Murder on the tracks — who killed Justin Hocutt?
Killer still on the loose after murder two decades cold
The body of a 14-year-old boy was found on the train tracks in Seligman on the cool, crisp fall morning of Oct. 9, 1999. The body belonged to Justin Hocutt, a Southwest student, and resident of Seligman. Justin’s paternal aunts, Paula Roney and Tammy Tolbert, said they have been in search of justice for Justin for 21 years.
At the time of Justin’s murder, his mother lived in Nebraska and his father was living in his grandparent’s house.
Although it is still unknown exactly how Justin’s story ended, it began on Aug. 16, 1985, when he was born to Bonnie and Tim Hocutt in Arkansas.
Unfortunately, at about 4 years old, Justin’s parents moved the family to Nebraska, where he would witness years of fighting and arguing between his parents, which at times became physical.
Justin’s aunt described the couple’s relationship as, his parents loved to hate each other.
Eventually, the couple divorced when Justin was about 10 years old, and while his mother stayed in Nebraska, his father moved in with his sister in Pea Ridge, Ark.
Tammy Tolbert said Justin came to spend the summer with his father, who was living with her at the time, and as his mother was dealing with her own addiction to drugs. Justin officially moved in with her after that summer.
In the short 14 years of Justin’s life, those few years living with his aunt were some of the safest and peaceful he would have.
For three years, he thrived in school, played with his cousin and became a permanent member of the household.
According to Tolbert, Justin collected baseball cards for years, rode his bike in the neighborhood and had the life she felt a child should have.
Tim Hocutt had moved to Seligman to live in a camper trailer during those years before moving in with his parents, an already too crowded home.
According to his aunt, Justin loved his nanny and papa and wanted to be near his dad, so after three years of stability, the 13-year-old also moved in with his grandparents.
Unfortunately, the events following this move would lead to his death just a few short months later — Justin had just turned 14 years old when he was murdered.
The aunts remembered an incident from just before when Hocutt moved in with his father and grandparents when his father showed the dark side to his addictions.
According to Tolbert, at a family gathering, Tim Hocutt had an alcohol-induced argument with his son that, in her mind, went too far.
Tolbert said that in Tim Hocutt’s eyes, he was the right person to raise Justin, but watching Justin get sucked into Tim’s lifestyle was difficult. Unfortunately, Justin never complained to his aunts about it.
Tim had a girlfriend who had a son Justin’s age, and they hung out a lot. Additionally, Justin had found himself a girlfriend who lived next door.
Unfortunately, the girl-next-door would be one of the last people to see 14-year-old Justin alive.
Tolbert’s phone rang at 5 a.m. on the morning of Oct.9, 1999. Her sister was on the line and told Tolbert to go and pick up their father and asked for her husband to go pick up their mother from her shift at the hospital.
According to Tolbert, when she asked her sister what was going on, she responded that she didn’t want to tell her.
Tolbert said she needed to explain to her parents as to why they were being picked up and taken back to their home.
“She said, ‘Please don’t tell mom and dad, but Justin was hit by a train,” Tolbert said. “When I told dad, all he could say was, ‘Oh my god, oh my god.’”
Initially, the family thought that Justin had committed suicide.
When the family first heard the word murder, they began building their theories on who could have killed 14-year-old Justin Hocutt.
“Maybe a couple of months before [Justin’s murder], Tim had gotten beaten real bad and thrown into mom and dad’s yard,” Tolbert said. “This was a warning [from drug dealers], and that is why I have always thought it was drug-related.”
According to the aunts, Tim had a bad drug deal between himself and the neighbors, and later in the evening of the beating, the police showed up and arrested Tim.
The aunts said that Justin was never involved in drugs, and if it was related to Justin’s death, he was completely innocent in the situation.
According to the Cassville Democrat’s Oct. 13, 1999, issue, Justin was last seen alive by his girlfriend and her father, Harold Lee Johnson, 39, Justin’s next door neighbors, at 3:30 a.m. on Oct. 8, 1999, when he was being chased out of his girlfriend’s home — a full day before his body would be found ravaged by a train.
It is still unknown why Justin didn’t simply go back home after the incident, as the families were neighbors, and to answer the question as to why he was not reported missing, it was simply not uncommon for him to be gone for a day or two. He had in fact been previously reported as a runaway.
“You know how you watch Forensic Files or something and however many years cold the case is they can solve it,” Tolbert said. “[We want it solved,] even if [the killers] are 90 years old now or dead.”
