Police Not Done In 3-Decade Carnival Death Case
UNIONTOWN, Pa. (AP) – Charles “Mississippi” Johnson was a 28-year-old carnival hand from Florida when he rolled into Fayette County with his troupe of workers in the summer of 1981.
After the carnival packed up and left town a few weeks later, anyone who wasn’t paying close attention thought that Johnson rolled right back out of town with his band of carnies. But state police believe “Mississippi” never made it out of town that summer.
And now, although more than 30 years removed from that year when the nation watched as President Ronald Reagan took a would-be assassin’s bullet, Stephen King's “Cujo” was being read across the country with all the lights turned on, police say they are still looking for leads into Johnson’s disappearance and suspected murder.
“We tried to locate family back then and never found any. He had no ties we could establish. But we do believe that he never left this county and that he was reported missing by an acquaintance. Eventually, we came to believe we were investigating a homicide and have kept the investigation open ever since,” Trooper John F. Marshall said as he leafed through a large binder labeled “Mississippi”with black marker.
Marshall, a seasoned trooper in the crime unit at state police's Uniontown station, is the department's cold case investigator.
A look inside his office, and the tenacity with which he approaches his role is immediately evident as a giant marker board listing the open homicide cases in Fayette County dominates the small room.
“We are always working on these. Obviously, hot cases coming in pull me away from them, but I am always following leads and working to close these investigations,” Marshall said, noting that “Mississippi’s” case is no different.
On July 30, 1981, Marshall said that an acquaintance of Johnson's approached the Allegheny County Police Homicide Division and reported the man's disappearance and suspected murder outside of a mobile home in the village of Adelaide in Dunbar Township.
Police responded to the residence, conducted interviews and collected evidence, Marshall said. A person of interest was identified.
Marshall said follow-up interviews also were conducted, leads were pursued and tips were explored.
Nothing concrete was uncovered.
“We were given a location where Mississippi’s body had allegedly been buried. Our guys brought in a backhoe. Nothing was found,” Marshall said.
He said that investigators believe that Johnson had a relationship with a woman living in the area while he was in town that summer.
Marshall also noted that investigators are convinced by physical evidence gathered at the location that Johnson died as a result of a gunshot wound.
As with many cold cases on Marshall's unsolved docket, two key witnesses have died over the course of the three decades since Johnson's disappearance.
Marshall said the scenery also changes.
“What was there is no longer there,” he said. “Trees are gone. Fields are grown over. Houses are gone. In this case, some of it is the same, some is different.”
While leads have trickled in and fizzled out over the years, Marshall said that a “big lead” broke in the case recently and that officers are in the process of conducting more than a dozen interviews in an attempt to finally bring closure to Johnson’s disappearance and suspected murder.
While some information regarding the case remains classified as the investigation continues, Marshall said he feels he is closer than at any point in recent years to making an arrest in the case.