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South Carolina Man Was Shot 8 Times, Buried Twice, and Dumped in Lake in "Vigilante" Murder
Rumors about Jerry Johnson and a missing woman led to one man committing a violent crime.
Gathering for Sunday dinner in Sumter, South Carolina was a cherished tradition for 24-year-old Jerry Lamars Johnson.
So, when Johnson, a landscaper worker with an 8-year-old son, was a no-show in April 2018, it raised a red flag for his family.
Their concerns escalated when they learned that Johnson’s girlfriend said she hadn’t seen him in a week, and the family reached out to police.
“There was no social media activity. He was not replying to text messages,” Major Randall Stewart, of the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office, told Buried in the Backyard, airing Saturdays at 8/7c on Oxygen.
That wasn’t like Johnson, whose close-knit family called him “Turt,” according to his big brother, Fred Brown.
The search for Jerry Johnson
Police began their investigation by talking with people closest to Johnson, including his girlfriend. She had heard that Johnson may have been hurt because of his connection to Naomi Collins, according to reporter Emily Scarlet.
Collins, 28, a local woman with a young son, went missing in 2015 after reportedly leaving a club with an unidentified man. Rumors swirled in the community about what happened to her. A vague early tip had led police to consider Johnson a suspect: Collins was last seen in the company of two individuals who may have been Jerry Johnson and a man named Brandon Dowless, according to Nichols.
“It was confirmed that Jerry and Naomi did know each other,” said Scarlet. “But there was zero evidence indicating Jerry had anything to do with Naomi’s disappearance.”
Police conducted interviews with numerous individuals, but no charges were filed against anyone in the Collins investigation, Nichols said.
Jerry Johnson's body found in a lake
A few days into the Johnson missing-persons investigation, Sumter police learned that a man’s body had been discovered by a fisherman in Lake Marion, about 80 miles away.
“The body matched the details that had been put into the National Crime database for our missing persons report for Jerry Johnson,” said Nichols.
The victim in the lake had been lashed to a dolly and weighed down with cinder blocks. Deterioration of the victim’s skin suggested that lime was used at some point to cover the body, according to detectives.
The victim was confirmed to be Jerry Johnson. The autopsy showed that he had been shot eight times at close range with a handgun, according to Earnest Finney, a solicitor with South Carolina Third Circuit.
Johnson’s family was perplexed because he was a “sweet guy” with no enemies, said Scarlet.
After Johnson’s body was found, the rumor mill kicked into high gear. Investigators were duty-bound to check out all the reports.
One anonymous tipster said that Johnson had been killed and buried, then dug up and buried again. According to Nichols, the Collins case had sparked a similar story.
“One rumor was that Naomi was missing because she had been buried, then dug up and moved,” said Nichols.
Local resident Kimberly McLeod called in with a compelling tip. She told police that she had made purchases for her boyfriend, Anthony Dill, who she believed could be linked to the Johnson case. On April 20, a few days after Johnson vanished, she had bought lime, gloves, and plastic sheeting at an agricultural store.
A background check of Dill revealed that he had a rap sheet of petty offenses.
Stephen Stinnette emerges as murder suspect
As detectives prepared to interview Dill, an informant told them that the person they actually needed to speak with was his friend, Stephen Stinnette.
Investigators leaned on Stinnette’s girlfriend, Teal Leviner, for information about Johnson’s murder.
Leviner said that Stinnette killed Johnson and buried him in the woods, explaining Johnson had dented Stinnette’s truck, which sent him into a rage. Stinnette shot Johnson in the presence of his friend Andrew Scurry, she claimed.
She also said that Stinnette and Scurry buried Johnson’s body but it was later “transported from one location to another.”
Stinnette had worried that Scurry would blab so he enlisted Dill to dig up Johnson’s body and move it to another grave.
“Stephen Stinnette buried Jerry Lamars Johnson twice in the woods,” said Nichols.
But Stinnette wasn’t finished. He enlisted his mother, Lisa Avins, and Leviner, to help him sink Johnson’s body in the lake, according to Buried in the Backyard.
Stephen Stinnette's arrest and sentencing
Multiple search and arrest warrants were obtained to get the people involved behind bars.
Stinnette’s residence showed that he’d gone on the lam, but he was spotted by Columbia Police Department officers. After a chase, Stinnette was taken into custody.
Detectives tracked down Avins, who was also taken into custody. In a matter of days Scurry and Dill were also detained.
Stinnette said Johnson dented his truck and when their argument escalated he killed him. But Scurry gave a completely different account of the murder.
Scurry claimed that Stinnette committed the murder because he believed the street rumors that Johnson was involved in Collins’ disappearance.
“Stinnette had actually been in love with Naomi,” said Nichols.
Although police had found no evidence to link Johnson to Collins’ disappearance, years without answers to her disappearance had ripped the friends apart.
Based on an unverified rumor, Stinnette decided that he would punish Johnson, Scurry claimed.
On April 15, 2018, Stinnette posted a social media message just 12 hours before Johnson was killed, according to Nichols. The post read: “Naomi’s killer will soon be dealt with.”
Stinnette was charged with murder, while Scurry, Dill, McLeod, Avins, and Leviner were charged as accessories after the fact, according to Buried in the Backyard.
In July 2019, Stinnette was behind bars at the Sumter County Detention Center awaiting his trial. A fire broke out at the facility that led to a riot, and in the chaos, Stinnette escaped.
An all-hands search for Stinnette was immediately put into action. In a surprising twist, Nichols spotted Stinnette from his car and was the official to take Stinnette back into custody.
It turned out, according to officials, that Stinnette had masterminded the fire, riot, and jailbreak, NBC News reported.
Ultimately, Stinnette admitted that he “shot and killed Jerry Lamar Johnson in a vengeance vigilante-style murder,” said Nichols.
In exchange for Stinnette’s confession, he was given a plea deal. He received a 35-year sentence, The Associated Press reported. He is currently serving time.
For their roles in the murder, Scurry was sentenced to five years and Dill to 10 years. McLeod, Avins and Leviner all received probation, according to Buried in the Backyard.
Collins’ case still remains unsolved.
To learn more about the case, watch Buried in the Backyard, airing Saturdays at 8/7c on Oxygen.