Part II: Murder on the tracks — Who killed Justin Hocutt?
Can an investigation turned cold be solved?
Justin Hocutt’s cold body was found torn apart on the train tracks in Seligman on Oct. 9, 1999 — 21 years ago.
The early morning hours on those tracks were chilly and foggy, and the tracks would soon be the site of a horrendous scene — the mangled body of 14-year-old Justin Hocutt.
Hocutt was last seen before his murder running from his neighbor’s home at 3:30 a.m. on Oct. 8, 1999 — a full day before his body would be found.
Justin was being chased out of the home of his girlfriend by her father Harold Lee Johnson, 39.
Although Justin lived just next door, he never arrived to the safety of his own home.
The next sighting of Hocutt could have been made of nightmares. His body was ravaged by a train headed southbound through Seligman. The train made contact with Hocutt’s body sometime between 4-6 a.m. on Oct. 9, 1999.
When his body was found 229 yards from the point of impact, he was a mere 100 yards from his own home, and 300 feet from the Johnson’s home, where he was last seen.
The train that dismembered his body was carrying a load of 3,500 tons. It had six engines and 39 total cars traveling at 45 miles per hour.
In 1998, there were 536 railroad trespasser fatalities, 19 of which were in Missouri.
Why was Justin Hocutt on those tracks that night?
Did he commit suicide? Was he intoxicated?
These were some of the first thoughts going through the minds of his family, as well as police investigators.
According to Cassville Democrat articles between Oct. 13 and Oct. 27, 1999, the toxicology reports showed no alcohol or drugs in his system.
Additionally, the first sign of blood was found under the third engine.
With this information, former Barry County Coroner Skip White recorded the death as a homicide.
Now, the questions shift to who killed Justin, and why?
White said the first thing to remember is that it doesn’t matter what kind of child Justin was — he was a child.
“I have worked several train wrecks in my career,” he said. “It destroys whatever evidence would have been there, other than blood.
“This young man, from what I can gather from that day, was found in an apartment [on the morning of Oct. 8, 1999]. I believe, the father of [Hocutt’s girlfriend] had his sons take [Hocutt] somewhere, and I believe they beat on him.”
White said whether they intended to kill Justin Hocutt over the incident or not is still a mystery.
The father of the girlfriend was Harold Lee Johnson, who had a live-in girlfriend at the time of the incident, Brenda Scott. Johnson didn’t have sons of his own living in the home. White is referring to the sons of Scott.
“I do know he was killed, or died, somewhere other than on the train tracks,” White said. “Then, I feel they got nervous and took [Hocutt’s body] up and put him on the train tracks to try to cover up what they had done.”
White said he felt like the crime was never investigated rightfully so.
“We found him on the tracks that morning, before daylight,” he said. “We also had a good investigator with the railroad, [Ron Sparks].
“Ron was pretty sharp. Once we took the body and the investigation was going nowhere, I called this organization in Virginia.”
The Virginia organization was the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which sent down four investigators from all over the United States to look into Justin’s murder.
“[This was about a month after the murder] when I realized the investigation wasn’t going anywhere,” White said. “They stayed for a week. At the time, I had a hard time even getting them an office to meet at from law enforcement.”
White said the four investigators came to the same conclusion that he came to about what happened to Justin.
“When they left, they asked law enforcement if we could put two detectives on this to follow up on a couple of things,” he said. “Something was wrong [with this investigation], and I don’t know exactly what it was.”
White said to his knowledge, Brenda Scott’s sons may have been brought in, but he thought they weren’t interrogated like they should have been.
“I do know there was a pair of boots one of those boys was wearing,” White said. “He took them to a friend’s trailer and told him to discard these boots, then he went to work that morning barefooted.”
This information is critical because Scott’s son worked as a chicken catcher, so it would be strange for someone to work that job barefoot, not to mention the fact that is was a cool fall day.
White said he feels very strongly that Justin was forgotten about.
“For charges to be brought, the sheriff or the prosecutor has to bring those charges,” he said. “There were never any charges brought up, but there sure could have been.”
Dave Bowman was one of the investigators on the case.
White said he was always very good at his job, but feels in this specific case, he wasn’t given the leeway he needed to work the case properly.
“When Ralph Hendrix was sheriff, he had a pretty good lid on Seligman and the problems that it had,” he said. “Once Ralph quit being sheriff, Seligman started again to be problematic. I never felt like the sheriff had a hand on what was going on down there.”
White also spoke to the issues of drug use surrounding the case.
“I think this father [Harold Johnson] woke up and went into the room where these two kids were,” White said. “They were either doing something they shouldn’t have been or [Justin] was just there and the old man didn’t like it. So, [Harold] called the boys [Scott’s sons] out from their room and they took him out and worked on him.”
White said all the train accidents he has seen absolutely have blood.
“[In the Hocutt case] there was just not enough blood left,” he said. “He bled out somewhere else. I do not know where that was.”
The Johnsons and Scotts lived in a duplex apartment, and the apartment attached to theirs was vacant at the time of the murder.
“We went in there and they luminoled the apartment, there wasn’t enough [blood] in there [to explain the missing blood from Justin’s body],” White said. “I don’t believe [Justin] had been dead for 24 hours. He did not have rigor mortis. Of course, after 24 hours rigor mortis would have been out of his body, because it comes in at about 10-12 hours and leaves at about 20 hours.”
This information is relevant to the fact that Justin was last seen nearly 24 hours before his body was found.
“I do think those boys [Scott’s sons] were checked out, and they were at work that day [Oct. 8, 1999],” White said. “In extreme deaths, rigor mortis can come and go pretty quick, so I wouldn’t rule out [Justin was murdered in the early morning of Oct. 8].”
According to White, from the investigation, there wasn’t enough coming up to say exactly what had happened.
“I know who killed him — I know who killed this boy,” White said. “So does everyone else who was in the investigation. I think the girl, [Johnson’s daughter], knows exactly what happened.”
White said he believes there is still a chance to solve this murder.
“I think if I were the sheriff and could talk to the prosecuting attorney and give it to a couple of investigators for two or three weeks, I think there is a very good chance this could be solved,” White said. “I always have. I think a jury in Barry County, if they listened to everything and had all the facts, there would be someone charged.”
When looking at this case versus other train wrecks, the biggest sign of foul play was the lack of blood.
“I think they laid his head to where it would do the most damage,” White said. “Let’s say he was knocked out and put on there, he would have bled so much. It is unbelievable how much blood is in a human being — and it just wasn’t there.”
White said he wants this case solved.
“I have for years tried to get people interested in this case,” he said. “When I became coroner, it took me a long time to prove to law enforcement that I was not just a body pick up agency.
“I go to investigate the death.”
White said he thinks about Justin death all the time.
“It bothers me,” he said. “There has to be an answer, and somebody has to answer for this. We can’t have 14-year-old children being murdered in Barry County.”
White said he believes the murder was a beating that went too far, and the murderers thought they could get away with it.
“I know what happened, and I know who is responsible,” White said. “It can still be solved.”
White said it is important for people who have information in the case to come forward, as it is critical to solving this case.
Editor’s note: This story is the second in a four-part series running weekly Oct. 28 to Nov. 18.