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Police Question Whether a Biker Gang Was Behind Wild-Spirited Woman’s 2012 Disappearance
Detectives in Jacksonville, Florida, were stumped over the whereabouts of single mother Sherry Prather, who was last seen riding on the back of a motorcycle with an unknown man.
It would take four years for authorities to make an arrest in the case of a missing Florida woman last seen on the back of a motorcycle.
Sherry Prather, 43, was a wild-spirited single mother of two living in Jacksonville, Florida. She loved Harley Davidson motorcycles and spending time with friends at the bar, as she had on the night of October 12, 2012.
According to Prather’s mother, Norma Ellis, she loved to party and sing karaoke.
“She had a beautiful voice, [and] sounded just like Stevie Nicks,” Ellis told Final Moments, airing Sundays at 7/6c on Oxygen. “She was not just my daughter; she was my best friend.”
Prather had two daughters from a short-lived marriage in her 20s, and the trio eventually moved in with Ellis, who said Prather “liked the freedom to come and go, and she knew that I was going to be there to take care of the girls.”
The four of them, including Prather’s now-adult daughter, Mandy Houston, remained tight-knit. But over the years, Prather found herself in a series of failed romantic relationships, some of which consisted of intimate partner violence. For a period, Prather turned to drug and alcohol abuse to cope with the fallout.
“Her addiction was probably her biggest, biggest battle,” Houston told Final Moments. “She battled with that for a really long time.”
But by age 30, Prather found sobriety and remained clean for years. Despite a drug- and alcohol-free way of living, she still found time to let loose with her friends at the bar, including at the Jacksonville's Boots N Bottles. The establishment was referred to as a dive bar for bikers, and on the night of Oct. 12, 2012, Ellis and Mandy dropped Prather off to meet friends, unaware that they’d never see Prather again.
Concerns grew when Prather failed to return home the following day.
“I knew that she was missing because she did not call me,” said Ellis. “I knew something was wrong the minute she didn’t come home.”
The next day, Prather’s mother and daughter went to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office to file a missing persons report. But, according to Ellis, authorities initially refused — given Prather’s partying lifestyle — prompting Ellis to petition until they finally agreed to take the case.
What detectives found during their missing person investigation
Sergeant Jay Farhat of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office acknowledged to Final Moments they didn’t prioritize the case initially, especially without anything pointing to a crime. Three days after Prather’s disappearance, investigators spoke with the owner of Boots N Bottles.
The owner gave several names of a few regulars he believed were at the bar on Oct. 12, including some suspected to be part of a motorcycle gang on the F.B.I.’s radar. Otherwise, the bar owner had no other information to further the investigation.
“Detectives searched Boots N Bottles for any type of physical evidence including video footage, anything that could show Sherry,” Farhat told Final Moments.
Some witnesses did share that Prather spent time with locals before leaving of her own volition around closing time but alleged members of the disreputable motorcycle club were less than forthcoming when speaking with law enforcement, and some were known for illegal drug trafficking, prostitution, extortion, and money laundering.
“Eventually, we knew much of that would be a dead end,” said Assistant Florida State Attorney Dan Skinner. “We weren’t going to get much information from those folks.”
While detectives found no leads, Norma Ellis remained resolute in her campaign to find her daughter. She regularly posted missing person posters and took to the media to appeal for information so the case wouldn’t be “shoved to the bottom.”
“Me and Grandma actually drove around and went into a lot of bad, bad houses, and bad areas trying to find her,” said Houston.
A.S.A. Skinner said he tried “numerous times” to warn loved ones about putting themselves in dangerous situations, including when Ellis met with drug addicts.
“I vividly remember begging with her to please stand down and not place herself in a situation where harm could come to her,” Sgt. Farhat recalled. “I spoke to Ms. Ellis, reassuring her that we were doing everything we can and that we weren’t forgetting her case.”
A family friend furthers the investigation
On Nov. 12, 2012 — 30 days after Sherry Prather’s disappearance — Mandy Houston’s childhood friend called Jacksonville detectives, claiming she had some information about the case. As seen in a taped police interview published by Final Moments, the friend said she had an “Uncle Jack” who joined the friend in watching news coverage about Prather’s disappearance.
“Uncle Jack,” a Boots N Bottles regular, said he heard that someone discarded the missing woman’s body on Braddock Road, a rural and heavily wooded area in Jacksonville. At the time, neither the tipster nor detectives could locate “Uncle Jack,” but it was enough to send a team to the area.
