Murder in Nixa: The Jackie Johns Case
On June 17th, 1985, Jackie Johns finished her shift at the local diner in Nixa, Missouri. It was a foggy night as she drove off in her black Chevy Camaro. The next morning, Jackie’s Camaro was found abandoned along Missouri Highway 160. The driver’s side door was open, and the keys were still in the car. They also found Jackie’s purse, but they could not find Jackie. The popular twenty-year-old was officially a missing person. It would take twenty-five years to solve the mystery of her disappearance.
Jaquelin Sue “Jackie” Johns was born June 7th, 1965, in rural Southwest Missouri. She was the youngest of four daughters born to Les and Shirley Johns. Jackie had been a popular girl in the small Missouri town of Nixa, Missouri. Nixa holds an annual Sucker Day Festival, celebrating the sucker fish. Jackie was a previous winner of the pageant associated with the Sucker Day Festival. She was beautiful, charming, and a happy soul. Her regular customers at the diner adored her, some making passes at her that were unwelcome, but Jackie always handled it with a smile. On the night she disappeared, Jackie drove her black Camaro to the local 7-11 convenience store to replenish her cigarettes and hairspray, two things she rarely was without.
With Jackie missing, a newspaper article published June 21st, 1985 (Springfield Leader and Press, 1985), described the similarities to the missing Jackie Johns to another case in Nixa, Missouri. Carol Blades, a twenty-year-old housewife, disappeared on December 15th, 1969. She was last seen buying cookies at a local grocery store and doing laundry at the laundry mat. When she disappeared, her clothing was still in the dryer. Her vehicle was later found abandoned along the same Highway, Missouri Highway 160. The Sherriff at the allegedly told media he believed the woman had left on her own accord and no crime was committed. The detectives failed to take fingerprints from her vehicle. Carol’s body was found on December 25th, 1970, in a field. No one was every charged with her murder, but some sources link the case to serial killer Mark Alan Smith (Pokin, 2021).
Jackie’s family and friends held out hope that she would be found alive. However, on June 22nd, 1985, Jackie’s nude body was found floating in Lake Springfield. She had been beaten, explaining the bloody jeans found in her vehicle. Jackie suffered a major head wound to the right side of her head, which was her official cause of death. Her body was found nude, which her jeans inside out and panties in one pant leg inside her vehicle. Sexual assault was suspected as the motive in this case given this information. Vaginal swabs were taken, confirming the presence of semen. The residents of Nixa could not imagine who could have done this to Jackie. They mourned their loss at a massive memorial service held at the high school in Nixa.
Jackie’s boyfriend and friends were all questioned. Jackie had a few customers at the local diner who would make advances towards her, but none that had ever tried to harm her. Some of the waitresses described one man in particular, named Gerry, and being particularly fond of Jackie and kind of creepy. Gerry was Gerald Carnahan, the son of a prominent Nixa businessman. Other witnesses told detectives that Carnahan’s distinctive blue pick-up truck was spotted at the 7-11 between 10:30 and 11:00 PM, when Jackie Johns had been purchasing her cigarettes and hairspray. Immediately, Gerry became a suspect in the case.
In 1985, Gerry Carnahan was a twenty-eight-year-old married man with a teenaged stepdaughter. He was employed by his father’s aluminum company and lived a financially comfortable life. Co-workers and others who knew Gerry described him as a manipulative man who always had a way to get what he wanted. He would sometimes go into a rage over little things, like if someone parked in his parking space. Gerry was no well-liked but was well protected by his family’s fortune and prominence in the community.
Detectives questioned Gerry, who denied having anything to do with the murder of Jackie Johns. He further insisted that he was not at the 7-11 the night Jackie disappeared. In fact, he claimed he was home with his stepdaughter, Sara. His wife was out of town on a business trip, but Sara confirmed her stepfather’s alibi. She said the two of them went out to get something to eat and ran some separate errands that day, but she insisted that both she and Gerry were home after 10pm and did not leave the house all night. She swore she would have noticed if Gerry had been gone from the home. Gerry agreed to take a lie detector test, but failed to show up the day it was scheduled.
Multiple witnesses placed Gerry at the 7-11 that night, despite he and Sara’s statements to the contrary. These witnesses came forward separately and described the very distinct truck in detail. Another witness came forward as well. This witness, Gerry’s own brother, said he saw Gerry’s truck parked along Highway 160 the night of the crime. This was highly suspicious, but not enough to arrest Gerry Carnahan for Jackie’s murder. As Gerry headed off to Los Angeles for business in January of 1986, with a strong possibility of leaving the United States, the State’s Attorney charged Gerald Carnahan with evidence tampering.
The evidence tampering charge stated that Gerald Carnahan clearly lied about his alibi, as confirmed by multiple witnesses including his own brother. Sara testified on his behalf, confirming his alibi. Despite this, the judge did not feel there was sufficient evidence under the law to substantiate the charge of evidence tampering, so the case was dismissed. Sara then faced perjury charges related to her testimony. She, too, was found not guilty of any crime. Despite best efforts, there just wasn’t enough evidence to charge Gerry with Jackie’s murder. There were also no other viable suspects identified as the case went cold.
In 1987, Debbie Sue Lewis’s vehicle was found abandoned close to the location that Jackie’s Camaro had been found in 1985. Like Jackie’s vehicle, Debbie’s was left with the door open and her belongings inside. The thirty-one-year old nurse was a previous ex-love interested of Gerry Carnahan. Gerry was also spotted at the same bar as Debbie Sue the night she disappeared. Her remains were found months later, but no evidence could conclusively link Carnahan to her murder. Kelle Ann Workman, age twenty-four, disappeared while mowing the lawn at a cemetery in Dogwood, a tiny town in Southwest Missouri, in 1989. Her body was found a week later in Christian County. Her autopsy listed homicidal violence as the cause of death, but no signs of sexual assault were noted. Her case remains unsolved as well, with some suspecting Gerald Carnahan of being involved.
