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Crime News Sleeping With Death

‘It Was Traumatizing’: Tennessee Grad Student Stabbed 20 Times As Her Roommate Slept

A 21-year-old woman, Johnia Berry, was brutally stabbed to death in the middle of the night. It took three years to find her killer.

By Joe Dziemianowicz

Around 4 a.m. on December 6, 2004, Johnia Berry, 21, a graduate student at University of Tennessee, was sound asleep in her Knoxville apartment —until she was awakened by an intruder who was violently stabbing her.

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Her screams roused her roommate, Jason Aymami. As he left his bedroom, Aymami himself was stabbed, but he was able to flee to a nearby convenience store to call 911. 

“The first thing I did was get up and run,” he is heard telling the dispatcher in a recording obtained by “Sleeping with Death,” airing Sundays at 7/6c on Oxygen. 

First responders found Johnia in the front entrance of the apartment building covered in blood. She was rushed to the hospital, where she died. An autopsy later determined she’d been stabbed 20 times. 

“I’m thinking, ‘How could one human being do this to another human being,’” said Diana Kidd, a patrol officer with Knox County Sheriff’s Office. “It was traumatizing.”

The apartment showed signs of a struggle but no indication of a break-in. Several key pieces of evidence were also found, including a bent bloody knife in the living room believed to be the murder weapon. 

A bloody footprint, thought to have been left by the killer, was found in Aymami’s room. A blood-drop trail led out the back door of the apartment. Detectives learned that Johnia had knocked on neighbors’ doors in a “vain search for help,” knoxnews.com reported.

Investigators considered individuals close to Johnia as possible suspects. Her fiancé, Jason White, who was in law school in Michigan, was quickly cleared from the list.

Aymami was also looked at by police.

Johnia Berry featured in Sleeping with Death

Aymami had graduated with a degree in accounting from Eastern Tennessee State University, where Johnia earned her undergraduate degree. They knew each other well, as he was dating one of Johnia’s friends. She had moved into his apartment in Knoxville about six weeks before the murder, according to “Sleeping with Death.”

Investigators understood his instinct to flee. But why were his wounds less severe than Johnia’s? Why did the intruder let him get away?

A day after the murder, Aymami sat down for an interview with detectives at the sheriff's office. He told police that as he opened his door he could see the silhouette of a male figure who was backing out of Johnia’s bedroom.

“I wasn’t able to do anything,” he told police. “He grabbed me and threw me down into my bed.”

After being stabbed, Aymami seized a chance to run.

Some of Aymami’s statements raised red flags. He said the apartment was locked‚ so how did the intruder get in? Did he hear Johnia screaming or was she silent when he fled?  His stories differed, and that raised suspicions.

But licensed psychologist Stacy Kaiser told producers she believed that Aymami was in shock and confused by the events.

Aymami’s statements did help investigators make a sketch of the killer, and the composite drawing based on his description grabbed the public’s attention.

One individual that came onto investigators’ radar was a man who had an outstanding warrant for his arrest for an earlier charge. He lived less than three miles from the crime and was found to own a pair of shoes with treads that matched the footprint found in Aymami’s bedroom. 

It was 17 days after the slaying, and police were convinced they solved the case.

“When we start questioning him about the homicide he says that he was involved … and it was drug-related,” investigators told "Sleeping With Death."

But it was a false lead. Detectives learned that the suspect simply liked being the center of attention. He wasn’t the killer. 

“We realized that we probably had somebody who was suffering from some sort of mental health issue,” they said.

Police focused again on Aymami, who agreed to take polygraph tests in January 2005. There was confusion after the first test, but the second showed no signs of deception.

Months passed, and the case stalled. Then, results from the DNA tests done on the blood found inside the apartment and the drops leading out the back door brought fresh leads.

Blood on the bent knife belonged to Johnia, Aymami, and an unknown male. It essentially corroborated Jason's story that there had been an intruder, Kevin Allen, Asst. District Attorney, Knox County, told producers. Aymami was finally cleared as a suspect.

Investigators ran the third person’s DNA through a national database. They got no match.

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Over the next couple of years, tips and leads trickled in. Rewards for information were offered. But the case remained stagnant.

Then, a major break came: In April 2007, an individual driving by a billboard with the composite sketch on it called police to say he recognized the suspect. 

He was a man in his early 20s whose name was Taylor Lee Olson. He’d grown up among relative affluence but ended up in various scrapes involving petty crimes. He had an outstanding warrant for one of them.

Olson was interviewed, and he denied any involvement with Johnia’s murder. He also agreed to give a DNA sample.

Olson was transported to jail for the outstanding warrant, and in September 2007, detectives confirmed that Olson was a DNA match for the third blood specimen on the knife. 

After a couple days of questioning, Olson finally cracked. He  said he was with a friend on December 4, 2004 near Johnia’s apartment. They were trying to steal a car. His friend left, but Olson continued looking. He decided to look for keys with a sensor to identify the car they go to inside an apartment.

He found Johnia’s back door unlocked and crept inside. That's when the murder occurred.

“I can’t believe this happened,” Olson is heard saying in a recorded interview with police.

Five months before the trial, Olson hung himself in his cell

“That’s what I call the coward’s admission of guilt,” said Johnia’s father, Mike Berry.

To learn more about the case, watch “Sleeping with Death,” airing Sundays at 7/6c on Oxygen or stream episodes here.

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