Mysterious Staircase Death Investigations

Janice Johnson’s Freakish Accidental Fall—Novia Scotia, Canada

Husband Clayton Johnson was accused and wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife due to misleading evidence, among others.

On the morning of February 20, 1989, Janice Johnson fell down a flight of stairs, hit her head, and lost consciousness. Mrs. Johnson was home alone at the time. Her children had left for school, and her husband, Clayton, had left for work. She was discovered lying unconscious at the foot of the basement stairs by a next-door neighbor. The neighbor called for emergency services immediately. Despite their best efforts, it was too late to save her. Mrs. Johnson passed away that afternoon.

The Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Roland Perry, examined Janice’s injuries and concluded that they were consistent with an accidental fall. Nova Scotia’s chief coroner, Roland Perry, had little problem concluding that Mrs. Johnson had accidentally fallen forward as she descended the stairs. He deduced that her head had wedged briefly in a 14-centimeter gap between the stairs and the wall before she flipped over and came to a stop.

The police agreed with Dr. Perry and closed the investigation.

There was little to no blood evidence that could be examined. No photographs of the scene had been taken after Mrs. Johnson had been rushed to the hospital, and two well-meaning family friends, Mary Davis and Mary Hartley, cleaned the bloody scene on the same day. In their efforts to spare the Johnson family some pain, they unintentionally hindered the investigation of Mrs. Johnson’s mysterious death.

In a police-documented video, Mary Davis and Mary Hartley recanted the scene in the basement, describing the blood they had found. The two stated finding widespread blood spatter on the floor surrounding Janice’s head, as well as a streaked area of blood with strands of hair on the wall. This was consistent with the autopsy report, which stated that Janice could have potentially fallen from the top of the staircase, wedging her head between a 5-inch gap between the stairs and the concrete wall.

The investigation was re-opened in the summer of 1989 due to rumors in the community suggesting that Clayton had killed his wife. Specifically, they were suspicious that Clayton had recently taken out a life insurance policy that covered Janice. He was also in a new relationship with a younger woman. On June 10, 1990, the police again closed the investigation since they had not found anything that would justify charging Clayton.

Background and Timeline of Events

Clayton Johnson led an unremarkable life with no criminal record or hint of violence in his past. He was widely viewed in Shelburne, a town of 3,000, as a thoughtful and decent family man. Friends described the couple’s 13-year marriage as warm and close. With their daughters, then 8 and 11, the Johnsons were tightly entwined in the local Pentecostal community. Mrs. Johnson, 36, was a homemaker who occasionally babysat for neighbors, the Malloys. She was to look after Brittany Malloy on the morning of her accidental death.

At 7:00 a.m., Clayton Johnson phoned Robert Molloy, at his wife’s request, to ask him to deliver Brittany by 8 a.m. so Mrs. Johnson could take the child to a local carnival. A second visitor, Mrs. Johnson’s brother, would drop off some clothing sometime before 8:00 a.m. At 7:40 a.m., the school bus arrived to pick up the Johnson children. Next-door neighbor Clare Thompson watched the girls clamber aboard and called Mrs. Johnson for a morning chat.

Mrs. Thompson later told police that they talked for almost 10 minutes. They were interrupted briefly when Mrs. Thompson heard Mrs. Johnson, who was using a phone in the basement, say to her husband, “See you later, hon.” There was an audible kissing sound. The two women hung up shortly before 7:50 a.m.

It is almost certain that Mr. Johnson left for his 27-kilometer drive to work at 7:40 a.m. or shortly afterward. He was seen by acquaintances at various points along the way and arrived at work at 8:11 a.m. Witnesses confirmed seeing him stop for gas and drive the final 10 km of the trip, stuck behind a school bus.

Mr. Molloy and his daughter arrived at the Johnson home at 7:51 a.m., using the main entrance in one part of the basement. They found Mrs. Johnson lying at the bottom of the wooden basement stairs in a pool of blood. Mr. Molloy rushed to the Thompson home and called an ambulance at 7:54 a.m. Mrs. Johnson lay struggling for breath, bleeding profusely, one foot resting on the bottom step. Still holding her car keys, she had evidently been preparing to leave the house.

Ambulance attendants tried desperately to stabilize her condition, tossing blood-soaked equipment about the basement as they worked.

