The cold case death of LaVena Johnson - Balad, Iraq - July 19, 2005

On July 19, 2005, a drama unfolded in a Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR) tent at a US base in Balad, Iraq.19-year-old PFC Lavena Johnson died on the spot from a gunshot wound to the head. The girl had been deployed to Balad in May of that year with the 129 Corp Support Battalion.

According to the military, her death was a suicide. Army investigators concluded that LaVena shot herself in the mouth with an Army-issued M-16. Her parents back in Florissant, Missouri did not believe the story and began their own investigation. 

What happened according to the army
LaVena's parents initially received little information from the military. The investigation into the 19-year-old's death was carried out by special agents from the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command, and took months. They concluded it was suicide.

The family was eventually told by the military that their daughter would have been extremely sad because her boyfriend of two months broke up with her via email. That day, according to the military, LaVena printed out her boyfriend's email and then carried her M-16 rifle over her shoulder when she went to buy candy and soda at a military store with a male friend. After the two returned to the barracks, she left alone to a tent owned by Kellogg Brown and Root, a military contractor.

According to the army, she set fire to her boyfriend's e-mail there, after which the entire tent caught fire. LaVena, distraught as she was according to the military, then shot herself with an M-16 in her mouth. Shortly after her death, the Armed Services Committee in the Senate signed LaVena's death. This concluded the matter.

The Family's Belief
The Johnsons never believed that LaVena would ever hurt herself. And the more they delved into the case, the more they became convinced that their sweet girl had been murdered and that the military covered the perpetrators. The fact that LaVena had previously let them know how her superiors, as well as the soldiers she led, treated her disrespectfully, probably didn't inspire much confidence either.

When the family finally received autopsy photos, it became clear to them that LaVena had suffered several injuries before her death. She seemed to have a broken nose, split lip, loose teeth, scratches and bruises on her arms, and even burns on her right leg and hand. It also strongly appeared that her genitals had been affected by a chemical agent, presumably to mask a rape. LaVena's family was convinced that she had been murdered after being raped.

In addition, there were other highlights. Above all, the gunshot wound to the mouth seemed incompatible with that of a suicide. But also the fact that LaVena was only 5'1'' and weighed less than 100 lbs seemed to negate the suicide with a 40-inch M-16. With her stature, it seemed impossible to maneuver the big gun into her mouth and fire. The fact that two ballistics experts later stated that the alleged exit wound from the M-16 was more consistent with a gunshot wound from a 9mm handgun reinforced the belief that the investigation was flawed. The deadly bullet was never found...

Second Autopsy
Thanks to CBS, a second autopsy could take place. It surprisingly revealed that LaVena's neck had been broken, and parts of her vagina, tongue and anus had been removed. The military had never informed the family that parts of her body had been removed. However, CBS and other media giants did not run the story. We don't know the reason behind that. 

Not giving up
After all these years the family is still doing everything they can to get their LaVena's case reopened. So far, however, the military has only responded with the answer that the case has been closed and that it was a suicide. Despite this, they continue to fight for justice. For example, a petition was even opened on their behalf on to have the case reopened. A website was also started about her.

Tips and Information
The chance of a re-investigation would increase enormously if new information became available from people who know more about the case, but have remained silent until now. Are you one of them? Then don't hesitate and come forward with your story. You can do that completely anonymously. Get in touch using the form below.

This goes without the interference of the police, and entirely through our editors. If you would like to remain anonymous, do not enter your name and e-mail address. We ensure that your information ends up in the right place with the appropriate cold case team. 

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