Humanities › Issues Profile of Idaho Teen Killer Sarah Johnson Share Flipboard Email Print Mugshot Issues Crime & Punishment Criminals & Crimes Basics Prevention & Safety Investigations & Trials Serial Killers The U. S. Government U.S. Foreign Policy U.S. Liberal Politics U.S. Conservative Politics Women's Issues Civil Liberties The Middle East Terrorism Race Relations Immigration Animal Rights Canadian Government View More By Charles Montaldo Private Investigator Charles Montaldo is a writer and former licensed private detective who worked with law enforcement and insurance firms investigating crime and fraud. our editorial process Charles Montaldo Updated July 31, 2020 Sarah Johnson was 16 years old when she shot and killed her parents with a high-powered rifle because they did not approve of her 19-year-old boyfriend. This is the story of her crime and trial. Victims Alan (46) and Diane (52) Johnson lived in an attractive home that sat on two acres of land in an affluent suburb in the small community of Bellevue, Idaho. They had been married for 20 years and were devoted to each other and their two children, Matt and Sarah. The Johnsons were well-liked in the community. Alan was the co-owner of a popular landscaping company, and Diane worked for a financial firm. The Crime In the early morning hours of September 2, 2003, Sarah Johnson ran out of her home, screaming for help. She told neighbors that her parents had just been murdered. When police arrived, they found Diane Johnson lying under the covers of her bed, dead from a shotgun blast that had removed most of her head. Alan Johnson was found lying next to the bed, dead from a gunshot wound to his chest. The shower was running, and Alan’s body was wet. Based on wet, bloody footprints and blood splatters, it appeared that he had stepped out of the shower and was then shot, but managed to walk toward Diane before collapsing and bleeding to death. The Crime Scene The police immediately secured the crime scene including sectioning off an entire block around the house. In a trash can outside of the Johnsons' home, investigators found a bloody pink bathrobe and two gloves; one was a left-handed leather glove, and the other was a right-handed latex glove. Inside the home, detectives found a trail of blood spatters, tissue, and bone fragments that went from the Johnsons' bedroom, into the hall, and across to Sarah Johnson’s bedroom. A .264 Winchester Magnum rifle was found in the master bedroom. Two butcher knives, with the tips of the blades touching, had been placed on the end of the Johnsons' bed. Twenty feet across the hall, in Sarah's bedroom, a magazine of bullets was found. There was no evidence of forced entry into the home. Sarah Johnson Talks to Police When Sarah Johnson first talked to the police, she said that she woke up around 6:15 a.m. and heard her parents' shower running. She continued to lie in bed but then heard two gunshots. Sarah ran to her parents' bedroom and found that their door was closed. She did not open the door, but rather called for her mother who did not answer. Frightened, she ran out of the house and began screaming for help. The Story Changes Her story of what happened would change several times throughout the investigation. Sometimes she said her parents' door was slightly opened, and other times she said her door was closed, but not her parents' door. Based on the forensic evidence found in the hall and Sarah’s bedroom, both her door and her parents' door would have to have been opened. Sarah also admitted that the pink robe was hers but denied knowing anything about how it ended up in the trash. When first asked about the robe, her response was that she did not kill her parents, which investigators found odd. She said she thought the killer was a maid who had been recently fired by the Johnsons for stealing. The Murder Weapon The owner of the rifle used to kill the Johnsons belonged to Mel Speegle, who was renting a garage apartment in a guesthouse located on the Johnsons' property. He was away over the Labor Day weekend and had not yet returned home on the day of the murders. When questioned, he told police that the rifle was kept in an unlocked closet in his apartment. Infatuation and Obsession Sarah Johnson was described by neighbors and friends as a sweet girl who enjoyed playing volleyball. However, another Sarah emerged over the summer months—one that seemed infatuated and obsessed with her 19-year-old boyfriend, Bruno Santos Dominguez. Sarah and Dominguez had been dating for three months before the murder of Sarah's parents. The Johnsons did not approve of the relationship because Dominguez was 19 and an undocumented Mexican immigrant. He also had a reputation for being involved in drugs. Close friends of Sarah’s said that a few days before the Johnsons' murders, Sarah showed them a ring and told them that she and Dominguez were engaged. They also said that Sarah often lied, so they did not completely buy into what Sarah was saying about her engagement. Days Leading up to the Murder On August 29, Sarah told her parents that she was spending the night with friends, but instead, she spent the night with Dominguez. When her parents found out, her father went to look for her the next day and found her with Dominguez at his family’s apartment. Sarah and her parents argued, and Sarah told them about her engagement. Diane was very upset and said that she was going to go to the authorities and report Dominguez for statutory rape. If nothing else, she hoped to have him deported. They also grounded Sarah for the rest of the Labor Day weekend and took her car keys. During the following days, Sarah, who had a key to Speegle’s apartment, was in and out of the guesthouse for various reasons. On the night before the murders, both Diane and Sarah called Matt Johnson, the eldest Johnson child, who was away at college. Matt said his mother cried about Sarah's relationship with Dominguez and expressed how embarrassed she felt by