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TBI names suspected killer in 1985 'Redhead Murder' case

Victim Tina Farmer was identified last year. Her body was found along I-75 in Campbell County on New Years Day 1985.

STRAWBERRY PLAINS, Tenn. — The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said Thursday it solved a more than 3-decade-old cold case, but there's no evidence at this time that it's connected to a string of similar murders. 

On Jan. 1, 1985, the body of a woman was found along I-75 in Campbell County. Fingerprint comparisons helped identify her in 2018 as Tina Marie McKenney Farmer, a pregnant woman in her 20s who was reported missing from Indiana. It has been believed she was a victim in the "Redhead Murder" killing spree, where six similar victims were found dead along interstates in Tennessee and Kentucky in the mid-80s.

Thursday, the TBI said the man believed to be responsible for Farmer's death died in prison in December 2015.

Credit: TBI
Jerry Leon Johns

This week, a Campbell County Grand Jury found there was enough evidence to indict Jerry Leon Johns of Cleveland, Tennessee, of first-degree murder in Farmer's death, according to District Attorney General Jared Effler.

"While I am extremely disappointed that this case has not ended in the prosecution of Jerry Johns, I am pleased that this investigation has answered questions for Ms. Farmer’s family that heretofore had gone unanswered for over thirty-four years,” said Effler.

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Brad Nealon, Deputy Director of the TBI, said Johns was a suspect when Farmer was killed in 1985 because he was under suspicion in a similar case in Knox County.

During the investigation, agents learned that two months after Farmer’s body was found, Johns picked up a woman, who looked similar to Farmer. He strangled her, tied her up, then dumped her body along I-40. That victim survived, and her statement led to the arrest of Johns on numerous charges, including aggravated kidnapping and assault. He was convicted on those charges in 1987 and has been behind bars ever since.

Johns was a long-haul trucker and while investigators can't say for certain, it's known that Farmer was seen at a truck stop near her home town in Indiana before her death, so that may be how the two connected.

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For years, Farmer's case has been linked to a number of other unsolved crimes from the time, called the redhead murders, based on the victims' hair color. Investigators have long suspected that the killer may be a truck driver because of the different locations where the victims were found.

But on Thursday, TBI investigators said there's no evidence supporting that at this time. However, they will continue to look into similar cases with other investigating agencies to see if there's a link.

"We're open to options, still looking into possibilities," said TBI Special Agent Brandon Elkins. "Right now we have no definitive proof he's involved in any other cases."

Elkins has been working this case for more than a decade. He resubmitted DNA evidence to the TBI Crime Lab that actually turned up a match. Then he and other investigators were able to match a missings person case to the Campbell County Jane Doe and eventually confirm her identity.

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He said he used today's technology to solve yesterday's crimes.

"It's pretty amazing. It's been a lot of hard work, a lot of dead ends. But it's been very rewarding to tell family members we've solved a 34-year-old mystery," he said.

Deputy Director Brad Nealon said this case shows how dedication, traditional police work, and modern science can lead to a breakthrough.

"It hasn't been easy, but we never game up," Nealon said.

“We hope this will help provide long-sought answers for Tina Farmer’s family,” said TBI Director David Rausch. “We also want this case to provide hope for other families in our state who are still waiting for answers. Our team will never give up on unsolved cases like this one as long as there are viable leads to follow.”

A group of students from Elizabethton High School has been working to revive interest in the cases, which they call the Bible-belt murders. 

Investigators are also using DNA to help identify another possible victim of the redhead killer, a woman who has only been known as Kentucky Jane Doe for decades. 

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