Joe Johns was riding in a car with his friend Deborah Tedder when her boyfriend, Thomas Stewart, began to follow them. The couple had been fighting earlier in the day. When Stewart found them on the Pulaski County roadway, court records indicate all three were intoxicated and a confrontation became violent. Johns pulled out a .22 caliber pistol and shot Thomas seven times, killing him.
After some neighbors found Stewart’s body, the police began their search for the killer. The next morning, they apprehended Tedder, who implied that Johns might have had something to do with Stewart’s death.
When police arrived at a farm where Johns lived, he was already on the run. He evaded capture for the next six months. During that time, Johns was implicated in two murders and several robberies.
On February 28, 1997, police found Leonard Voyles lying dead in his Camden County home. He died of a single .22 caliber gunshot wound to the head. Johns had formerly worked for Voyles. An inventory of the home revealed that Voyles’ Ford Ranger truck and his rifle were missing. The subsequent police investigation uncovered a shoe print on the property that identically matched Johns’ right boot.
Around this time, Johns met up with his girlfriend, Beverly Guehrer. They burglarized several homes together.
On March 9, police found the body of Wilma Bragg. Her house was located in Newton County. The investigation revealed that Bragg’s assailant shot her two times in the back of the head while she lay face down on her bed with her hands tied behind her back. DNA testing of a cigarette butt implicated Johns in the murder and impression analysis confirmed the rifle stolen from Voyles’ home was used to kill Bragg.
Hundreds of law enforcement officers and the Missouri National Guard were hunting him. The manhunt got national attention as the television shows, “America’s Most Wanted” and “48 hours” came to Benton County to film.
On April 7, officers of the Missouri Water Patrol encountered Johns in a Benton County cabin, while searching Cole Camp Creek. Joe came out of the cabin with a rifle against Guehrer’s head, threatening to kill her.
As Johns began to make a sudden move to escape, water patrolman Eric Gottman shot him in the abdomen and placed him under arrest.
On May 22, the state charged Johns with murder in the first degree and armed criminal action.
Johns was first sentenced to death, but would later be determined as intellectually disabled and therefore, not eligible for the death penalty.