Murder on the tracks — who killed Justin Hocutt?

Wednesday, November 11, 2020
Mick Epperly, former Barry County sheriff, remembered investigating the murder of Justin Hocutt. Hocutt’s body was dragged to this location on the train tracks, a total of 229 yards from the point of impact. Jordan Troutman/jtroutman@cassville-democrat.com

Evidence needed to charge suspected murderers is still in play

On Oct. 9, 1999, when the mangled body of 14-year-old Justin Hocutt was found along the train tracks in Seligman, it was clear this case would be a murder investigation. While the murderers may have thought the end of the story was disposing of Justin’s body on the train tracks to cover up their crime — it was only the beginning.

Mick Epperly, former Barry County Sheriff, said he investigated the murder, and what the killers don’t know is there is still evidence at the ready to be used to charge them — even 21 years after the murder occurred.

In the foreground of this photo, former Barry County Sheriff Mick Epperly recounts the initial investigation of the murder of Justin Hocutt. Hocutt’s body was found only 100 yards from his home, which is in the background. Jordan Troutman/jtroutman@cassville-democrat.com

“From the very beginning on Oct. 9, we went to the crime scene,” he said. “What we found was Justin’s body on the railroad tracks. The scene was terrible, especially with it being a young boy.”

Epperly said while canvasing the scene, they went to a spot on the west end of the tracks in the grassy area that looked like someone had been there hanging out by the railroad tracks.

“That was also the same area as the point of impact,” he said. “There was a little blood at the impact, where the train hit him.”

However, it was very obvious to those investigating that there wasn’t as much blood at the point of impact as there should have been.

“We did determine that [Justin] wasn’t killed by this train,” Epperly said. “There was an old laundromat next to Brenda and Harold’s apartment.”

The last sighting of Justin Hocutt alive was by Harold Johnson, the father of Justin’s girlfriend, nearly 24 hours before Justin’s body would be found ravaged on the train tracks.

Brenda Scott, Harold Johnson’s live-in girlfriend, along with her sons, Johnson and his daughter all lived together in a duplex, which was located right next door to Justin’s home.

Hocutt’s body was found just 300 feet from the Scott and Johnson home — the last place he was seen alive.

“The old laundromat wasn’t functioning at the time,” Epperly said. “We believe [the murderers] put the boy in there.”

Investigators tested the laundromat with luminol and found evidence of blood. However, there wasn’t enough blood to run tests on.

“We believe [Brenda Scott’s sons] took [Hocutt] into the laundromat,” Epperly said. “You know, this whole family is involved.”

Epperly said Hocutt’s girlfriend, Harold Lee Johnson’s daughter, was found in bed with Justin in the early morning hours of Oct. 8, 1999.

“We got a witness statement from [Harold’s daughter] from that,” he said. “She wouldn’t talk for awhile. She went though all this trauma and was worried [the Scott sons] may do something to her [for talking].”

However, Epperly said she did eventually talk, and there was an affidavit sent to the prosecuting attorney’s office, but they never filed charges on it.

At the time of this submitted affidavit, the girl had had problems with drug use, and the prosecuting attorney didn’t believe she would have made a reliable witness.

“But, with cases we get like this, we don’t get the most upstanding people sometimes, and while she did have drug problems, she was still an eye witness,” Epperly said.

Epperly said he believes the entire motive behind the brutal murder of Hocutt was the fact he was caught in bed with Johnson’s daughter.

Physical evidence on Hocutt’s body was hard to find, because according to Epperly, his lifeless body was hit not just once, but twice, by passing trains.

“One went down that morning headed south,” Epperly said, “And, before they ever knew what happened, he was hit again by a northbound train.

“That was a gruesome sight. It was clear to me that it was a homicide.”

Epperly said due to the fact that while looking at the point of impact there was very little blood, he could instantly determine that Hocutt’s body was placed on the tracks after he was already dead.

“If he would have been hit [while alive], there would have been blood splatter everywhere,” he said. “There is no way I would think he was walking the track and just got hit by a train, especially because we know that there was an argument and a fight inside the Johnson’s house.”

Hocutt was last seen alive by Harold Johnson while being chased out of the house at approximately 3 a.m. on Oct. 8, 1999, this leaves a 24-hour gap of time between the argument and Hocutt’s body being found.

“I knew there had to be a fight inside the [Johnson’s] residence,” Epperly said. “They were upset by finding him in bed with [Johnson’s daughter]. All things went to heck right then.”

At this point, Epperly believes the murderers began to panic.

“Now, we got to do something with the body,” Epperly believes the murders thought. “That is where we are pretty certain they took the body over to the laundromat and placed him inside. Then, they came up with the idea, ‘Well, why don’t we just put him up by the railroad and that way it will look like he was hit by a train, and well, end of story.’ But that wasn’t even near the end of the story.”