Sarah's actions. Uncharacteristically, Sarah seemed to accept her parents' punishment and told Matt that she knew what they were up to. Matt did not like how the comment sounded and almost called his mother back, but decided not to because it was so late. The next day, the Johnsons were dead. DNA Evidence DNA testing showed that blood and tissue on Sarah's pink robe belonged to Diane; DNA that matched Sarah was identified on it as well. Gunshot residue was found on the leather glove, and Sarah’s DNA was found inside of the latex glove. Diane’s DNA was also found in the blood that was on the socks Sarah was wearing on the morning her parents were killed. Sarah Johnson Is Arrested On October 29, 2003, Sarah Johnson was arrested and charged as an adult on two counts of first-degree murder to which she pleaded not guilty. Nancy Grace Helped Prosecutors The prosecution had a challenge with one major piece of evidence—the pink robe and the pattern of blood splatters found on it. Most of the blood was on the left sleeve and the back of the robe. If Sarah put the robe on before shooting her parents, how did so much blood get on the back? While the prosecution was struggling to put together a viable explanation for the location of the blood on the robe, Sarah's defense lawyer, Bob Pangburn, happened to appear as a guest on the Nancy Grace "Current Affairs" program. Nancy Grace asked Pangburn about the blood on the robe, and he said it showed possible contamination of evidence and that it actually could help exonerate Sarah Johnson. Nancy Grace offered another explanation. She suggested that if Sarah wanted to protect her body and clothing from blood splatter, she could have put the robe on backward. Doing that would act as a shield, and the blood would then end up on the back of the robe. Rod Englert and other members of the prosecution team happened to be watching the program, and Grace's theory provided them with a reasonable scenario that would result in the blood patterns that were on the robe. Court Testimony During the trial, there was a lot of testimony about Sarah Johnson’s inappropriate behavior and lack of emotions about the brutal murder of her parents. Neighbors and friends who offered comfort to Sarah on the day her parents were killed said that she was more concerned about seeing her boyfriend. She also did not seem traumatized, which would be expected if a teen went through the experience that she had inside the house when her parents were gunned down. At her parents' funeral, she talked about wanting to play volleyball that evening. Any sadness that she displayed seemed superficial. Witnesses also testified about the troubled relationship between Sarah and her mother, but many also added that it was not that unusual for a girl her age to fight with her mother. However, Sarah's half-brother, Matt Johnson, gave some of the most insightful testimony about her, although it also proved to be some of the most damaging. Matt Johnson described Sarah as a drama queen and a good actor who had the propensity to lie. During part of his two-hour testimony, he said that the first thing Sarah told him when he arrived at their home after finding out his parents had been murdered was that the police thought that she did it. He told her he thought Dominguez did it, which she vehemently denied. She said that Dominguez loved Alan Johnson like a father, but Matt knew this was not true. She also told him that at 2 a.m. on the night before the murders, someone had been to the house. Her parents checked the yard to make sure no one was out there before they went back to bed. She had not provided this information to the police. Regardless, Matt did not believe her and he did not challenge what she was saying. In the weeks after the murders, Matt testified that he avoided asking his sister about the murders because he was afraid of what she might tell him. The "No Blood, No Guilt" Defense Some of the strongest points that Sarah’s defense team made during her trial had to do with the lack of biological matter found on Sarah or her clothing. Investigators found nothing in her hair, hands, or anywhere else. Experts testified that with Diane having been shot at such close range, it would be impossible for the shooter to avoid being sprayed with blood and tissue, yet none was found on Sarah who underwent two complete physical examinations on the day of the murders. Her fingerprints were also not found on the bullets, rifle, or knives. However, there was one unidentified print found on the rifle. The testimony of cellmates of Sarah's who testified about some of the damaging comments she made regarding the murders was challenged. One cellmate said that Sarah said the knives were placed on the bed to throw off the police and make it look like a gang-related shooting. The defense fought to have the testimonies thrown out because the cellmates were adults and the law forbids incarcerated minors to be housed with adults. The judge did not agree, stating that if Sarah could be tried as an adult, she could be housed with adult prisoners. The defense team also questioned Matt Johnson about the life insurance money he would get if Sarah were out of the picture, insinuating that he had a lot to gain if Sarah was found guilty. The Verdict and Sentencing The jury deliberated for 11 hours before finding Sarah Johnson guilty on two counts of murder in the first degree. She was sentenced to two fixed-life prison terms, plus 15 years, without the possibility of parole. She was also fined $10,000, of which $5,000 was allocated to Matt Johnson. Appeals Efforts for a new trial were turned down in 2011. A hearing was granted for November 2012 based on the possibility that new DNA and fingerprint technology that was not available during Sarah Johnson's trial may prove that she is innocent. Attorney Dennis Benjamin and the Idaho Innocence Project took on her case pro bono in 2011. On February 18, 2014, the Idaho Supreme Court rejected Johnson's appeal.