy it was. It was Christmas, and we were really busy, and that’s the one thing I regret, that I didn’t stop and talk to her about it because she was really upset about it.”

Chad Sullivan, another Zales employee, says he too remembers Berry saying she’d been hit on, though the specifics are fuzzy. Berry, he explains knowingly, was an open book. “You could just read her. She was open about everything, if it wasn’t about her dog [a chubby, white Chihuahua], it was about her messy-ass roommate.”

The night preceding her murder, Sullivan and two other co-workers walked Berry to her car, per Zales policy. After turning down her ebullient suggestion that they all go out for drinks, the other two employees branched away in the parking lot; Sullivan, though, walked her to her car, where they stood talking for 10 or 15 minutes, he says, about school, as they were both criminal justice and psychology majors.

A few minutes into their chat, Sullivan caught sight of an older model, two-door black SUV (he believes it was either a Blazer or a Jimmy) circle the parking lot. The fellow in the passenger seat gaped out at Berry, whose back was turned to the vehicle, and gave Sullivan what he calls “the ugliest look I’ve ever gotten in my life. I said, ‘What the fuck’s he looking at?’ but she just talked on like they weren’t even there, and that scared me the most because she acted like they were ghosts.”

The car then circled around a time or two more and parked near the West Town entrance. Though Sullivan admits he’s not sure if the sighting was of any consequence, the Berry family laments the absence of security cameras on the mall property.

Sullivan is one among many who’s inclined to presume that Berry’s roommate had a hand in her death. “They didn’t exactly get along,” he says. Sullivan takes special issue with Aymami’s hasty move to Denver, Colo., two months after Berry’s murder. “He hauled ass,” says Sullivan.

Moving to Colorado, Aymami says, enabled him to feel safer, in the wake of his roommate’s murder. He also wanted a reprieve from local police who’d suddenly begun to question him in a vituperative manner. “At first [the police] were my friends and then all of a sudden they turned into my enemies,” he says. “I actually got to the point where I felt threatened, where I had to get a lawyer just to protect me. They were just running out and getting frustrated, and they go for the easy target.”

Though Berry’s fiancé doesn’t believe that Aymami’s at fault, he, and some members of the Berry family, are disturbed that he didn’t try to shield Berry from harm. “I knew him before this,” says White. “I knew he was harmless, and I guess that’s why I didn’t have a problem with her staying there. And that was the problem in the end—he was harmless.”

Police wouldn’t comment on the degree to which they pursued Aymami as a suspect.

Regarding the rampant speculation about his sister’s murder, Burke says, “I think people try to think back to everything they can to see if they can pick up one detail, hoping it will lead to something.”

Over lunch at Tomato Head, he barely touches his sandwich, looking always like he’s just getting up the nerve to eat it, then deferring. Instead, he rakes his fingers through his blond hair, slumps forward and then backward, averts his green eyes. Ten years older than his kid sister, he says, “It’s been awhile and nothing. Really, really it’s a mystery. The idea is to kind of keep the attention level up, and maybe somebody will read the story and say, ‘Hey you know, I know the guy that did this’ and feel strongly enough to turn him in. I’m not saying that’s our only hope,” he says, pausing gravely, “but as far as I know, it is.”

Today, the sun over Brendon Park Apartments beats down, oblivious to the bloodshed of 10 months ago. More upscale than the outdated, weather-beaten Warren House complex beside it, the apartments where Berry lived are painted the color of sand, accented in white trim. Her door, framed by two bulbous shrubs, opens to a carpeted stairwell. Inside the hallway leading to apartments A-F, several doormats indicate the presence of current residents. Outside apartment E, where Berry lived, there is a faded bath mat. In the hallway, there’s a strange and pervasive odor; something smells inhuman—metallic and sour. There’s a quiet so quiet that it seems loud, and stepping over the spot where Johnia Berry lay dying feels akin to desecrating a grave.

The day after her murder, the bloodstained carpet at Brendon Park was removed and replaced, the walls painted. Management distributed notices assuring its residents that Berry’s death was the result of domestic violence.

“We never made any such comment to anyone about that,” Lyon says.

The Berrys were furious about the false claim. “We actually asked them to reprint and say this was not the case, but they’re obviously not going to do that because they have a business to operate,” says Burke. “I was very upset about that because anything small like that can tarnish the image of the person.”

White agrees, “That’s as irresponsible and self-centered of a thing to do that I can ever imagine,” he says.

The notices were never reprinted, and a Brendon Park manager refused to comment.

On cleaning out her daughter’s apartment, Joan Berry says, “It was, of course, heartbreaking. I never thought I would be taking her things out without her. I just wanted to hurry and get things out and bring everything home where it belonged. I just wanted to actually get out of Knoxville. I do not like Knoxville.”

Today, the strip of parking spaces before Berry’s building contains only one car. Burke’s motorcycle is parked across the way. He comes, he says, every so often to stay for an hour or two, in quiet remembrance of his sister.

“True peace is not merely the absence of tension:

In a corner of Lyon’s office in the City County Building there are nearly a dozen cardboard boxes and a metal filing cabinet. “Every box there is part of this case,” he says with a gesture. “I’ve got another file cabinet filled of this case.”

On Lyon’s wall is a large, laminated diagram of Berry’s apartment, a palimpsest that’s seen many a marker trace its path.

Under fluorescent light, Lyon’s hair gleams a slate gray and his tired eyes express a concentrated distress. “There’s only one other crime that I’ve worked on that I have not solved,” he says.

Martha Dooley, the Knox County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson, chimes in, “I think we’ve got an 86 percent solvability rate. It’s very high.”

