Christopher Jeffre Johnson pleaded guilty on Monday morning to three Chattanooga murders as family members of the victims watched from the front rows of the courtroom.
Johnson, who appeared before Criminal Court Judge Don Poole without an attorney, pleaded guilty to the slaying of Melissa "Missy" Ward in November 1994 and the murder of brothers Sean and Donny Goetcheus in Brainerd in 1997.
Johnson, 52, told family members, "I hope you get some closure. I am sorry for what I did. I truly apologize."
He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in all three cases. Johnson has been in custody for six years serving a 50-year sentence for the kidnapping and rapes of two girls.
District Attorney Neal Pinkston said Johnson gave details in both cases that the killer would know. He said detectives have long been interviewing the Chattanooga native, and he said he sat down with him for his own interview recently.
Johnson had been represented by an attorney until he suddenly said he wanted to act on his own and give the pleas. The case was then added to the Monday morning docket.
Ms. Ward, who was 33, was reported missing on Nov. 2, 1994. She had last been seen a few days before. Witnesses said they saw her around 7 p.m. on Oct. 29, 2004, at the Bi-Lo on 23rd Street.
She was wearing a blue dress and no shoes, and was seen getting into a late model red Ford pickup with a white camper top. The driver of the truck was described as a white male, in his mid-50s, with salt and pepper hair. DA Pinkston said she got into Johnson's truck.
He said Johnson took her to a motel in Lookout Valley and they did drugs with a third person. He said she was then killed and her body disposed of in a remote area along Cash Canyon Road. Her skeletal remains were discovered on Dec. 5, 2004, by attorney Bryan Hoss while out inspecting property he was considering buying.
The D.A.'s office said Ms. Ward had a drug addiction was often accepted rides from strangers. She was the mother of sons, 11 and 9, at the time of her death.
The 25-year-old Sean Goetcheus and his 19-year-old brother, Donny, were last seen alive the evening of Wednesday, Jan. 8, 1997.
The following evening, on Jan. 9, 1997, police were called to 3207 Rosemont Dr., the house where the brothers lived. Inside were the bodies of both men, who had each been shot multiple times. Sean Goetcheus had been shot twice in the head and once in the neck. Donny had been shot once in the head and once in the face.
Detective Mike Mathis, who was the original detective on the case and now heads up a Cold Case unit, said Johnson stated that he went to the residence where the brothers were living to retrieve a video for Rick Davis, owner of Rick Davis Gold and Jewelry.
He said words were exchanged between Johnson and Sean, then Johnson shot him. The detective said Johnson did not know that anyone else was in the house, but Donny was in the bathroom. He called out, "Hey Bro, what's going on?" Johnson then kicked the bathroom door open and also murdered him, it was stated.
Detective Mathis said earlier, "As for motive, we are still working to determine the specifics but we believe Sean had a videotape of illegal activity involving Rick Davis of Rick Davis’ Gold & Diamonds. On the night of the murders, Chris Johnson took money to Sean to buy the video. During their encounter, Johnson became angry and shot Sean. Upon hearing the gunfire Donny called out to ask what was going on, until that point Johnson had no idea Donny was in the house."
DA Pinkston said Dr. Steven Cogswell of the Medical Examiner's Office reviewed the autopsies of the brothers and said the evidence matches with the account given by Johnson. He said blood splatter evidence is also consistent with his statement, according to an expert who was contacted.
He said Johnson knew that the initial encounter with the older brother was in the kitchen and he described where items like a paper towel holder and two red Solo cups were located.
Johnson told of going up stairs at the two-story residence and wiping his fingerprints off the stair railing, it was stated.
He was able to make a diagram of the residence from his prison cell.
The district attorney said the only indication of any items disturbed in the house was an open drawer in an upstairs room.
Police never recovered the video that Johnson was after.
Johnson went into custody in Georgia a short time after the double murder in Brainerd.
Judge Poole told Johnson that if he continued with his plea that "you never will be released from prison."
Johnson said he still wanted to plead guilty to three counts of first-degree murder.