Forensic expert disputes police findings in woman's mysterious death

WMC5 INVESTIGATES: How did Jessica die? Part 1
Published: Jul. 25, 2017 at 2:00 AM CDT|Updated: Jul. 26, 2017 at 11:59 AM CDT
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HORN LAKE, MS (WMC) - The death of a Horn Lake mother who was found hanging from a mailbox by shoestrings remains a mystery despite garnering national attention.

Jessica Johnson's family hired a forensic expert to help them understand how she died in early June. His findings differ from those of the investigators working her case.

"There is just a hole in my heart from my daughter's loss," Jessica's mother, Linda Johnson, said. "She could bring sunshine and light to anyone's life."

According to Horn Lake Police Department, a mail carrier discovered Jessica's body tied to a mailbox in the 7500 block of Angel Drive on June 2, 2017. The DeSoto County coroner determined her cause of death was asphyxiation due to ligature hanging. The preliminary investigation points to suicide, but Linda and the forensic expert she hired both disagree.

"There is no way that I can believe my daughter took her own life. She loved her children too much. She loved her father and I. Jesse was a, she was a family girl," Linda said.

WATCH: WMC5 INVESTIGATES How did Jessica die Part 1

WATCH: WMC5 INVESTIGATES How did Jessica die Part 2

Linda's doubts come from how Jessica's body was discovered and who she was with the night before it happened.

Jessica's mother asked WMC5 to share the photos taken of her daughter the day she was found to help explain why they think her daughter was murdered.

The first photo, which was taken by the mail carrier who discovered Jessica's body, shows her on her knees in an overgrown lot. Her head was resting against a post and two shoe laces, which were tied together and wrapped around her neck, were attached to the mailbox. Her purse was open between her legs.

(WARNING: This photo is graphic and may be disturbing to viewers. Click here to remove the blur.)

Police officers say they later discovered a pair of shoes without shoe laces at the house where her body was found out front.

"This is a display. My daughter set up on display. And I know my daughter is too vain. She would never do something like that," Linda said. "I have to be honest with you. My daughter can barely tie her shoes. She wore all these high heels. There's no way. And she would have never gone out that way."

Linda said Jessica, who struggled with drug addiction, went to the house on Angel Drive to see her "off and on" boyfriend. It was a relationship her mom called "toxic."

"She told me, 'Mama, if anything happens to me, go find him. You know I'm not going to mention his name, but, 'go find him,'" Linda said.

Horn Lake investigators said they did interview the man Jessica was dating and that they continue to investigate all angles of the case.

The Johnsons hired their own forensic scientist, Dr. Maurice Godwin, who is an 18-year veteran of high-profile murder investigations, including the Casey Anthony case in Florida.

"To me, this is a staged crime scene, and one thing you have to take into account is this is just within walking distance where she was visiting with her boyfriend. It's not like she drove into the woods and did this," Dr. Godwin said. "One of the first things is the neatness of the knot tied at the end of the shoestring. It's almost at the end of both ends of shoe strings and the knot is tied very neat at the end. So, when she sits down to do this, how does she know how much slack that she's going to need in the string? Too much or not enough and everything for that to work and then tie that from a sitting position."

The man who owns the home where Jessica's body was found asked WMC5 not to reveal his identity because he has received death threats from people who blame him for her death.

Horn Lake Police Department has not named any suspects in Jessica's death, and the homeowner said he had nothing to do with it.

"I wouldn't let anything happen to her," he said. "You know, anybody do anything to her, you know, if I could, you know, help it."

Jessica's body was found on a Friday, but she and her "off and on" boyfriend showed up to this man's house on Wednesday.

"From the time that they showed up Wednesday to Thursday, she seemed out of her, you know, normal self," he said. "That's the first time I've seen them in a few months together, and she just, I don't know, she was just really, I think, love sick. She was more dramatic than I'd ever seen her."

The night before Jessica was found dead, the homeowner said there were several people at his house. At some point, Jessica got into a fight with her boyfriend.

"One of my roommates and ------ both told me she was out in the drive way and pulled the shoe strings out of her shoes and was threatening it," he said. "And he basically kind of just shrugged it off and told her, 'Get out of here with that. I don't want to hear it,' and he shut the door on her."

He said later that night, Jessica sent the homeowner a text.

"I got the text message from her, talking about she just didn't want to feel the pain anymore or anything," he said.

That was the last time he heard from her.

When asked if he thinks Jessica committed suicide, he responded, "At first I didn't, but now, I'm kind of leaning that way, yeah."

He continued, "It's hard to believe that she sat out there from you know, 6 p.m. on Thursday until 9:30, 10:30 Friday morning without anybody seeing her, you know? She just appeared out of nowhere it feels like. Because, I mean, you had people riding up and down the street all morning."

Horn Lake Police Department said the investigation remains open.

WMC5's Felicia Bolton reached out to Jessica's "off and on" boyfriend, who told her he submitted DNA to investigators and has been questioned. He described his relationship with Jessica as volatile and said they were bad for each other, but that he never physically hurt her. He declined an on-camera interview and currently has a warrant in Shelby County for domestic assault-bodily harm in a separate case.

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