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Sunday, June 27, 2004

Alis Ben Johns

Dawn of the Dead, Autumn of the Alive
...or...The Answer to Question #1


In a recent post, I solicited questions from my minions. I opened the floor, opened my doors, and offered to answer anything. I figured since I made the offer, I should probably come through. So here goes.

Question #1: Go back to the day you felt most alive. The day you could feel the blood pumping through your veins. The day you wanted to last forever. And tell me about it. --CJ


If you've ever smelled a Missouri spring night, void of humidity, the musty scent of decaying autumn leaves just fleeing the air, you know what it smelled like that night. You know what April smells like in the middle of Missouri when the lakes aren't so far away and the animals in the nearby trees feel like fucking. It's spring and it adds energy to almost anyone who can stand to suck it into their lungs.

The past six months of my life had felt like spring. I'd ridden out the end of fall and full cold of winter in a springlike daze. I'd met my future wife the year before. She'd made me feel more alive than any woman ever had. She'd teased me with clothes that weren't sexy. She found a way to wear them that made me wander in circles, mumbling and counting to fifty. Then, later, she abandoned all the clothes and wore nothing but a sterling silver necklace. If I wrote about that, corporate filters would block this site and you wouldn't be able to read it at work.

Gambling and women have always been the two things that made my heart beat faster. That spring, I'd not yet found Vegas, but I was getting my fix. It was passive-aggressive risk-taking at its finest.

I was a little more than a month away from graduating college. Sleep was reserved for the time I wasn't drinking or rolling around in the covers with the woman who had somehow elevated herself above the standard muse of the moment. The rest of the time I skipped class and thought about Alis.

I've written about Alis Ben Johns before. Some people called him Joe. Some people called him Indian Joe. He was a backwoods Missouri boy with little intelligence, but an incredible knack for surviving outdoors.

He was also a born killer.

By the time I got interested in Alis, he'd already killed two people. The first victim was a willing participant in a drunken roadside argument. Alis shot guy named Teddy along Route KK in Pulaski County, MO. He went on the run, which was easy for him. He claimed--and most people believed--he could sneak up on a cop in the middle of the woods and grab the cop's gun before the officer was ever the wiser.

The cops started getting a little more eager to catch the woodsman after he killed an old man named Leonard. Like he would many times in the future, Alis broke into the old boy's house and killed him for no real reason other than he could.

A week or so later, as the manhunt started to get a little crazy, I found myself sitting in the old dude's house. It was the only time in a career that's now spanned eight years that I've ever seen a law enforcement agency convert a murder victim's house into a command post. It was first time the cops took me back and let me take a look at the actual murder scene, blood stains and all.

They had maps strewn all over the room, coffee makers doing overtime, and a secretary working in the den. It was odd with a capital "O" and I was just beginning to get off on it.

I only worked part-time for a TV station then and I was not required to follow the Alis story wherever it went. Still, I spent an inordinate amount of time tracking through back woods and gullies, doing target practice at lake-area gun shops (I was a crack shot with a .40 caliber), and looking at every man's face to see if he might be Alis.

No one was really surprised when Alis killed again. He didn't seem to have much of a capacity to understand that the more people he killed, the harder the cops were going to look for him and the more his picture would be on TV. So, when he killed an old lady named Wilma in southwest Missouri, it stood to reason that the manhunt would intensify.

At that point, I actually started looking for a woman. Everyone knew Alis had a mama somewhere, but no one could find her. Though I can't remember exactly how I did it, I tracked her down and became the first reporter in Missouri to do so. I eventually made a few hundred bucks selling the interview to CBS' 48 Hours program.

At one point in the interview she looked up at me and said, "They're going to kill him." I couldn't make myself comfort her by telling her it wasn't going to happen because I knew that if a cop had an open shot at Alis, he'd take it.

One night in late March, I found myself at another odd command post. The cops and media had taken over a small bar in Benton County, MO near Cole Camp. They had reason to believe Alis and his girlfriend Beverly were hiding in the area. It had become a full-blown Bonnie and Clyde story without all the messy bank robberies. I stood in a crush of media, barking questions at the county sheriff. National network camera rolled on either side of me. My voice would later be heard on national TV asking the sheriff about Alis' movement around the county woods. At the time, that seemed about like the coolest thing ever. That night I spent the night in a noiseless cabin, soothing my nerves with a beer or two, and wondering how close Alis was.

Then came the night. A Water Patrol officer was checking out a house and ran right into Alis. The killer burst out of the door with a .22 to his girlfriend's head and screamed out, "I've got a hostage. I'll shoot her!"

Just like mama predicted the officer leveled his gun and fired a shot. The elusive Alis Ben Johns was on the ground in a second.

I drove at nearly 100mph all the way to the hospital in Sedalia. When I got there, I found almost every door locked. The glass emergency bay doors were blocked by cops and media. The front doors were sealed shut.

These days I probably wouldn't do what I did that night. I wandered around the perimeter of the facility until I found a janitor who would let me inside. Once inside, I sneaked up to the emergency room where I found a friendly face: The sheriff of Pulaski County. He fed me a little bit of information about Alis' condition and how the arrest went down. Minutes later, I was giving live reports from inside the hospital for my employer and my hometown station in Springfield.

I miss those days of pure, new journalism. I wasn't getting paid anything and didn't care. It was pure adrenaline and sex and one of the best tomes of my life. I wanted that night to last forever. It wasn't the only one that got me off, but it's one of the first and the one I remember most clearly.

Alis is on death row now. That woman in the unsexy sexy clothes is downstairs writing thank you cards to the girls who gave her baby shower gifts. And me? I'm sitting in the dark, drinking unsweetened iced tea and trying to decide which is more important: a sense of home or a sense of accomplishment.

But that's another answer for another question.

Previously: Indian Joe and Why I'm Nuts

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