Though Lyon has spearheaded Berry’s investigation, he says up to 50 detectives have worked on her case at one time. Lyon is polite, with the down-home accent of a local boy, and the no-nonsense approach of a man nearly obsessed with finding Johnia Berry’s killer.

“I’m not trying to be smart with you,” he’ll say politely, when asked a question that he refuses to answer. “There are just certain things I have to hold back about the case.”

His voice breaks and cracks, tripping over words and ideas he fears might slip from his mouth. His eyes water when he speaks of Berry’s mother. “I usually talk to them every couple days, and it will break your heart, and it’s every time you talk to them,” he says. “They’re trying to work through grief, but they’re having a hard time dealing with all these things, especially for a family that close.”

Still, one doesn’t know how reassured to feel when Lyon says, very evenly, “I think we have a reasonable idea who’s probably involved [in the crime]. We’re putting some pieces together on that. It’s like putting a puzzle together.... You gotta find the pieces, get the whole story before you go ahead and charge somebody. I think we have good male suspects to look at, several that were involved. We think there’s more than one individual that had knowledge of it.”

Lyon appears to believe that the criminals originated from Berry’s hometown in the Johnson City-Bristol area. “I think you’re dealing with local individuals here, local being where she’s from,” he says.

Because little evidence has been released to the public, what is available is rather confounding. For one thing, Aymami reveals that a car stereo was found on the back steps of his apartment building, along with a trail of blood. Inside the apartment, Aymami says, CDs from a leather case were scattered across the living room, on the coffee table. The CDs belonged to neither he nor Berry nor anyone who knew them. One such CD was by L.O.X., a New York-based rap trio that Aymami says he’d never heard of.

Also found was a three-song promo CD from local band Plan A. “Someone might’ve had a burglary from their car during that time period, but they figured it wasn’t worth it because of insurance purposes,” says Lyon. “That would be a good thing for us to know.”

The CDs and the car stereo lead Aymami to believe the murder was “a crime of opportunity, that it was either somebody that had a key or the door was unlocked and he was probably just turning door knobs, the door happened to open, made a sound, woke her up, and that’s when he lost it.”

Whatever the case, the most anyone can offer is wild supposition. No one can imagine what may have happened to Berry, a young woman said to have had no enemies.

Though the Berrys appreciate the “tireless” work of the Knox County Sheriff’s Office and recognize their daughter’s is an especially hard case to solve, they still get frustrated. In some instances, they’ve found it necessary to take matters into their own hands. To combat the months-long delay in processing crime-scene DNA, they sent out 2,000 postcards to lawmakers pleading for help in expediting the DNA analysis in their daughter’s case. Today they’re working on getting a bill passed in Tennessee that would make it easier to gather DNA from criminals. As of now, Tennessee law requires DNA to be taken from felons, but the Berrys hope that lesser offenses might one day also warrant a sampling. Because a person’s DNA has only a 1 in 650 quadrillion chance of matching another’s, DNA testing is looked to as sure-fire way to charge or clear suspects. “Tennessee doesn’t have enough DNA in their data bank,” says Berry.

Lyon has tested the DNA of more than 150 suspects, leading to a bill of $42,000, and there have been no matches yet.

Disturbed by waning attention, the Berrys have also reached out to local and national media. Months ago, they waited in line for hours at a book signing of CNN correspondent Nancy Grace so that they could tell her about their daughter. Grace went on to tape a segment with the Berrys, but it has yet to air.

Joan Berry can’t help but contrast her daughter’s case to Natalee Holloway’s, a missing girl whose name has circulated in the national news for six months now. “The case in Aruba, it took nine days to get the DNA back and she wasn’t even in the states. In Johnia’s case it took as much as three months to get it back.”

Some attribute the holdup to the Berrys’ limited funding and power. “We’re people without a whole lot of influence, without a whole lot of power,” says White. “Whenever that happens in this context, you’re going to be on the back burner as far as investigative priority.”

But the last thing Berry wants is for her daughter’s murder to be on the back burner of anyone’s mind. That’s why she had a billboard placed along a Knoxville strip of I-40 West with Johnia’s angelic likeness, mention of her murder and a phone number, calling for information.

“When I look upon the tombs of the great, every motion of envy dies in me; when

When asked about the last time he saw Berry, White doesn’t miss a beat. “It was 10 months, and 27 days ago,” he says. Before burying his fiancée, White made sure that she was wearing both her promise ring and her engagement ring, which he had to slip onto her little finger because of her swollen hands.

“It hurts to know that everything in my life at this point is not how it’s supposed to be,” says White. “I’ve got a totally different life now than I had a year ago. I was supposed to be married now. I’m sure that we would have had a child on the way because that’s what we always wanted. It’s difficult to adjust to a life that you’re not prepared for, that you didn’t choose for yourself.”

After Berry’s death, White moved away from Michigan, away from the apartment they had shared for a few months immediately after her graduation. “I couldn’t live there anymore,” he says. “I couldn’t go to school there anymore.” He’s enrolled in a law school in Tallahassee, Fla., but doesn’t believe he can really begin anew until he knows who murdered his wife-to-have-been. 

Through tears, Joan Berry, too, speaks of her ceaseless grief. “I hate sunny days. Sunny days Johnia always loved riding in her car with the top down. I hate rainy days too. It rained during the funeral, and it rained the day she was murdered, all day.”

A $10,000 reward is being offered for information leading to an arrest in the Johnia Berry case. If you can help, call the sheriff’s office at (865) 215-2243 or e-mail homicide@knoxsheriff.org . Check www.johniaberry.org for updates.

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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