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An Alabama mother and her two young children were killed earlier this week in a crime that has flummoxed local law enforcement.
Nancy Johnson, 37, Mia Johnson , 6, and Jacob Johnson, 2, were found dead in their own home on Evergreen Court in the small city of Semmes, part of the broader Mobile metropolitan area.
The grim discovery was made Thursday morning by Derek Johnson, the deceased woman’s estranged husband, according to the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office. He is not currently considered a suspect, authorities say, and has been described as “cooperative.”
Mobile County Sheriff Paul Burch has openly speculated as to whether the three family members were killed by one assailant or whether the mother killed her children before killing herself.
“At this point, we can’t say whether she was murdered or if it was suicide,” the sheriff said in comments to local NBC affiliate WPMI. “That part is still under investigation.”
In additional comments to WPMI on Sept. 28, Burch offered some oblique details – saying that the children were killed in a way different from how their mother was killed and that he believes Mia Johnson, the 6-year-old tried to defend herself before she was killed.
“I would say she put up a fight,” the sheriff said.
None of the victims were shot, according to the MCSO.
“It was more horrific than that,” Burch said at a crime scene press conference carried by local Fox affiliate WALA. “I’ll just leave it at that.”
Burch said authorities had not yet determined Nancy Johnson’s cause of death and did not want to make any assumptions until then. He said law enforcement would be unable to get an answer on that front until a forensic examination and full autopsy had been conducted.
“It’s pretty apparent how the children died,” the sheriff said.
He reiterated the lack of gunshot wounds when questioned: “It’s much more than that, and I’ll just leave it at that.”
Semmes Police Chief Todd Freind also had trouble with the violence.
“It’s definitely not a typical homicide scene,” he told WALA. “It is more brutal than normal, than what we normally see. So yeah, it definitely will test your character when you see something like this.”
The couple were from Utah and Washington; they had recently moved to Semmes. All of Nancy Johnson’s family live in Utah, Burch said.
Law enforcement said that multiple domestic disturbance calls have been made to the residence on Evergreen Court in the past.
“Semmes is very familiar with this residence,” Burch told WALA – referring to local police. “They’ve responded to numerous domestics.”
Freind echoed that assessment.
“We’ve been over here numerous times for domestics, and she’s called numerous times concerned for her children’s welfare,” the police chief told WPMI. Freind went on to elaborate in comments to WALA: “The last several months we’ve had a lot of domestic disturbance calls out here from the couple. Just different domestic type calls, anything from harassment to physical.”
Nancy Johnson and Derek Johnson were going through a divorce when tragedy struck. In April, Derek Johnson first filed for divorce before the couple briefly reconciled over the summer, according to court records obtained by WPMI. Then, in August, he filed for divorce again – petitioning the court for mental health records on his wife. In early September, Derek Johnson was arrested for violating a protection order issued by a judge in Utah.
Burch took stock of mental health concerns regarding the mother on Thursday in response to a question, saying: “We’ve been made aware that there’s some possibility of some mental instability.”
A report from the Alabama Department of Human Resources obtained by WALA reads: “The DHR worker expressed concerns regarding the Plaintiff’s (the mother) mental health and the safety of the minor children. The DHR worker informed the Defendant (the father) that they do not feel it is safe for the minor children to remain in the care and custody of the Plaintiff (the mother).”
Derek Johnson was arrested on Sept. 17 after allegedly forcing his way inside the couple’s previously shared home, “causing damage to the home as he broke in through a window,” another child custody court document obtained by WALA reads. “Once inside the home, [Derek Johnson] physically attacked [Nancy Johnson] and attempted to grab one of the minor children. [Nancy Johnson] was able to break free from [Derek Johnson] and fled to her vehicle with the children.”
At the time of the deaths, the estranged husband was living in a camper outside the residence – a condition of a prior child custody order. A judge split custody between the parents – conditioning the arrangement on having both parents share the camper and stay in it whenever the children were in the custody of the other.
According to the MCSO, a press conference will be held on Sept. 29 to share additional details regarding the deaths.
“It’s two babies,” Burch said at the first press conference before turning away from the camera, pushing the yellow caution tape up, walking through it, and then walking away. “That’s all I got.”
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