REGIONAL—Nearly two and half years after her death in a Virginia apartment, the family of Caroline Medicine-Chavez took a step toward justice when the man they’ve long suspected of killing Caroline was arraigned in a Virginia courtroom on Friday, Aug. 29.
Russell Shannon Johnson, 26, of 9160 Hakola Rd. in Hibbing, is charged with one count of second-degree murder for maliciously punishing the two year-old girl on the morning of March 21, 2012, resulting in her death. Johnson was living with Caroline’s mother, Jennifer Medicine, at the time, but Jennifer had left for an appointment earlier in the morning. Johnson remains in custody at the St. Louis County Jail on $500,000 bail.
Caroline’s family members were still adjusting to the stunning developments in the case as they gathered outside the Virginia courthouse following the arraignment.
“This is our first day of feeling relief, and feeling that Caroline really mattered,” said Roberta Porter, a great aunt of Caroline’s who lives on the Vermilion Reservation, near Tower. Family members had an idea that something big was finally happening in the case the previous day, when Virginia Police Chief Dennis Benz had texted Caroline’s grandmother, Bessie Medicine, asking her to call at 7 a.m. the next morning. Bessie said that when Chief Benz told her Johnson would be arraigned at 11:30 that morning, she was stunned. “I couldn’t even talk. I couldn’t believe it was finally happening.” Police had picked up Johnson Aug. 28 on the freshly-written warrant for murder and he had just spent his first night in jail.
It was a day that many of Caroline’s extended family thought might never come. Just six months after her death, Virginia police and St. Louis County prosecutors told members of Caroline’s family that investigators had insufficient evidence to charge Johnson—who was the only suspect from the beginning— and that, without additional information, the case could go no further.
A year later, when contacted by the Timberjay, Chief Benz called the case “closed.”
During a press conference following the arraignment, St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin and Virginia Police Chief Dennis Benz portrayed the investigation as “relentless.” When asked about the discrepancy between his earlier statements and the portrayal at the press conference, Benz said he had “used the wrong word,” when he stated, in writing, that the case was closed. “It was an active investigation the whole time,” he said. “We never gave up.”
Yet it was the efforts of Caroline’s family that eventually broke the case. From early on, the family had created and maintained a “Justice for Caroline” Facebook page, and in July, a person with close ties to Johnson, messaged Caroline’s family, saying he had important information related to the case. Bessie immediately contacted investigators and Chief Benz called the individual, identified in the complaint as J.R.M., who agreed to meet with investigators. On July 16, Benz and Special Agent Paul Gherardi, of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, met with J.R.M. and a second witness, identified as C.L., and investigators say their statements, combined with circumstantial evidence investigators initially found at the apartment, provided the basis for charges in the case.
The two individuals, it turned out, had witnessed, and even recorded, incriminating statements made by Russell and his twin brother Reed. Russell, who had been adopted by C.L.’s parents, was staying with her parents when she and her friend J.R.M. witnessed an argument between Russell and Reed. At one point, Reed called Russell “a baby murderer” and said that Russell had “pushed that girl into the wall.”
When C.L. asked Russell about the incident, he said he woke up “cranky” and when Caroline came up to him, crying, he pushed her and she flew into the wall and hit her head, losing consciousness. He was trying to revive her when his brother Reed showed up, and then went to a neighboring apartment to call 911.
A Virginia ambulance transported Caroline to the Virginia Regional Medical Center, where treating physicians detected no brain activity in the little girl. After removing her from a ventilator later that evening, Caroline died in the early morning of March 22, 2012.
Both J.R.M. and C.L. stated that they brought the death up again, over the Fourth of July, when Russell and Reed came to visit. J.R.M. began recording the argument in case he was attacked. That recording was made available to law enforcement, although Benz said little at the press conference about the details of the recording.
C.L. said both Russell and Reed had threatened to make reports to law enforcement about her if she said anything to investigators. But C.L., who recently obtained her nursing license, said she was mandated to report what she knew.
With the new information, St. Louis County medical examiner, Dr. Thomas Uncini revised the cause of Caroline’s death from unspecified head trauma, to homicide, clearing the way for the murder charge against Johnson. “I have full confidence that Russell Johnson will now face the consequences of his actions,” said Benz.
Attorney Todd Deal, of Virginia, represented Johnson at his arraignment, but the case was referred to the public defender’s office for future proceedings. Deal asked for $50,000 bail, but Anderson noted that Johnson had failed to appear for an Aug. 19 court hearing.
Johnson is set to appear at an omnibus hearing on the charges at 9:30 a.m. on Sept. 15.
Warning signs missed
County Attorney Mark Rubin, during Friday’s press conference, described Caroline’s death as a “tremendous tragedy.” Yet, it’s one that might have been avoided. In the five months that Johnson lived with Caroline and her mother in a Pine Mill Court apartment, the little girl had exhibited repeated signs of abuse.
At one point, about two months prior to the child’s death, Bessie noticed clumps of hair missing from her granddaughter’s head, which she reported to Indian Child Welfare officials on the Bois Forte Reservation, who took no action.
On March 3, 2012, just eighteen days prior to her death, Caroline was rushed by ambulance to the Virginia hospital, after suffering an earlier, unexplained head injury. The arriving ambulance crew found Caroline lying on a mattress and noted she was very lethargic. Her left pupil was dilated and both pupils were slow to respond. They noted “large deformities/contusions to the forehead with a small abrasion which appeared partially healed.”
At the time, both Jennifer and Russell told emergency responders that they were making breakfast in a downstairs kitchen, while Caroline was upstairs crying. “She was being crabby so I asked Russell to go get her,” said Jennifer during an interview with the Timberjay. “He came back down and said she tripped and fell. She wasn’t moving and her eyes were wide open and she was staring at the ceiling.”
The ambulance transported Caroline to VRMC, where she seemed to recover, which is why doctors opted against conducting a CT scan, which might have revealed internal injuries. Instead, doctors diagnosed a concussion and sent her home. But given the circumstances, they opted to refer the case to St. Louis County Social Services. “From the exam, I suspect accidental injury is most likely, but I recommend social services evaluation anyway,” wrote the treating physician on March 3.
Yet there is no record that hospital officials ever contacted Social Services following the March 3 incident, and no evaluation was ever made.
The knowledge that earlier intervention might have prevented Caroline’s death is something that lingers with members of the family. “Being her Dad, I probably should have been there,” said Cody Chavez, of Lake Vermilion. “But I can’t take back what’s happened.”
While the latest developments in the case are welcomed by the family, they don’t yet provide any closure on Caroline’s death. “On the one hand, I want to smile,” said Chavez. “But I also want to cry.”
Caroline’s mother Jennifer, who has had another child since Caroline’s death and is expecting again in December, said she’s relieved but can’t help thinking about what might have been. “It’s hard knowing that my kids will never know their big sister,” she said.
Grandma Bessie, to whom investigators gave special credit for her tireless quest for justice for Caroline, said she was looking forward to spending a bit more time with her granddaughter. “I’m ready to go home and put tobacco on her little grave,” she said.