There, searchers found bone fragments scattered around the woods, many of which belonged to wild animals. But with the help of canines trained in finding cadavers, they soon found human skeletal remains. Homicide detectives were called to the scene, and during a days-long search of the area, they found clothing, jewelry, and shoes believed to belong to the decedent.
A medical examiner confirmed the bones belonged to Sherry Prather after comparing the skeleton to pre-existing x-rays taken of the victim.
“I felt relieved that they had found her, but the thought of animals eating her and taking her was the hardest part for me to take,” said Prather’s mother. “I thought I was going to die. I thought, ‘This can’t be real. This can’t be real.’”
A forensic anthropologist was called to examine the body in hopes of determining what happened to Sherry Prather.
Surveillance video helps detectives glean Sherry Prather’s final moments
Meanwhile, Jacksonville authorities revisited Boots n Bottles, and while the bar possessed no video surveillance, they found a nearby cell phone store in the same strip mall had. Fortunately, the security camera provided a clear view of the parking lot used by the Boots N Bottles bar patrons.
“It clearly showed Sherry Prather walking out to an individual who was standing by a motorcycle,” Sgt. Farhat told Final Moments. “She gets on that motorcycle, and then they leave the establishment with Sherry on the back as a passenger.”
Around the time investigators discovered the footage, a postmortem examination of Prather’s bones revealed the victim sustained a gunshot wound to the spine.
No closer to having a suspect on their radar, authorities released the surveillance footage to the public. One of many tips came from Samantha Johnson, who claimed her estranged husband, Johnny Wayne Johnson, allegedly confessed to killing Prather, as seen in a taped interview obtained by Final Moments.
“He took her to somewhere off Trout River Boulevard and Braddock Road and dropped her off,” Samantha Johnson told detectives. “He said he didn’t have enough time to move the female, so he just dragged her into the woods.”
According to detectives, Johnny Wayne Johnson had a reputation for being feared within the community. However, after investigators located him, he was open with his statements, claiming he dropped Prather off at someone’s house.
According to Sgt. Farhat, “That simply didn’t occur,” and the homeowners knew nothing about Johnson or Prather. Johnson appeared to be lying, but there wasn’t enough to charge him in connection with Prather’s homicide.
Months went by, and although Samantha agreed to wear a wire, Johnson — then the prime suspect — said nothing incriminating about the crimes. Samantha then offered that Johnson was dating a woman named Jordan at the time of Prather’s murder.
Jordan spoke with detectives and claimed she was “afraid” to speak against Johnson, denying claims Samantha made that Jordan helped dispose of Prather’s body. A search of Jordan’s P.T. Cruiser also showed no evidence connecting her to the crime, leading police to question Samantha Johnson’s statements.
Ultimately, no one was charged in connection with Prather’s death, and another four years would pass.
“We knew we needed a break,” A.S.A. Skinner told Final Moments.
A new tip in 2016 gives investigators the break they need
In 2016, tipster Mike Carroll contacted authorities, explaining he hadn’t come forward earlier because he feared for his safety. Carroll stated that in the early morning hours surrounding Prather’s time of death, Johnny Wayne Johnson called him on the phone.
“It was the wee hours, four [or] five in the morning, and Johnny Wayne Johnson told him he messed up and he needed some help cleaning something up,” said Skinner. “He told him he had dumped Sherry in the wood; he wanted help in finding ways to hide the remains. Of course, Michael Carroll refused.”
On November 18, 2016, detectives brought Johnson in for questioning. Johnson swore on his father’s grave that he had nothing to do with Prather’s death in an interview Skinner called “a multitude of denial.”
At one point during the interview, when interrogators left the room, Johnson violently and repeatedly banged his head against the table to the point where he fell to the floor. After medical clearance, he was charged with Sherry Prather’s murder.
According to Jacksonville’s independent news station WJXT, a motive for the murder was never discovered.
Johnny Wayne Johnson eventually pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and received 20 and a half years in prison. Although the sentence ended a years-long case, Sherry Prather’s loved ones would remain with their grief.
“I do remember her ambition and her fight,” said Prather’s daughter, Mandy Houston. “She never gave up.”
Prather’s mother, Norma Ellis, shared a photo with Final Moments, showing her, Houston, and Prather posing for the camera just days before their lives were rocked by tragedy.
“I didn’t want anything to happen to her, and I would give anything if it had happened to me instead of her,” said Ellis. “I wish that a thousand times.”
Watch all-new episodes of Final Moments on Sundays at 7/6c on Oxygen.