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Who killed gentle, eccentric Land O'Lakes junk man?

LAND O'LAKES — Lee Johns' last day went much like any other.

The morning of Sept. 14, 2007, he was working in his junkyard, stacking scrap cars with a friend's help.

At noon, he drove to a gas station to pick up lunch and joined another friend who owns a lawn mower repair shop nearby. They ate and talked, and about 1:30 he went to the post office to mail a bill.

Around 3 p.m., Johns — a 69-year-old who looked like Santa Claus — was found dead.

• • •

Sheriff's investigators say Johns was shot in a robbery. Several items, including cash, were missing from his pockets.

A customer discovered his body at the front of the junkyard, on State Road 52 just west of U.S. 41. The property is surrounded by a tall gray fence, out of sight of the passing traffic.

Investigators have not disclosed the type of gun used, how many times Johns was shot or where.

The junkyard was mainly a cash business. The crime might have netted a few hundred dollars at most.

"There's no way to know what he had on him," said Detective Jason Hatcher, who is charged with finding the killer.

Hatcher has interviewed dozens of people and come to one primary conclusion: Johns was an unlikely target for murder.

He had no enemies. He wasn't wealthy.

"He was just a guy that just puttered around here minding his own business," Hatcher said. "He didn't bother anyone."

• • •

Johns' friends are left with lots of questions, too.

"What's so strange about it — he'd have given them the money," Will Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez met Johns about 20 years ago, when Land O'Lakes was smaller and somebody buying a junkyard was big news. They sometimes went to stock car races together, but mostly just met for lunch every day and talked — about business or woman troubles. Johns, it seemed, always attracted "challenging" girlfriends, Rodriguez said. But even when the romances ended, they remained friendly.

"As a friend, he was faithful," Rodriguez said. Pete Hoekendorf met Johns in New Jersey around 1950. When Johns moved to Florida in 1981, Hoekendorf, now 70, visited several times and eventually moved down with his wife, Josie.

They live in a log-cabin-style house behind the junkyard. Johns would often call and ask Pete to help out with projects that required an extra pair of hands. Josie would cook enough dinner to share their leftovers with Johns.

"He was the kindest guy," she said.

Also, eccentric.

He lived with few creature comforts in a mobile home across from the junkyard. In the mornings, he would sit in his car at the end of the driveway drinking coffee and doing the crossword puzzle.

He was more of a tinkerer than a Mr. Fix-it. Certain cars in the junkyard, no matter how old or rusty, were not for sale. He had plans for them.

He never cooked or cleaned. Some of his T-shirts were so worn as to let light through, but Johns wouldn't get rid of them.

He finally bought a cell phone near the end of his life, but almost always left it at home.

"He was a gentle man," said Rodriguez, 60. "Good-hearted."

• • •

Rodriguez eats lunch alone now. Customers still come into his shop saying they were referred there by Johns.

Pete Hoekendorf can't look across his yard without thinking about his old friend, and about the thoroughly ordinary day when he died.

Frank Iberer, Johns' longtime friend and partner in the junkyard, committed suicide a few months after the murder. Hatcher had interviewed Iberer and doesn't think he had anything to do with Johns' death. He said Iberer was distraught about it but also had other troubles in his life.

It will take someone talking — someone who knows something or just saw something strange at the junkyard during that hour-and-a-half window more than a year ago.

That's how Hatcher thinks the case will break open.

There is a reward for information that leads to an arrest. It's $3,500 — mostly provided by Johns' friends and more than the amount that cost him his life.

Hatcher, in the meantime, keeps looking under rocks, and waiting: "I'm nowhere on it right now."

Molly Moorhead can be reached at moorhead@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6245.

To help

Did you see anything?

If you have information about Lee Johns' murder, or recall seeing something unusual at his junkyard on Sept. 14, 2007, call Detective Jason Hatcher at (727) 847-5878, ext. 7481, or the Sheriff's Office tips line toll-free at 1-800-706-2488. Callers can remain anonymous. There is a $3,500 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction. To contribute to the Lee Johns Memorial Fund, visit SunTrust Bank at 21744 State Road 54 in Lutz.

Who killed gentle, eccentric Land O'Lakes junk man? 12/07/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 10:42pm]
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