09/30/2009

Background check leads to arrest in '76 Mo. killing

By Alan Scher Zaiger
Associated Press

COLUMBIA, Mo. — A man who walked into an Atlanta suburb's police department seeking a criminal background check for a job application wound up under arrest as a suspect in the slaying of a former University of Missouri student in 1976, authorities said Tuesday.

Johnny Wright, 65, went to the Lawrenceville Police Department last week for a background check he needed to apply for a job as a driver, police Capt. Greg Vaughn said.

"When they ran the check, they got a hit on him," Vaughn said. "He paid $15 to get arrested."

When Wright returned the next day for his paperwork, Lawrenceville police served a warrant issued in Missouri in 1985 charging Wright with Rebecca Doisy's death. The 23-year-old woman was a poet and waitress at a popular Columbia diner before she disappeared in August 1976.

Doisy's family had long given up hope that the middle of three daughters would be found - or her suspected killer apprehended. Family members said it had been more than a decade since they last spoke with police about the case. Authorities suspected that Wright had fled the country or even been killed amid West Coast gang warfare, said Dr. Robert Doisy, the victim's father.

"We've been under the impression that he had been dead for a long time," he said. "We're just totally stunned, in utter disbelief and shock."

Wright is being held without bond and awaiting extradition to Missouri, according to the Gwinnett County Detention Center. He was arrested on Sept. 23 and has waived an extradition hearing. Vaughn said that Wright had yet to hire a lawyer.

Doisy was a weekend waitress at Ernie's Steak House when she disappeared on Aug. 5, 1976. Co-workers said that Wright - an ex-convict from St. Louis who had been arrested a dozen times and spent time in prison for burglary - badgered Doisy for a date but was rebuffed.

A resident of Doisy's apartment complex reported seeing her leave with Wright the day she went missing.

In 1985, Wright's former roommate told Columbia police he had seen Doisy's body in Wright's car. Boone County prosecutors initially charged the roommate, Harry Moore, with second-degree murder before he came forward with the additional information. Wright was then charged in the crime on Nov. 26, 1985.

"He must not know that murder warrants are never expunged, or he forgot," said Kathy Doisy, the victim's sister.

Doisy was the granddaughter of Edward A. Doisy, who shared the 1943 Nobel Prize in medicine with another researcher for their discovery of vitamin K. A research building at St. Louis University, where he taught, is named after the scientist.

She completed three years at Missouri's education school but dropped out to avoid relocating from Columbia for a student teaching job, her sister said.

Columbia police were equally surprised that Wright turned up after so many years. They exhumed several bodies in search of Doisy's remains, including from a Crystal City cemetery in 1979 and a northern Boone County root cellar 11 years later.

They also consulted a psychic and roamed the county on horseback in search of Doisy.

"In this day and age, we hear about cases being solved by technology, DNA and that sort of thing," said officer Jessie Haden, a Columbia police spokeswoman. "It's not often we hear about a (murder) case being solved by a suspect turning himself in."

Wright presented a Georgia identification card issued Sept. 17 with his background check application, Vaughn said. The ID contained his real name and birth date.

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