The Staircase Leading to the Basement in Clayton Johnson’s House

When Mr. Johnson arrived at his workplace, a worried secretary told him to rush to the hospital. He was visibly distraught as a medical team worked in vain to save his wife. Later, he spent 15 minutes alone with her body. Asked at his trial what he did, Mr. Johnson replied: “Just held her hand and kept saying over and over, Why, God?”

At the suggestion of the evangelical pastor, two friends of Mrs. Johnson, Mary Hartley and Mary Davis, went from the hospital to the Johnson home to clean up most of the blood. Meanwhile, Clayton Johnson broke the news to his daughters. The family then moved in with Mrs. Johnson’s parents for several weeks.

Three months after Mrs. Johnson’s death, however, the community of Shelburne was spreading gossip. Mr. Johnson had begun dating a member of the Pentecostal congregation, a 22-year-old woman. Like many small towns, suspicious rumors spread like wildfire and reached the ears of police officials.

Brian Oldford’s Investigation

Even though police had not turned up any evidence that Clayton had harmed his wife, RCMP officer Cpl. Brian Oldford took it upon himself to look into the matter further. Oldford had not been involved with the case at its earlier stages, but in the summer of 1990, he began to conduct his own investigations into Janice’s death.

He began by interviewing Claire Thompson, a good friend of Janice’s and the last person to have spoken with her. She reported that she and Janice were on the phone until about 7:50 a.m. Multiple witnesses saw Clayton Johnson at a gas station at roughly the same time. The call to paramedics made by the neighbor was logged at 7:52 a.m.

Central to Oldford’s investigation was a series of interviews with the two women who cleaned up their friend’s blood after the tragedy. According to the AIDWYC lawyers, Sgt. Oldford showed the women gruesome autopsy pictures of Mrs. Johnson.

“An atmosphere of pervasive suspicion is just ripe for creative memories to thrive,” Mr. Campbell noted. “They came up with a whole new story about the bloodstains.” The women’s original statements to police made no reference to blood spatters anywhere else in the basement. Now, they began to recall seeing spots in several other locations.

In the Fifth Estate program, they stick to their second statements. However, the two women were alone in remembering the blood. Others at the scene, including ambulance attendants and police officers who searched the basement, had no such recollections.

Oldford re-interviewed Mary Davis and Mary Hartley who had helped to clean up the blood from Janice’s head wounds to spare her family from seeing it. The two stated that they had observed widespread blood splatter, which was inconsistent with Mary Davis’ statement on the day of Janice’s death. Mary Hartley had not given a statement at the time of Janice’s death.

With new evidence suggesting a struggle, Oldford sought opinions from two outside pathologists, Charles Hutton of St. John’s and David King of the Regional Forensic Pathology Unit in Hamilton, Ontario. He did not provide Dr. King with the original police reports, which told a different story. On January 17, 1991, Dr. King concluded that Janice had been struck and killed and the two Marys’ testimony played an important role in his opinion. Oldford then sought a second opinion from forensic pathologist Dr. Charles Hutton, who also was not provided with the original police reports. Dr. Hutton, too, concluded that Janice had been murdered.

Based on the purported bloodstains, both felt murder was a likely scenario. They visualized Mrs. Johnson being felled with a two-by-four, trapping her head between stairs and wall, and then receiving several more blows as she lay on the floor.

Informed by Sgt. Oldford of their conclusions, the Coroner, Dr. Perry, changed his stance in favor of a murder theory. The Fifth Estate has confirmed in interviews that Dr. King and Dr. Hutton were not shown two reports by RCMP forensic analysts that warned it would be dangerous to draw conclusions from the purported blood spatters. One of the RCMP analysts used an electronic device that detects minute traces of blood but did not find any blood traces in portions of the basement identified by Mrs. Hartley and Mrs. Davis.

Surprisingly, given these two expert opinions, Clayton was arrested in April 1992 and charged with the first-degree murder of his wife.

Clayton Johnson Wrongful Murder Conviction: Tide of Suspicion (The Fifth Estate Investigative Documentary, YouTube)

Clayton Johnson’s Arrest

Clayton was charged with first-degree murder in April 1992.

Clayton Johnson insisted he was on his way to work at the time, and the death was ruled accidental. But later, pathologists decided that the head injuries from which she died had been caused not by a fall but by either a baseball bat or a two-by-four.

Page 2: Clayton Johnson’s Trial