Crime Traveler caught up with Officer King, who served 32 years with the Missouri State Hwy Patrol in Pulaski County, two terms as Pulaski County Sheriff from 2005 to 2012.
According to King, there were roughly six to eight inches of snow on the ground that afternoon. He met up with the driver of the car who hysterically approached King yelling. The man told King a woman in his car had been shot.
“So I went up to his vehicle, looked inside, and there was a slender young female sitting in the vehicle very well-dressed, hair, freshly brushed out,” says King. “No blood, no mud, no nothing on her clothing, but clean and immaculate Definitely not the picture of a gunshot victim.”
The woman was 19-year old Juanita Deckard. She revealed two gunshot wounds. One to the arm and one to the chest.
“There was a major caliber bullet entry wound into her body. Now, the wound was clearly many hours old. It was crusted over already, was not bleeding. And despite the fact it was a major caliber round, it did not appear to be a serious wound.” says King.
Deckard explained that the previous night around midnight, she and three of her friends were on a double date. While driving across Ft. Leonard Wood, they were stopped by a military police vehicle. A uniformed military police officer came up to the car and told them that the car matched the description of a vehicle that just committed an armed robbery off-post.
The officer handcuffed Anthony Bates, 18, and Wesley Hawkins, 18, and put them in the back of his vehicle, which had a bench seat in the rear. One girl sat between them, while the other sat in the passenger seat in the front.
Deckard said the officer walked around to his side of the vehicle, started to get in, stopped, and then pulled out his issued weapon and shot both boys in the backseat.
He then drove the four of them to a deserted cabin on the Roubidoux River.
For the next four hours, he raped and sexually assaulted Deckard and 16-year-old Linda Needham.
The officer had the girls get dressed and then took all four of them to another location about a mile and a half away.
He told the girls to get out and start walking down a trail.
“They took about 10 or 12 steps. They were told to stop and turn around, and when they did, he opened fire on them. Both of the girls went down. The one girl was hit twice, probably by the same bullet. The other girl was not hit at all,” recalls King.
Needham faked her injury. However, the officer dragged the girls deeper into the woods and began burying them in the snow. King says while in the process of doing this, Needham likely gave herself away because the officer stood directly over her and fired one shot into her chest killing her.
Deckard explained that the officer kicked her a couple of times to make her flinch, but she didn’t. So he covered her in snow.
As he dragged the two boys out, one of them was still alive and began running. He got about 20 to 30 yards away before tripping over a log. Before he could get up, he was shot in the back of the head.
After the killer left, Deckard rose from her would-be grave, still wounded, and found her way out of six miles of rugged terrain in freezing temperatures and seven inches of snowfall. Ten hours later she found a rural home near the base and called for help. Her boyfriend’s brother picked her up and drove to where her footprints ended. He retraced her steps back to the crime scene, while Deckard waited to meet Officer King.
He informed the Military Police (MP) commander and asked for assistance since the crime was clearly on Ft. Leonard Wood Reservation, which is a federal jurisdiction.
“I went back to the young lady and we started going through the story again, this time looking for the smaller details and she gave me a ton of details. I hate to use this as a way of describing it, but it was kind of like talking to a computer,” explained King. He described her answers to his questions as clearly alert, extremely emotional, and washed out. “Every question I asked her, she gave me a detailed answer to which I would then break off every so often, run back to my car, and pass the word to Troop I.”
One of the details she provided that King found intriguing was the description of the vehicle. Deckard said it wasn’t a car, a pickup, or a truck, but it had a bench seat in the back and two bucket seats upfront. King said the description was perfect for an international scout 4-wheel drive. Deckard then told King the number on the side of the vehicle. She said she saw “X,3,2,7.” King knew this was an MP vehicle.
“As she continued to talk and giving me these answers, it finally dawned on me that this was not an impersonation. This was a real-life MP. We were dealing with and, of course, I just called the MP’s for backup.” says King.
Eventually backup would arrive and King briefed the MP captain on Deckard’s story.
