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Sheriff's Office looks for answers in 11-year-old Brooksville case

The Hernando County Sheriff’s Office is mailing out fliers looking for leads in the decade-old case of Jessie Johnson, who died from injuries he sustained in a fire at his house.

Special to the Times

The Hernando County Sheriff’s Office is mailing out fliers looking for leads in the decade-old case of Jessie Johnson, who died from injuries he sustained in a fire at his house.

BROOKSVILLE — Predictably, time has diminished memories of the elderly man, his home and what happened on a night 11 years ago when both were consumed by a deadly blaze.

Today, all that's left at 904 Josephine St. is an unkempt lot of brown grass, a couple of corroding concrete stoops that lead nowhere and a small red fire hydrant. There's also the lingering mystery of why someone wanted to kill the quiet man who was known in south Brooksville for tinkering with his neighbor's cars.

"The whole neighborhood was in shock," said Howard Delaine, owner of Howard's Barbecue on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard for more than 40 years. "We all wondered who would do something like that."

Hernando detectives were pounding the streets of south Brooksville on Monday, hoping to find new clues about the fire on Jan. 26, 1998, that led to the death of the home's owner, Jessie Johnson, 78.

Johnson's death is one of about 20 cold cases the Sheriff's Office has reopened in recent months, said Detective Jim Boylan. Hernando County Crime Stoppers has mailed 9,500 fliers with Johnson's picture and information about the case.

"We're hoping to get any information that might be crucial to the case," Boylan said Monday. "We needed to get out here and have people see us."

No arrests have ever been made in the case.

Johnson did not die immediately from the blaze that night. He woke to find himself on fire and ran across the street to a neighbor's house, an arrest report said. He then was taken to Tampa General Hospital, where he died about a month later of an infection that resulted from the burns and smoke inhalation.

At the time, authorities said the fire was meant to be more than a dangerous prank.

"My gut reaction was that it was set to kill him," then-Maj. Richard Nugent, now the sheriff, told the Times.

A sheriff's report said Johnson was known to associate with drug dealers. But authorities were uncertain whether that factored into his death.

Delaine said Johnson wasn't much of a drinker, but he did keep the company of several women who dabbled in drugs.

"I always figured he was messing with those dope women," Delaine said. "Maybe he had one on the side, and another one was sore about it. That's what I thought it was."

Detectives were hoping for more of that sort of information, going door to door on about 10 streets surrounding Johnson's old lot Monday morning. Next door to the lot, his old neighbor said she had no information that would be of any help.

Irene Bouie, 88, said she nearly slept through the fire that night and never knew Johnson to have any enemies.

"He was good people," Bouie said. "He never had no trouble. It just never made sense to me."

"It's such a close-knit area, we're hoping that someone knew something," said Sgt. Donna Black, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Office. "There wasn't enough solid evidence to charge someone the first time. Eleven years later, we're hoping things have changed so we can solve this case and give some justice to Mr. Johnson."

Joel Anderson can be reached at joelanderson@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6120.

Sheriff's Office looks for answers in 11-year-old Brooksville case 01/26/09 [Last modified: Monday, January 26, 2009 7:56pm]
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