Murder on the tracks — who killed Justin Hocutt

Wednesday, November 18, 2020
A train rounds the corner in Seligman near where 14-year-old Justin Hocutt’s body was left on the tracks 21 years ago. Hocutt’s case is one of six cold cases in the county still open. Jordan Troutman/jtroutman@cassville-democrat.com

14-year-old’s death one of 6 cold cases in county still open

After 21 years cold, what would it take to solve the murder of 14-year-old Justin Hocutt?

Hocutt’s mangled body was found on the train tracks in Seligman on the morning of Oct. 9, 1999, however, he was last seen alive 24 hours prior to the discovery of his body, by his girlfriend’s father.Hocutt’s mangled body was found on the train tracks in Seligman on the morning of Oct. 9, 1999, however, he was last seen alive 24 hours prior to the discovery of his body, by his girlfriend’s father.

Harold Johnson, the next door neighbor to Justin and his family, was also the father of Justin’s girlfriend. Allegedly, Johnson was the last person to see Justin alive as he chased him out of his home after seeing Justin and his daughter laying together at about 3 a.m. on Oct. 8.

Somehow, Justin never made it to his home, which was right next door.

According to Justin’s aunts, a bad drug deal between Justin’s father and the Johnsons may have been the motive behind his murder.

Just weeks before he was killed, the Johnson and Scott family that lived together next door, had beaten Justin’s father, Tim Hocutt, over a drug related dispute.

Justin’s death was initially ruled as a homicide by former Barry County Coroner Skip White.

According to White, the main reason he ruled it as a homicide was because of the lack of blood on the scene.

As White has worked many train accidents over his career, he was able to determine that Justin was in fact dead before the train hit him.

This indicates the train tracks were used by the killers in an attempt to cover up their crime — the murder of a 14-year-old boy.

Due to the condition of the body when it was found, it was nearly impossible to confirm if Justin’s body had undergone any previous injuries unrelated to the train.

Additionally, White had difficulty determining how long Justin had been dead before the train hit him because of the rigor mortis timeline. White said it is possible that Justin had been dead for 24 hours, making his time of death around the last time he was seen alive, which was allegedly when he was being chased out of the Johnson home.

Mick Epperly, former Barry County sheriff, said he doesn’t believe Justin ever made it out of the Johnson home alive.

However, rather than the motive for murder being drug related as his family believes, he believes the motive is related to Justin’s relationship with the daughter of Harold Johnson.

Epperly said it is more likely that when Johnson found Justin in his home with his daughter, he called on his girlfriend’s sons to teach Justin a lesson.

Brenda Scott was the live-in girlfriend of Harold Johnson, and her sons lived in the apartment complex as well.

While Epperly also said he isn’t sure if the intention was to kill Justin, a beating took place, which unfortunately went too far, resulting in Justin’s murder.

Epperly believes at that point, the Scott sons, as well as Brenda Scott, Harold Johnson and Harold’s brother Eugene Johnson, began to panic and come up with a plan to cover up the crime.

The key to solving this case, according to Epperly, is the eye witness account of the events as told by Harold Johnson’s daughter.

A signed affidavit, producing the timeline and eyewitness account of the murder, was submitted to the prosecutor’s office, but due to the drug use and history of Harold Johnson’s daughter, it was deemed unreliable and never used to bring up charges.

Following the murder, information about the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, as well as a deck of 52 playing cards, may shed some light on the original investigation.

Additionally, Sheriff-Elect Danny Boyd has said how this investigation will be solved into in the future, and current Sheriff Gary Davis is overseeing the current case files and evidence on the Hocutt case, which may in fact uncover the truth and bring charges to those responsible for the murder.

Brian Martin, former deputy with the Barry County Sheriff’s Office now with the Southwest Missouri Cyber Crimes Task Force, said after about a month from the discovery of Justin’s body on the tracks, White called the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to help investigate the murder.

“There were investigators from around the country who are retired law enforcement officers and work on these cases,” he said. “Usually, they investigate cases of missing children, but they felt they could investigate Justin’s case.

“There was a retired homicide investigator with the Kansas City Police Department, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department officer and a retired LAPD homicide investigator.”

Martin said he worked alongside them the whole time they were in Barry County investigating Justin’s murder.

“We went over the weak and poor points of the initial investigation,” he said. “The main problem was that you only have one chance to work a crime scene, and when the body was discovered, people thought he had just been hit by the train, so it wasn’t processed as it should have been.