Investigators followed thousands of leads on the Hocutt case, according to Epperly.

“Everybody called in about this or that person who knew him,” he said. “A lot of it was done in Arkansas. We spent a lot of time down there rounding up people to talk to. There was just a lot of interviews.”

Epperly said this is one of those cases where there is a body, but there are no concrete leads.

“I believe pretty strongly you have to prove these cases,” he said. “Someone has to come forward.”

The prosecutor’s office and the sheriff’s office have an eye witness account to what happened on the night of Hocutt’s murder.

“Would [Johnson’s daughter] make a good witness on the stand?” Epperly said. “She is pretty shaky and she has been messed up in drugs. But, she was willing to sign an affidavit on it. She is the witness.”

The Scott and Johnson families have been in a lot of trouble since 1999 — including Johnson’s daughter.

“We have done so many interviews with people, and while a lot of them had their theories, there wasn’t much more than that,” he said. “Yes, the boots came up, and we even seized those boots. But, there was very little [blood], and of course DNA could be placed that way.”

One of the Scott sons was headed out to work in the poultry houses barefoot.

“We had asked him about that, and he said, ‘Oh, a lot of times I go without my shoes or boots,’” Epperly said. “Well, I can’t imagine him doing that.”

Epperly said he believes the Scott boys, as well as Brenda Scott herself, were responsible for the murder of Hocutt.

“[Brenda Scott, Harold Johnson and Eugene Johnson] were all involved in hindering the prosecution,” Epperly said. “We brought them in the next day or so.

“As we were locking them down in the jail, I plainly remember, it has always been stuck in my head, Brenda Scott hollered at the others, ‘Don’t say nothin.’ I think that is a pretty good clue that this happened in their house.”

Epperly has had quite a few cases in the 20 years he was sheriff.

“We solved just about all of them,” he said. “We do still have some that aren’t closed.

“We have one case that we know who done it, but the prosecutor won’t do anything about it because they do not have a body.”

However, in the case of Hocutt, there was a body and there was a lot of circumstantial evidence.

“As of today, I think the Johnsons and the Scotts are responsible for this,” Epperly said. “[Justin] was laying in bed with [Johnson’s daughter] and it made them mad. I don’t know, but more than likely, they didn’t mean to kill [Justin]. They were trying to teach him a lesson, a fight took off, and afterward, they panicked and had to figure out how to get rid of the body.”

Epperly said it was strange because on that dark early morning, while investigators were on the train track — Hocutt’s house was directly across from where he was found.

“The ambulance is out there and the sirens are going off, and Tim, [Justin’s father], doesn’t come out,” he said. “That was odd. I mean, he knew he was missing. The first thing I would do would be go out and see what’s going on.”

Epperly said Tim Hocutt was a person of interest due to the way he behaved.

“But, then he got locked up in Arkansas,” he said. “We went there and questioned him some more, but didn’t get anywhere.

“We tried to follow up on all the leads that came in at that time. We would have liked to get it solved, as well, we wanted justice for Justin too.”

The key to solving this case is to use the affidavit and statement from Johnson’s daughter.

“I know she has a terrible background, but you still can’t rule her out,” he said. “[Additionally], people talk, they talk to each other and they think it is in confidence. This case is going to need someone to come forward or we have to use this affidavit.”

Epperly said he doesn’t think Justin Hocutt ever made it out of the Johnson and Scott house alive.

“I think he was killed in that house,” he said.

According to Epperly, the reason this is still an unsolved case is due to the prosecutor never bringing up charges based on the affidavit.

“I can’t answer for [Amy Boxx], but I think she would tell me that [Johnson’s daughter] is a weak witness,” he said. “But I think she has to testify in court. She is the witness.”

Epperly did say that if charges were filed and she was put on the stand to testify and she changed her story, that would be a major issue.

Johnson’s daughter still lives in the area.

“As far as the Scott boys, I think they are still in the area because I have seen them on the inmate roster,” Epperly said. “[Justin Hocutt] was just trying to survive in the area. It’s a bad situation, and we would like to get it solved.

“It is easy to sit back and Monday morning quarterback. A lot of the public don’t know all of the people we followed up leads with.”

Epperly said in order to get justice for Hocutt, someone needs to come forward.

“After all this time, I just know there is someone out there who has heard the story of that night,” he said. “I think it can still be solved. The sheriff’s office would have to go to the prosecutor’s office and say we need to use her [Johnson’s daughter] as a witness and let’s go to court.”

Editor’s note: This story is the third in a four-part series running weekly Oct. 28 to Nov. 18.

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