“So I start briefing him on what she had given me, and after a couple of minutes, he stopped me and said, Wait a minute. The head post game warden, Sergeant Jensen, had just arrived in an international scout and he wanted him to hear these details,” says King.
“So we go over to that vehicle and I’m telling him the details again, and I get to the X327 number, and I look down at the scout I’m standing in front of and it’s X37. And I knew instinctively that this was going to be the suspect vehicle that had just driven up to me,” says King.
He said he went into a state of shock.
“I could tell people around me were looking at me and asking questions and I couldn’t respond. It’s a weird feeling. I’ve never had one like that before and never had one since,” explained King. He said the MP captain caught on and immediately asked Sergeant Jensen who had this vehicle last. The sergeant listed two MP officers.
“And then he said the magic words… ‘Thornton said he shot some dogs last night,'” said King.
He would later find out that the base only had one operational international scout vehicle at the time.
The manhunt was on.
The capture of Johnny Lee Thornton
Thornton was a volunteer who joined the Army to become a part of the Military Police. He was trained at Fort Leonard Wood and Fort McClellan. He would become classified as a Correctional Specialist to the 463rd MP Company in Fort Leonard Wood. Within the company, they assigned him to the Game Warden detail.
During this time Thornton was separated from his then-pregnant wife and had two sons. He was also in a relationship with a girlfriend who was also pregnant.
Fort Leonard Wood is roughly 78,000 – 80,000 acres of land filled with wildlife. Hunters need policing so they have an eight-man Game Warden detail at Fort Leonard Wood.
According to King, the officers have very little supervision, were off on their own for hours, and it was not unusual for them to be out of radio contact for 5 or 6 hours at a time.
The Fort Leonard Wood MP put armed checkpoints at off the exits. Thornton happened to overhear the search was going on and fled, but would eventually be put into custody.
King says Thornton called the head game warden and arranged a surrender point.
“There’s probably a 30-minute standoff during which he’s asking questions. He’s making statements. He’s saying things like, ‘I know I did something, but I don’t know what it is’ and ‘my head hurts’ and ‘the lights are blinding me’. And ‘what did I do?'” says King. Eventually, Thornton laid down his .45 and surrendered.
“By midnight on the first night, they knew they had the right guy and they knew they were probably going to have enough evidence to convict him,” says King. “But they also smelled a rat coming in the fact that they suspected that he was going to use an insanity defense.”
King explains one of the reasons he wrote his book, Frozen Tears: The Fort Leonard Wood MP Murders, was to report the facts in the case. At the time there was a popular fad of people claiming they had a split personality and were not responsible for the actions that had taken place.
“Thornton came up with he had a split personality and ‘Bad Johnny’ told ‘Good John’ to kill these kids, and he couldn’t resist. And so that is going to be his defense at trial.” says King.
In the end, the jury found Johnny Lee Thornton guilty on four charges of kidnap, rape, assault with intent to kill, and murder. He was given three life terms to serve.
During the investigation, agents realized there was a connection between Thornton and two other kids that had gone missing in October of 1976. He was the first one to report the car was abandoned. He has never talked about that case and the two kids have never been found or heard from.
At a later date, in the vicinity of the murder scene, another body was found.
The body of Frederick Williams was found very close to where the three murdered kids were, however, Williams’ murder was caused by four other people not connected to Thornton at all.
The mother of Anthony Bates, Majorie Bates, filed a suit against the base stating the government should be held liable for Thornton’s actions, however, the federal judge ruled that his’s actions were so far away from what he was trained and paid to do that they could not be held liable.
The sole survivor, Juanita Deckard, is married with children and lives far away from the Ozarks.
Along with doing a lot of ‘Baby Shark’ Grandpa time, Former Sheriff JB King has authored five books and is currently thinking about book number six.
King runs a Facebook group dedicated to his book Frozen Tears: The Fort Leonard Wood MP Murders. There you can find several resources including interviews, photos, and stories from the murders that we couldn’t include in this article. Several followers are actual people involved in the case and have built a community dedicated to the crimes in Pulaski County.