“The biggest issue with that was at the time, camera equipment and quality were not what it is today, and the photos taken of the crime scene didn’t turn out well. But, we didn’t know that until after they had been developed.”

According to Martin, the investigators also thought people should have been interviewed sooner than they were.

“And sadly, because the body had been so damaged and left exposed for a time, there were missing pieces which had been drug out by animals,” he said. “The main point in all of this was the failure to recognize it for what it was — a murder.”

Martin said in the days and weeks following the murder, the investigators, including himself, were becoming suspicious of the Johnsons and Scotts.

“[The crime scene was directly across from their apartment building,], and they were watching us on the tracks investigating, and they were nervous,” Martin said. “We searched the vacant apartment in the complex and we got a lot of reactions to the luminal, and it smelled strongly of bleach. However, bleach also reacts to luminal.”

Martin believes that the apartment had been cleaned only to cover up the murder, because it wasn’t a vacant apartment that was regularly cleaned or maintained.

“I have worked a lot of homicides, and I could tell from the get-go this was a crime of passion,” he said. “We know what happened, because over the years, Harold Johnson’s daughter has told us.

“The paradox is, big trauma messes people up, and for years after they do stupid stuff as a result of that dramatic experience.”

Martin said that can make a witness impeachable.

“To prosecute this case, we would need people to talk,” he said. “Over 21 years, evidence has been lost. There is a time frame to do certain things, and we have exceeded that by a lot.

“Over the years, we have arrested the Scott boys for other things, which has cemented in my mind their guilt.”

So, what does a deck of 52 playing cards have to do with an unsolved murder?

According to Martin, in the early 2000s, one of the people with the missing persons bureau with the Missouri Highway Patrol went to a conference.

“There, he saw other agencies who took unsolved serious crimes and put a photo of the victim and a brief description about what happened and printed them onto a card,” he said. “Then, they printed thousands of these decks of cards and gave them to inmates in prison.”

The purpose was to get the inmates talking, and maybe someone could come forward with information about an unsolved crime.

“A lot of these cards were focused on crimes involving children,” he said. “Even hard criminals won’t put up with crimes against children.

“Through that, we did end up with a couple of leads in Justin’s case, but those leads just confirmed a lot of stuff we already knew.”

Sheriff-Elect Danny Boyd, who will be taking office in January, said while he intends to move forward on this case and reopening the investigation, there is a problem in the fact that it is 21 years cold.

“I’ll have to look back and reinvestigate reports and evidence,” he said. “Cold cases take awhile to get going. People may be gone or even deceased.”

It will look like a new investigation in the sense that everything will have to be redone.

“It will take the community coming forward,” Boyd said. “Witnesses will have to be reinterviewed. I want to come in and open this case back up.”

With technology where it is today, it may be possible to use physical evidence, if it exists to solve this case.

“It would be tremendous to this case,” he said. “Hopefully there are video or audio recording of previous interviews. That would help.

“Personally, I believe this is solvable. If you saw something, please come forward and talk to me in confidence. I want Justin and his family to have closure — he deserves that.”

Boyd said every lead will be followed.

Gary Davis, Barry County sheriff, said in reference to case files and evidence in the Hocutt case, there have been no leads while he has been in office.

“I have not reviewed this file,” he said. “We do have the boots [mentioned in the previous Hocutt stories]. As of Jan. 24, they were relocated in the evidence room and moved to a new location due to organizing and consolidating. Remember back in 1999, DNA technology wasn’t anything like it is now, so we wouldn’t have had the ability back then to run tests on them.”

Davis said a lot of the files and documents have been computerized over the years.

“I am looking at 79 documents right now, all over the Hocutt case,” he said. “We have a majority of interviews, but there are polygraphs, toxicology reports, autopsy reports, crime scene sign-in logs, phone conversations, updated reports, press conferences and even information on the individuals arrested for hindering the investigation.”

According to Davis, these documents start in 1999, and the most recent document is an interview from 2011.

“I think Epperly summed it up pretty good,” Davis said. “It is going to take someone with intimate knowledge of what happened to come forward.

“The best thing for the public to know is that this has been continuously worked on. There wasn’t much added between 2005 and 2009, but in 2009, 2010 and 2011, there were interviews. When people brings stuff up, it is followed up on.”

Barry County currently has six unsolved cold cases that remain open, including two murders, one of which is the murder of Hocutt, two gunshot wound deaths and two sets of remains found in the county.

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

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