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Tampa woman finds her mother, gets drawn into unsolved murder case

TAMPA — She remembers coloring under her mother's desk at work and a dog, an Alaskan malamute. Her mother took it when she left.

Tiffany Johnson, 21, recalls nothing else of her mother. She never saw her again.

She wondered if her mother was dead. She looked for a death certificate and couldn't find one. In February, she found a list of unsolved cases at the Hillsborough County medical examiner's Web site.

A picture popped up, a reconstructed image of a woman whose remains were found 12 years ago at Adamo Drive near Ybor City. Johnson called the office and heard the details. A body wrapped in carpet padding with a bullet wound to the head.

She wondered if that was her mother, a drug-addicted woman who had vanished in the mid 1990s, leaving a father to raise four daughters.

On Monday, Johnson got confirmation. DNA samples she submitted to police showed a match for Tina Louise Johnson.

The youngest daughter called her sisters. They, too, had once tried to find the mother, to no avail.

"It was her," Tiffany told them.

Since Oct. 13, 1996, the mother had been known to investigators as Jane Doe.

Two homeless men found Johnson's remains. At the time, detectives pulled clues from the only evidence they had.

Identifying her may bring new life to the long dormant case.

Andrea Davis, a police spokesman, said the development represents a huge break.

"Now that there's a name to go with the victim, there are places detectives can look now that they couldn't 12 years ago," Davis said.

The family never reported Johnson missing, police said.

Her ex-husband, Bill Johnson, said he kicked her out after she took the girls with her to buy drugs. They were 11, 6, 4, and 2.

He divorced her, and lost contact. He last saw her standing on Nebraska Avenue.

He said she got hooked on crack and wouldn't give it up.

"Her cheeks were sunk in. She was like tumbleweed," he said.

State records show Johnson had a record of prostitution and drug offenses.

She had been a good mother before her drug problems, Johnson said. She quit smoking and drinking during each pregnancy.

"She was always a little bit on the wild side," he said. "But she tried."

He remembers getting letters of remorse from her in jail.

He's proud of the way the four girls turned out.

They each have children of their own now, except for Tiffany, who expects her first baby in May. She attends cosmetology school in Plant City.

"We had a good dad," Tiffany said. She remembers holding her mother's jail letters as a child. When she moved from her dad's house, she took the few photos he had of her mother.

Monday, with news of the DNA match, she struggled to understand her emotions.

"It feels like it should hurt, but it doesn't," she said. "It opened up a whole new world of who, what, where and why. It wasn't closure."

"Look at the grandchildren," she said, as if talking to her mother. "We all turned out well. No thanks to you."

News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

Tampa woman finds her mother, gets drawn into unsolved murder case 12/08/08 [Last modified: Sunday, December 14, 2008 1:10pm]
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