The aunts agree that even that would offer some satisfaction.
To live every day wondering and never having justice is excruciating pain.
Throughout the investigation, the family had received tips as to what happened to Justin.
“I had a text from a girl, I don’t remember her name, but she had text me and said, ‘I know some stuff about Justin,’” Tolbert said. “[She said], he was put in a dryer.”
Roney said she had heard information that Justin was beaten unconscious to the point the murderers thought he was dead.
According to Roney and the information she received, the murderers put Justin’s body in a dryer, and Justin had bled out before he was put on the tracks.
“We don’t know how true that is,” Roney said.
However, truth in the rumor he had bled out before he was placed on the tracks can be confirmed in the fact that the first sign of blood was found under the third engine of the train.
The train had a total of six engines and 39 cars, and was traveling at 45 miles per hour.
The boyfriend of one of Justin’s aunts is the person who identified his body.
“He was a drug addict, and when he saw Justin, his life changed,” Tolbert said. “He doesn’t do drugs and is now clean. He had nightmares.”
The aunts agree that Justin’s body was torn apart by the train, but the train did not kill him.
At this time in the investigation, tips were coming in, but the aunts said the police weren’t talking to them. They did speak with Justin’s grandparents a few times, and without knowing exactly what was said, they do know that Tim was a suspect in Justin’s murder for a time.
However, the aunts agree that most of the interviews with police were targeted toward the Johnsons and Scotts, who lived next door.
There was a time when a pair of work boots were turned in as evidence in the investigation.
“There was blood in the boots, or blood on the boots,” Tolbert said. “We thought, they’ve got something. But, then they lost the evidence. We just don’t know what to believe,” she said.
Shortly after the murder of Justin Hocutt, the grandparents whom Justin was living with were dealing with some harassment issues.
The Johnsons and Scotts were still living next door to them.
“They were shooting guns at my mom and dad’s house,” Roney said. “One night, I happened to be there while they were doing that, of course we called the cops, but they wouldn’t do anything about the Johnsons.”
According to the aunts, the Johnsons and Scotts would yell over the fence that separated the properties, “Come here and we will show you what we did to Justin.”
“They made these comments all the time,” Roney said.
In the early morning hours of Oct. 8, 1999, when Justin was being chased out of the Johnsons’ home, it was because the girlfriend’s father, Harold, found them sleeping together on the floor, fully clothed.
There were older boys in the home, the sons of Harold’s live-in girlfriend, Brenda Scott.
“We had heard that they are the ones who murdered Justin,” Roney said.
The aunts said the Scott boys were in their twenties at the time.
Another twist in the investigation came when three residents were arrested and freed on a $15,000 bond after pleading not guilty to hindering the investigation.
Harold Lee Johnson, 39, Floyd Eugene Johnson, 60, and Brenda Scott, 42, were accused of keeping law officers away from Justin Hocutt’s girlfriend, Harold Lee Johnson’s daughter.
The aunts agree that Harold Lee Johnson’s daughter knows what happened to Justin.
“We would hope that [the justice system] would make [the murderers] accountable,” Roney said. “But, if our justice system doesn’t do that, they will answer one day to a Higher Power.
“They will pay for it one day.”
Roney said she believes if Harold Johnson’s daughter and others with information would speak up about the experiences they have had, the murderers would be brought to justice.
The aunts think that the reason people haven’t come forward yet is because they are afraid of retaliation from the murderers for speaking up.
“Maybe living with this all this time, [the murderers] will come forward,” Roney said.
The last time an officer spoke to the family about Justin’s murder, was when an officer spoke to Justin’s grandmother nearly 16 years ago.
“The week before his death I took my dad to the doctor and Justin had come with us,” Tolbert said. “I remembered noticing the shirt that he was wearing that day. It had skulls and knives on it, and it to me seemed very aggressive. I asked him why he was wearing that shirt and he said because he liked that kind of stuff.
“I told him that he had never worn that style of clothes before. We had an argument about it because I told him that is how people perceived him. Not a week later and he was dead. I never got to say, ‘Justin, I am so sorry’. It has always bothered me.”
Justin’s body was cremated, and his family still holds hope that one day there will be Justice for Justin.
Justin’s mother took his ashes back to Nebraska with her, and his father was sentenced to prison for 13 years, which is where he died in September 2020 from a heart attack.
Editor’s note: This story is the first in a four-part series running weekly Oct. 28 to Nov. 10.