'Good girl' turned killer



He certainly wasn't the kind of boyfriend Diane and Alan Johnson wanted for their 17-year-old daughter Sarah. But Sarah was head over heels in love with him. Santos had arrived in the small US town of Boise, Idaho, from Mexico in the summer of 2001 and had met Sarah at a dance. Soon they were going steady and Alan and Diane, both 52 and highly respected members of the small community, deeply disapproved, especially when Sarah, against their express wishes, began to stay out all night.

Diane's sister, Linda Vavold remembered going with her husband Jim to a meal at Diane and Alan's house in September, 2001. "We loved going there — they were great hosts and the food was wonderful. But this night they both looked really upset and depressed.     

"They told us that Sarah was out of control, missing school, spending all her time with Santos, and  even boasting that she was sleeping with him. Alan said he had had enough and intended to go to Santos' apartment and bring his daughter home. Jim volunteered to drive him there. Diane and I waited and eventually the door  was thrown open and Sarah marched in followed by Alan and Jim. 'Get to your room — you're grounded,' Diane shouted, and Sarah stamped off in a sulk. If looks could kill..."

The following morning, Linda and Jim were back in their farmhouse on the outskirts of Boise when Alan's mother called with terrible news. Alan and Diane were dead — brutally murdered in their home, slain at point-blank range with a shotgun. Linda remembers: "We were in utter shock. Then we got in the car and raced to Diane's house. When we arrived red police tape was across the house and blue lights were flashing everywhere. "Police wouldn't let us into the crime scene but sent us to a neighbour who was looking after Sarah. She came to the door her face streaked with tears.

I cuddled her and we wept together. She said: 'What's going to happen to me?' and sobbed as if her heart would break. I said she should come and stay with us." But first she had to be interviewed by police and Linda sat with the sobbing girl as she was questioned by detectives. She told them: "I was asleep in bed when I was  woken by gunshots. I got out of bed and ran to my parents' room, but the door was locked. I phoned the police and the ambulance and I wandered around in a daze until help came." Already police had their suspicions about the culprit. Jim Vavold had witnessed a row between Alan and Bruno Santos when they had gone to bring Sarah home. And Bruno had a record of violence.

The following day he was arrested and questioned by police but denied any involvement in the double killings. In the meantime an inquest jury was hearing the gruesome details of the shootings at the neat ranch-style house on Constitution Drive. The killings took place around 7am when the killer had crept into the couple's room and shot the sleeping Diane in the head with a rifle. Alan was in the shower, preparing for work.

Hearing the noise, he ran from the bathroom towards the bedroom and was shot full in the chest as he came through the bedroom doorway. He managed to reach the bed and collapsed beside Diane, who was already dead.  Alan must have died within minutes. The killer then left, locking the bedroom door.

Strangely, there was no sign of a break-in and nothing had been stolen. As police worked on their case against Bruno Santos, Sarah settled into a life with her aunt and uncle and tried to pick up the pieces. In fact she managed surprisingly well. She returned to school, played in a volleyball team and hung out with her friends. Linda remembered: "I encouraged her to behave normally — and sometimes I would wonder if she was acting a bit too normally...

"Incredibly it seemed that she didn't miss her parents at all. I would hear her laughing in the living room as she watched TV and one day she said: 'It's great living here — you're my mum now...' "

Two months later the bombshell fell. Linda had a phone-call from the local sheriff who said: "We are releasing Bruno Santos without charge and deporting him to Mexico. We have another major suspect now ... your niece Sarah...." Linda nearly dropped the phone. The sheriff said that detectives had found Sarah's pink bathrobe in a rubbish bin along with a leather glove. Both were covered with Alan and Diane's blood and Sarah's DNA. Linda recalled: "I was asked to bring Sarah to police headquarters but not to tell her why. I just said she needed to answer a few questions and scowling she got into the car. Down at the station Jim and I sat watching on CCTV as Sarah was questioned by detectives. Eventually they told her: 'We're charging you with the murder of your parents. We have your bathrobe with their blood on it.' There were no tears or tantrums — she was as cold and calm as if she was made of ice. She just said: 'I didn't do it', and didn't even flinch when they clamped handcuffs on her wrists. Two weeks after she was arrested, Sarah sent me a letter. It said: 'Why did you let them arrest me? Why didn't you fight for me? I hate you too'."

In February, 2004, Sarah Johnson pleaded not guilty to two counts of first-degree murder at Idaho District Court. She sat apparently unmoved in court, scribbling notes to her attorney Wayne Donaldson as prosecutor Jim Thomas claimed that she shot her parents in cold blood because they objected to her seeing Bruno Santos. Prosecutor Thomas claimed that she had taken her father's hunting rifle,  crept into her parents' room and shot them at point blank range. She had then taken knives from the kitchen and scattered them around the bedroom in a vain attempt to make it look like a gangland killing. "She killed her parents because they would not let her be with Bruno Santos," Jim Thomas told Judge Barry Wood and a jury.

"The accused's DNA was found on the victims, her clothes and the rifle. " He said that the state was not seeking the death penalty as the accused was so young, although they had the right to do so. But the defence's case was that the state had made a terrible mistake and Sarah Johnson had nothing to do with the killings. It was claimed that Sarah was not covered with any of her parents' blood and that the bathrobe found by police was not the one she was wearing at the time of the tragedy.

But the jury thought otherwise. Sarah, now 19, was jailed for life and sentenced to serve at least 30 years. For the first time during the trial she cried when the verdict was announced. Linda and Jim were in court for the sentence. "Diane and Alan were wonderful parents," Linda said afterwards. They loved Sarah and wanted to protect her. And she killed them for it. "What made a good girl become so evil?  We'll never know — because I never want to see Sarah again."  (Willard Roper/Tony James Features)

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