On October 4, 1982, 18-year-old Annette Cooper Johnston, a Hocking College student and her 19-year-old fiancé, Todd Schultz were reported missing in West Logan, Ohio.
Ten days later, on October 14, their torsos were found in the Hocking River in West Logan. Two days later, their heads and limbs were found buried in a cornfield adjacent to the river. Both had been shot several times and dismembered by a sharp instrument.
A police officer near the scene of the burial noticed a man in the cornstalks, Kenny Linscott, who lived three blocks away and frequently fished and hunted along the river. He said he was curious about why the police were there.
Rumors of satanic sacrifice swept through the community. Months later, two tipsters told police that on the day that the couple disappeared, Linscott had suffered a deep cut on his right arm. Although police obtained Linscott’s hospital records, they stopped investigating him when Linscott said he had been cut when his arm went through a window.
Initial suspicion fell upon Annette’s stepfather, Dale Johnston, with whom she had a troubled relationship—allegedly because he did not want the couple to marry. Shortly after the murders, Johnston, 49, was interrogated for more than eight hours, but denied he was involved.
Ultimately, they found a witness who, after being hypnotized to try to enhance his memory, said that shortly before the couple disappeared, he saw Johnston angrily force Annette into a car while threatening to punch Schultz.
Johnston was indicted for the murders on September 29, 1983 and went to trial in Hocking County Court of Common Pleas in January 1984. He waived a jury trial and the case was heard by a three-judge panel.
Key evidence for the prosecution was the testimony of the hypnotized witness and that of Louise Robbins, an anthropologist specializing in the analysis of footprints. Robbins testified that a muddy impression in the cornfield where the victims’ limbs were found was left by the heel of Johnston’s cowboy boot.
Johnston was convicted on January 31, 1984 and on March 27, 1984, he was sentenced to death.
On August 6, 1986, the Ohio Court of Appeals for the 4th District overturned the conviction. The court held that the testimony of the hypnotized witness was unreliable and should not have been allowed. The court also ruled that the prosecution had withheld exculpatory evidence—the identification of a suspect who was allegedly infatuated with Annette and was a butcher by trade.
In December 1988, Johnston was moved off Death Row and in May of 1989, his case was transferred to the Franklin County Common Pleas Court. A motion to suppress his interrogation and statements to the detectives was granted. On May 10, 1990, the suppression was upheld on appeal and the charges were dismissed. The next day, Johnston was released from prison.
In 2007, the estranged wife of Kenny Linscott—the man seen in the cornfield the day the victims’ limbs were found—told her probation officer that Schultz and his fiancé came to the Linscott home on the night they disappeared. She said the couple left the home with her husband and another man and when her husband returned later that night, he was covered in blood and had a bad cut on his arm.
Police re-opened the investigation of the case and in 2008, charged the 47-year-old Linscott and Chester McKnight, 50, with the dismemberment and murders.
Police said that McKnight confessed that he and Linscott had met the couple and asked them to party with them, intending all along to rape Annette, and that ultimately they killed them.
After McKnight pled guilty in December 2008, and received two life prison terms, he changed his statement, saying that Linscott did not participate in the murders but did help in the dismemberment.
McKnight said he was at Linscott’s home on October 4, 1982 when the couple stopped to buy some marijuana and drink beer.
High on cocaine and LSD, McKnight said he persuaded them to go into the cornfield to party, but planned on having sex with Annette. He said Linscott gave him a pistol and when the couple resisted, he shot Schultz six times and then shot Cooper Johnston.
McKnight said they chopped up the bodies with a machete from Linscott’s garage, with Linscott holding the limbs while McKnight did the cutting. At one point, McKnight slipped and severely cut Linscott’s arm. McKnight told police they tossed the torsos into the river and left the limbs in the field. He said Linscott must have returned later and buried them.
In June 2009, the prosecution dismissed murder charges against Linscott. He then pled guilty to misdemeanor abuse of a corpse and was released from jail where he had been held since his arrest the year before.
Johnston attempted to win compensation for his wrongful conviction, but was denied a declaration of innocence (required in Ohio to obtain compensation) in 1993. At the time, state law required that a defendant prove innocence by a preponderance of evidence.
In December 2011, Johnston filed another complaint seeking a declaration of innocence. The complaint cited the confession and conviction of McKnight as well as a change in state allow allowing a finding of innocence if an error in procedure resulted in the overturning of the conviction.
In November 2012, a judge granted the declaration of innocence. The Ohio Attorney General's Office appealed and the Ohio Court of Appeals overturned the decision, finding that a state law amendment in 2003 that allows for procedural errors to be taken into account in wrongful imprisonment cases did not apply retroactively.
Johnston appealed and in October 2015, the Ohio Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the state law change should have been applied retroactively. The decision reversed the appeals court ruling and sent the case back to the trial court. The trial court again found Johnston innocent, but in July 2016, the appeals court, by a 2-1 vote, overturned the finding of innocence.
– Maurice Possley