In June of 1992, three women from Springfield, Missouri disappeared. Sherrill Levitt and her eighteen-year-old daughter Suzanne Streeter disappeared along with Suzanne’s friend, eighteen-year-old Stacy McCall. All three of the women’s vehicles were found in the driveway with the keys and purses inside. It is rumored around Southern Missouri that Sherrill used to cut Gerald Carnahan’s hair. Although no credible evidence linking Carnahan, the people of Christian County suspect Gerry Carnahan of being involved. The women have never been found.
By 1992, Gerald Carnahan was having lots of problems. In November his wife asked for an order of protection stating Gerry was “abusing several antidepressants and getting drunk every day. He had begun waving a pistol while he staggered around their home. He attacked his wife with a hot iron. He had run over Pat’s foot with a car. He vowed he wouldn’t kill her because with a quick death she wouldn’t suffer enough. He wished he could give her a sexually transmitted disease.” (Pawlaczyk & Hundsdorfer, 2012). She asked for an order of protection but dropped the request soon after. Eventually Pat did divorce Gerry.
In March of 1993, Gerry and a friend were driving down the street when Gerald spotted an eighteen-year-old woman. He asked his friend to stop the car, after which he chased the girl, pulling her into a ditch. The young woman was able to escape and quickly identified the vehicle and suspect. It was Gerald Carnahan. Gerry was charged with attempted kidnapping. That July, while awaiting trial, police were called to Carnahan’s home. He was intoxicated and brandished a shot gun before kicking an officer. Assault of a police officer was added to his pending charges.
In September of 1993, Gerry broke into a rival business’s property, burglarized it, and then set it on fire. Forensic evidence and witness statements pointed the finger directly at Gerald Carnahan. He was charged with burglary and arson, which he plead guilty to. For the attempted kidnapping, Gerry was sentenced to two years in prison. For the assault on the officer, he was given an additional fifteen months in prison. On the arson and burglary charge he received his harshest sentence, four years. Gerald Carnahan was released from prison for these crimes on September 19th, 1997. He remained the prime suspect in Jackie John’s murder case, but there was not enough evidence to charge him in the cold case.
Jackie’s case was not forgotten. Her mother died in 1988, but her father spent decades praying that justice would be served for his daughter. In 2006, a detective working cold cases learned that a vaginal swab containing semen had been collected. The evidence was secured and sent out for DNA testing. A profile was developed and compared to Jackie’s boyfriend at the time of her death, who voluntarily provided a sample. It was not a match. They detectives ran the DNA through numerous databases, such as CODIS, but did not return any matches. There was no DNA on record for Gerald Carnahan to compare the sample to, prompting police to seek a warrant. Considering his history of attempted kidnapping, it is disturbing that his DNA was not collected and put on file during his incarceration.
Detectives described Gerald Carnahan as nervous and maybe even tearful as they collected the buccal swab of his DNA in 2007. The DNA was a match to the DNA from the crime scene. With this, a judge issued the arrest warrant for Gerald Carnahan. Gerry was arrested August 9th, 2007.He was charged with the rape and murder of Jackie Johns, twenty-two years after her tragic death. In March of 2008, it was announced that the state would not seek the death penalty. The primary reason for this was the age and health status of Jackie’s father, who wished to see justice served before his death. Despite this, the case did not go to trial until 2010, twenty-five years after the murder.
The evidence against Carnahan included the witnesses placing him at the 7-11, his brother placing his vehicle near the spot where Jackie’s car had been found, and the DNA evidence. Additionally, Gerald’s former stepdaughter, Sara, now testified that she was not sure if Gerald had left that night or not. Gerald Carnahan was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Despite numerous appeals, Gerald Carnahan continues to live out his life behind the prison walls. Although suspected in other cases in the area, Gerald Carnahan has not been charged in any other case. Les Johns found peace after Carnahan’s conviction of his daughter’s murder. He passed away in 2013, with a piece of mind that Gerald Carnahan would never be released from prison.
Pawlaczyk, G. & Hundsdorfer, B. (2012). Murder On a Lonely Road. Berkely Books.
Davis, R. (1993). “I’m Just an Average Guy”. The Springfield News-Leader. 12 Dec 1993
Gerald Carnahan Murders Missouri Beauty Queen Jackie Johns | Crime News (oxygen.com)
Jacquelin Sue “Jackie” Johns (1965-1985) - Find a Grave Memorial
Springfield Leader and Press (1985). Two Women, Two Mysteries. 21 June 1985
Trial Date Set In Gerald Carnahan Murder Trial: - The Crime Scene (crimesceneinvestigations.blogspot.com)
Baranyai, J. (2007). Nixa community jubilant over Carnahan’s arrest. The Springfield News-Leader. 17 Aug 2007
Unsolved Ozarks murders include woman last seen mowing cemetery (news-leader.com)
Jackie Johns, Gerald ‘Gerry’ Carnahan: Nixa, Missouri, Cold Case Murder Of Woman Found Dead In Lake Springfield Profiled On ‘Swamp Murders’ (inquisitr.com)
UNSOLVED HOMICIDE: KELLE ANN WORKMAN – LAST SEEN ALIVE (lastseenalivepodcast.com)
Pokin Around: Abducted in 1987, what happened to Debbie Lewis? (news-leader.com)