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Aunt testifies against teen niece accused of parents' murder

Emanuella Grinberg
Court TV

Sarah Johnson
Court TV:  Case coverageexternal link

BOISE, Idaho (Court TV) -- The aunt of an Idaho teen said it took her less than two weeks to decide her niece was responsible for killing her parents in their upscale suburban home.

Linda Vavold said she didn't want to believe her sister's teenage daughter, Sarah Johnson, was to blame for shooting Diane Johnson and her husband, Alan, early in the morning on September 2, 2003.

Nevertheless, from the witness stand in Sarah Johnson's first-degree murder trial in Boise Friday, Vavold ticked off examples of Sarah's "inappropriate" behavior that led her to believe otherwise.

"When we would be discussing Alan and Diane and someone would be upset, she would roll her eyes and act disgusted," said Vavold, Diane Johnson's eldest sister.

At her parents' memorial service, she said her niece "seemed more concerned with who was there" and asked to attend a volleyball game later that evening.

Vavold also testified that the day before the service, she overheard Sarah telling someone in the beauty salon where she was getting her nails done that she wanted "to get on with her life."

Linda Vavold and her husband Jim were Sarah's legal guardians after her parent's death. She lived with them until she was arrested on October 29, 2003.

During cross-examination, Vavold acknowledged that she had been communicating with investigators as early as September 14 about evidence they believed implicated Sarah.

"Isn't it true from the very start of your being her guardian, you worked with police in an effort to prosecute her?" defense lawyer Bob Pangburn asked the witness.

"No," said Vavold, the owner of a Christian bookstore in Caldwell, Idaho, about 30 miles from Boise.

"But you thought she was guilty from very early on?" Pangburn said.

"I'm not sure when I determined that," Vavold said. "It was by the time I took her home."

Vavold also described a dream Sarah recounted to her while staying in their home.

"She was walking into our home, but when she got inside, she was in her home in Bellevue," Vavold said, referring to the affluent community where the Johnsons had lived. "She said she could see her mom, but she could not see her face, like it was digitally blocked out.

"She said her dad was also there, but his chest was blocked out, also digitally. She said she wanted to hug him, but she couldn't because she didn't want to hurt him. He said to her, 'You can't hurt me now,'" Vavold testified as the defendant, dressed in a light-blue argyle sweater over a collared shirt, quietly sobbed.

Diane Johnson died from a gunshot wound to the head as she lay in her bed, still under the covers, at about 6:20 a.m. Alan Johnson was shot in the chest in his shower and stumbled out of the bathroom before falling to the floor next to the bed where his wife lay. He bled to death.

Blaine County prosecutors believe Sarah Johnson killed her parents after they threatened to file statutory rape charges against her 19-year-old boyfriend, an undocumented Mexican immigrant.

Troubles at home

Vavold testified that she and her husband were staying with the Johnsons in their Bellevue, Idaho, home the morning they discovered their 16-year-old daughter had lied about her whereabouts and spent the night at her boyfriend's home.

Vavold's husband, James, testified last week that he accompanied Alan Johnson to confront Bruno Santos and bring Sarah home.

The Vavolds both testified that they left the house that day so the Johnsons could sort things out with Sarah.

When they returned, Linda Vavold said, the family continued with their plans for Labor Day weekend. Sarah pouted the rest of the day and refused to get out of the car at the various garage and antique sales they attended. "She seemed angry," Vavold said.

Sarah told police she spent the rest of the weekend in the family's guesthouse doing homework, although Vavold testified she never saw her carrying books to the house.

Prosecutors claim Sarah hatched the murder plot while staying in the guesthouse. The murder weapon, a .264 Winchester Magnum rifle, and shell casings linked to the firearm were traced to the renter, Mel Speegle.

Speegle was cleared as a potential suspect when authorities confirmed he was away in Boise for the weekend.

At one point that weekend, Vavold claimed, Sarah asked her mother for the key to the family gun safe. Seemingly unfazed, Diane Johnson told her to ask her father.

Concern for boyfriend

Sarah's friend and volleyball teammate, Chante Caudle, also testified Friday that, in the aftermath of her parent's deaths, Sarah seemed more concerned about Santos.

"She said she couldn't call me because she was under surveillance, but she told me to find Bruno and tell him she loved him," said Caudle, who admitted she never fulfilled her request.

Caudle said that the day after the shootings Sarah attended volleyball practice, where someone asked about the possibility of an inheritance.

"She said she and her brother would be taken care of for life, but she said she wished she could get an apartment now because she didn't like the people she was going to be living with," Caudle testified.

Caudle also said Sarah bragged about having sex with Santos and said they were engaged to be married, a claim Sarah denied in her statements to police.

Bathrobe stains

Blaine County prosecutors also presented more DNA evidence that linked Sarah to the crime scene.

DNA analyst Amber Moss, who works for a Texas-based DNA analysis laboratory that does pro bono work for the legal defense fund The Innocence Project, testified that several pieces of evidence were stained with blood belonging to Alan and Diane Johnson mixed with Sarah's DNA.

The morning of the shootings, investigators found a pink bathrobe later identified as Sarah's in the garbage outside the Johnson home, along with a leather glove and latex.

Moss testified that both the front and back of the robe contained blood samples belonging to Alan and Diane. Sarah's DNA was also identified on the robe.

On Thursday, prosecutors called other DNA analysts who identified biological matter belonging to Sarah and her parents on the gloves. Fingerprint analysis failed to directly link Sarah to the murder weapon or crime scene.

Prosecutors are expected to wrap up their case next week. Sarah Johnson faces life in prison if convicted of murdering her parents.

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