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Everybody in the small town of Nixa, Missouri knew Jackie Johns. The 20-year-old former prom queen was described as beautiful and charismatic by those who knew her, and she was a favorite at the local café where she worked. She drove a distinctive black Camaro with a license plate letting everyone know who was behind the wheel: It read, “Jacki-1.”
On June 18, 1985, a delivery driver recognized Jackie’s vehicle abandoned on the side of the road. He contacted Jackie’s boss at the café, who arrived at the scene and noted the car door was partially open. He spotted her purse and clothes in the vehicle — as well as what looked like blood.
"He suspected something was definitely wrong and he called 911,” Daniel Nash, a sergeant with the Missouri State Highway Patrol told “In Ice Cold Blood,” airing Sundays at 7/6c and 8/7c on Oxygen. When police arrived to search the car, they found a car jack covered in hair and blood in the trunk.
Authorities launched a massive search for the missing 20-year-old, who had last been seen leaving her work shift the night of June 17, 1985. It was a shock to the town as Jackie, who won a beauty queen title in Nixa’s Sucker Days festival, was so popular and beloved.
“She was just so cute and she had a way of just drawing people in with her personality,” her sister Jeanne Johns told producers.
Sadly, the search for Jackie soon came to a tragic end.
“Four days after she vanished, on June 22, people fishing at a lake in Springfield, they see something in the water. … As they draw closer, they realize it's a woman’s body. This is not going to be a happy ending after all,” Ron Davis, a former journalist with the Springfield-News Leader, told producers.
Jackie was found naked and covered in bruises, indicating a struggle had occurred. An autopsy verified she had been struck multiple times in the head with an object that matched the car jack. There were also signs of sexual assault, and detectives found semen on her.
Authorities were able to determine an approximate time of death: they had found a receipt from a local 7-Eleven in her car, indicating Jackie had made a stop there before she died. The 7-Eleven clerk confirmed Jackie stopped in that night around 11 p.m. The condition of her body suggested she had been killed that night before she was dumped in the water.
Investigators started by questioning her boyfriend at the time, but he was eventually cleared as a suspect. They next zeroed in on the café regulars, theorizing someone may have become obsessed with her. There was some interest when they learned a man regarded as “a town character, one of those guys where you think he’s pretty weird,” as Davis put it, had been leaving Jackie gifts, but he had a solid alibi: He was in jail at the time of the murder.
However, Jackie’s friends told investigators that in her final days, she felt like she was being watched.
“I doubted her and I wish I wouldn’t have,” her friend Dayna Spencer told “In Ice Cold Blood.”
A call to the tip line soon brought a major break in the case: Someone had spotted a very distinctive car near the 7-Eleven Jackie visited around the time she died. It was a blue and white 1960s-era Chevrolet, and a second witness soon came forward to say they had also seen that truck out at the same location and time Jackie was last seen alive.
Much like Jackie’s car, everyone knew who owned the vehicle: Gerald Carnahan, a 28-year-old man who came from a wealthy, well connected local family. He visited the local café regularly.
“I felt sick when I heard. … He was not a good man. He was not a good man,” Spencer said.
Carnahan was brought in for questioning and told police he knew Jackie from the café and she had even briefly worked for him at his family’s local business, but otherwise they really didn’t know each other.
He also said that on the night of the murder, he had dinner with his stepdaughter and they returned home around 10:45 p.m. This alibi didn’t totally hold up — Jackie’s 7-Eleven receipt was dated for around 11 p.m., indicating she was killed later in the night — but Carnahan’s stepdaughter told authorities she was confident she would’ve heard her dad leave the house.
Detectives were still suspicious, especially because Carnahan had abrasions all over his hands when he was questioned. Friends told them Carnahan flirted with Jackie and made her deeply uncomfortable, which is why she quit working for him — he kept trying to get her to date him and persisted despite her efforts to shut it down.
Carnahan’s own brother soon contacted police to say he saw his brother’s car parked adjacent to the road to get to Jackie’s home at around 11 the night of the murder.
Still, despite investigators’ strong suspicions about Carnahan, they had no physical evidence to link him to the murder, so they decided to charge him with evidence tampering as he lied about his relationship to Jackie. This way, he would be in custody. When they went to arrest him, though, Carnahan was already on a plane to Los Angeles, with designs on fleeing to Thailand. His father had just bought a foundry there, so it was the perfect place to lay low.
Carnahan was arrested at the airport, but the tampering charges didn’t stick. His lawyer argued he didn’t meddle with any physical evidence and it didn’t meet the definition of the crime. Carnahan was released, and the case went cold for years.
Carnahan eventually faced some justice in 1993, when he tried to kidnap a woman off a busy road in Springfield. However, even though he was convicted of attempted kidnapping, he only was sentenced to two years in prison.
“He was born in a wealthy family and could hire the best defense attorneys you could find,” Darnell Moore, former prosecutor for Greene County, told producers.
Carnahan’s luck would eventually run out. In 2006, investigators decided to take another look at the Jackie Johns case, and realized they had the semen sample. In the 1980s, they didn’t have the state-of-the-art DNA techniques authorities could now use to test the semen. They obtained a search warrant for Carnahan’s DNA and compared the two: it was a match. They finally were able to charge Carnahan for the crime.
In September 2010, Carnahan stood trial for the murder. With the DNA evidence, the witnesses placing him near the scene of the crime, and his own stepdaughter admitting she was wrong and he could have left the house that night, destroying his alibi, Carnahan was found guilty of first-degree murder and rape. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
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