When a sheriff’s deputy showed up at a white clapboard house in the tiny, snow-covered farming community of Searles, Minn., on Jan. 24, the first thing that he noticed were the words scrawled in red spray paint across the screen door. In barely decipherable lettering, someone had spelled out a cryptic message about death, God, hell, and maybe a party.
Inside, he found an even stranger scene. According to a criminal complaint obtained by KSTP, a naked man opened the door and yelled that his wife was dead upstairs. The man, Duane Arden Johnson, later told investigators she had begged him to take her out of her nursing home so that she could die at home, and they had spent the last days of her life having a “death party” while “rocking out” to heavy metal and doing methamphetamine.
Prosecutors now contend that Debra Lynn Johnson, 69, died after overdosing on meth, and that her husband was to blame for giving her the drugs. On Monday, Duane Arden Johnson, 58, was charged with third-degree murder, the Mankato Free Press reported. He had previously been arrested in January and charged with felony criminal neglect in connection with his wife’s death.
According to the initial criminal complaint filed in Minnesota’s fifth judicial district, Debra Johnson had suffered from two heart attacks in the years leading up to her death, and had been diagnosed with high blood pressure, diabetes and affective disorder. In September 2018, a social worker helped move her into a nursing home located 70 miles north of Searles, but Duane Johnson had removed her from the facility against medical experts’ advice.
When Brown County Sheriff’s Deputy Jason Fairbairn appeared at his doorstep in January, Johnson allegedly said that his wife had been “shaking so violently” and he “couldn’t stand seeing her flop around anymore.” Asked why he hadn’t called an ambulance, he replied that the last time his wife had been taken to the hospital in New Ulm, the nearest town, “them motherf-----s revived her” and “made my life s---.”
After additional officers arrived at the house, they located Debra Johnson’s body at the top of a narrow stairway. Her corpse, which still felt warm to the touch, had been wrapped tightly from head to toe in a gray bedsheet fastened with a belt. Duane Johnson reportedly told them that he had “prepared the dead like the Bible told me to do” and followed the guidance of the Old Testament by “cleaning her, making her beautiful and wrapping her in linen."
Johnson also allegedly told police that his wife had been unable to eat or drink for the previous two days and had stopped taking her medications. He said that he had held her tight while she had convulsions so that she wouldn’t hurt herself on the floor, and turned the music up to full blast so that she wouldn’t hear him crying. She had been shaking so much that she couldn’t sleep, he added, and he had promised her a party because he couldn’t stand to watch her suffer any longer.
“I’m an idiot, I’m a moron,” he said, according to the affidavit. “I don’t need . . . I can’t lie because I’m too stupid to plan ahead and lie.”
During his interview with police, Johnson insisted that he didn’t mind taking care of his wife and had wanted to help her transition peacefully into death. They had spent five days listening to Quiet Riot’s “Metal Health,” he said, and he had used snow to moisten her mouth when she stopped drinking water. He also allegedly said that he had been doing meth for several days, and that he had given some to Debra to smoke approximately two and a half days before she died. She had wanted to “party” before her life came to an end, he explained.
Debra had also wanted to have sex with him one last time before she died, Duane Johnson told investigators, and he had acquiesced. He said that she hadn’t been able to speak, but her body told him that she was enjoying the experience. Afterward, he claimed, she appeared to have stopped trembling and was more at peace. She died about an hour and half later, and he washed her with a washcloth and wrapped her in the gray bedsheet, he said.
Johnson “referenced the Old Testament often and stated he didn’t assist his wife in her death and that he only wanted her to be comfortable,” authorities wrote in the affidavit. “He stated he was in less pain now that his wife had died because God had given him mercy and relieved some of his pain.”
The Brown County Sheriff’s Office wasn’t notified about Debra Johnson’s death until 11:44 a.m. on Jan. 24, but Duane Johnson told police that he thought she had passed away at around 8 a.m. that day. Asked about the discrepancy, he allegedly replied that his wife had asked him not to call 911 because she didn’t want to be in pain anymore, then later changed his story slightly and said that he had waited because he wanted to make sure that she was really dead. Police also noted in their affidavit that Johnson had claimed that his wife had disabled all the phones in the house so that he wouldn’t be able to call an ambulance, but officers had found that they appeared to be working.
In charging documents that were filed on Monday, prosecutors from the Brown County Attorney’s Office said that an autopsy had revealed Debra Johnson had died of methamphetamine toxicity, The Journal reported. Duane Johnson potentially faces a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison for the third-degree murder charges if he is found guilty of unintentionally causing her death by giving her a controlled substance. The felony criminal neglect charges carry a 10-year maximum sentence.
John Yost, Duane Johnson’s attorney, told The Washington Post that until he has a chance to go through all the evidence at length and consult a medical expert, his client won’t be entering a plea. He disputed prosecutors’ characterization of the autopsy results, arguing that there was no evidence linking Debra Johnson’s death to the presence of methamphetamine in her bloodstream. Yost also questioned their decision to charge Duane Johnson with murder, suggesting that their motives might be “political” in nature.
“I will say that my client loved his wife dearly and denies doing anything to harm her,” Yost said.
Asked about Johnson’s alleged admission that he had given his wife meth, Yost replied: “He told the police a lot of things. He claims to have committed crimes that were never committed.”
In particular, he pointed to the fact that Johnson had told authorities that he had at least 47 guns in his house, and that many of them were stolen. According to their affidavit, police searched the house and found hundreds of rounds of ammunition, but only six guns. Johnson was charged with receiving stolen property, a felony punishable with a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, when he was arrested in January in connection with his wife’s death. Yost said that there is no evidence any of the guns were stolen.
Sheriff’s department records show that Johnson has been held in the Brown County jail on $250,000 bail ever since his Jan. 24 arrest. According to the Free Press, he has past convictions stemming from assault and DWI charges and tested positive for methamphetamine after a 2014 DWI arrest.
More from Morning Mix: