The town doesn’t look much different from thousands of other rural communities across the Midwest. There’s a thrift shop with an ever-rotating display of Pyrex, a Casey’s General Store with greasy pizza, train tracks that cut through its center. But once you know the truth of this place, you can’t unsee it.
For two days in early December 1991, one man held California, Missouri, hostage to its own terror. First he shot and killed a sheriff’s deputy, Leslie Roark, and before he was done, three more people were dead: Pam Jones, Cooper County Sheriff Charles Smith and Miller County Deputy Sandra Wilson.
California’s main drag has reminders of those shootings 28 years ago. The house where the killer hid from police sits a block from the old jail building that served as sheriff’s headquarters. The jail is a block from the funeral home where the victims’ services were held. The street itself was along the route for a Christmas parade held to remember the four people murdered.
California is my home, a sleepy town of 4,300 people, 15 minutes west of Jefferson City, the state’s capital. It boasts the longest continuously running county fair west of the Mississippi, established in 1866. It’s just large enough to support a McDonald’s but not quite big enough for more than one pizza chain. A freight train thunders through town every hour or so and deafens the main square.
I grew up roughly 15 minutes from the house where the first deputy was killed, but I was 19 years old before I learned what happened there. It’s hard to imagine such silence these days, in an age where mass shootings have the power to transform unheard-of places like Columbine and Newtown into a shared national shorthand for chaos, terror and carnage. It’s hard to imagine the deaths of three law enforcement officers, and the wife of another, not being discussed constantly, even decades later. While the tragedy warranted attention from The New York Times, 1991 predated the tectonic shift in American culture where personal grievances led to mass slaughter on a ridiculously regular basis.
I was surprised nobody told me. But then again, why would anyone? It’s not something to teach in school. Twenty-eight years ago sits right between outdated gossip and not yet ready for the history curriculum. So it’s left to linger as a difficult memory but not something to talk about. And the town has moved on.
My mother died when I was 7 years old. That makes me both close to loss and far away from it. But it’s safe to say I’m familiar with the aftermath. Maybe that’s why I’m here, covering murders nearly 30 years old. You have to know what Jim Johnson did to understand what happens next in California, Missouri, but at this point in the story, it’s all aftermath. The events themselves are secondary to what has grown up around them in the intervening years. How this place, my hometown, reconciled its past. How we move on, even as scars remain.
It all began inside James Johnson’s home.
Early in the evening of Dec. 9, 1991, among the cornfields and cow pastures south of Jamestown, Jerri Wilson came home to a fight. Jamestown, Clarksburg and California are a trio of small towns within 15 minutes of one another in rural Moniteau County. Wilson lived with Johnson, her husband, and her 17-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, Dawn Becker. Her daughter and husband were arguing over the phone bill. They were screaming over each other. Johnson had removed every phone in the house and put them in the back of his car. Becker was crying.
“I can’t take it anymore,” Johnson told his wife. Tensions had been running high between Johnson and his stepdaughter, leaving Wilson in the middle. When she came home from work that evening, Johnson issued his wife an ultimatum. Either Becker leaves, or he would. Wilson chose her daughter.
Johnson pulled out the rifle that was sitting in the corner of the room and pointed it at the teenager’s head. Wilson knew the gun was loaded. The guns in the house were always loaded.
“You’re not afraid of me are you?”
Johnson asked. Wilson told him that if he was going to shoot anyone, then he’d better shoot her first.
Ten minutes later, about 7:30 p.m., Moniteau County Deputy Leslie Roark arrived. Johnson demanded to know which of the two women had called the police; but Wilson and Becker both insisted they hadn’t. Although he’d worked in law enforcement before, Roark became a deputy just six months earlier. He’d been named an Outstanding Young Man of America by the United States Junior Chamber two years ago.
“You better get your ass back in the car,” Johnson yelled through the front screen door. Wilson insisted she and her daughter were fine and that there was no reason for the deputy to stay. Roark said he’d leave once he could see Becker to ensure she wasn’t hurt. Johnson brought the teenager to the door.
Roark returned to his car. But as Wilson watched from inside the house, Johnson opened the screen door, pulled his .38 caliber Colt revolver out of his waistband and shot into Roark’s squad car.
Johnson turned back to her and said, “I’m in trouble now.” He sat down at the kitchen table.
“We were frozen,” Wilson said during the trial. “We didn’t know what to do. We just stood there.”
A few minutes later, Johnson went outside and opened the car door. Roark was inside, still alive and moaning as Johnson raised the handgun again. The coroner later reported that Roark was killed by two shots to the head at close range. Execution style. He was 27.
“I’m in trouble now,” Johnson repeated as he came back into the house. “He’s dead.”
Johnson loaded ammunition and at least three weapons into his Monte Carlo, told Wilson and Becker he wasn’t going to hurt them and ordered them not to speak to anyone. Then he drove off. Wilson immediately ran to the deputy’s car and, using the police radio, called for help. All the phones were still in Johnson’s car.
By the time I heard this story, I was in college.
It happened by chance, at Jalisco Mexican restaurant on Buchanan Street over a dinner of fajitas and taco platters.
My dad, brother and I were eating with our neighbors David and Mary Lou Hoellering. Inviting them out was our way of thanking them for watching the farm while we were in Memphis on vacation. In the midst of the meal, my father asked how David Hoellering became a prison guard at the nearby Tipton Correctional Center. He’d been doing it for over 20 years.
And so began the story. About Jim Johnson and about the murders. How Hoellering had been friends with Johnson. How he used to take Johnson’s parents to visit their son on death row.
I was shocked this was the first time I was hearing this story. The silence made it feel shameful. Like the fact that it happened here marks California as a town that produces killers, and in one collective PR move, residents decided that it’s nothing they want to make particularly public. There’s a lot more about California that people prefer to talk about, like our thriving Future Farmers of America program or our famed county fair. Not the murders.
Sitting there drinking a cocktail, our neighbor explained how Johnson told him he thought he would make a good prison guard. And on that encouragement, he took the training and started working at the correctional center, where he remains. The idle word of a death row inmate launched a 20-plus-year career.
He paused to spear a piece of chicken. “Couldn’t see him after that though. Can’t visit a prisoner if you’re a guard.”
The night of Dec. 9, 1991, Johnson drove the 20 miles from Jamestown to Clarksburg.
He arrived at the home of Pam and Kenny Jones. Pam was a high school English teacher in Clarksburg who kept her dark, curly hair cut short. She was active in the First Christian Church.
That evening, Kenny was out of the house working on a 4-H project with their two sons. Their two daughters were at home with Pam, who was hosting a Christmas party and Bible study with the Christian Women’s Fellowship chapter of her church.
Pauline Barnett attended the party, and remembered Pam, dressed in a red jumpsuit, reading to the circle of about 10 women. Barnett saw a flash from the window behind Pam. She heard three shots. “She just threw her head back and slid down on the floor,” Barnett said during the trial. Pam slipped from the chair and fell to the ground.
She was pronounced dead at 11:35 p.m. at University Hospital in Columbia. She was 38.
It’s easy to reduce people to defining moments.
I am motherless. It wouldn’t surprise me if that was how those I grew up with defined me.
My mother died from the flu when I was in elementary school. Her absence is more real to me than her presence was. I have never liked being known for it, dragging tragedy around all the time. It made it hard to be anything else. I could be very smart and very clever, but mostly I was motherless.
It’s human nature to identify with the victims who remind you of yourself. So I think of the Jones girls. It would be worse for them. They have a tragedy attached to them that was a thousand times more public than mine. It would be impossible to shake. Something like, “the girl whose mother died” is a tough narrative to be pinned under, but “the girl whose mother was murdered” would be twice as heavy.
It would be worse if they look like her, I’d imagine. I have my mother’s hair and nose and build and laugh. To my mother’s family I appear more like a ghost than a person. You can’t be yourself and a ghost all at once.
Deputy Sheriff Russell Borts arrived home from the crime scene about 1 a.m.
He was changing clothes before returning to the local jail, which was serving as a temporary headquarters in the search for Johnson.
Standing in the bedroom, he was on the phone with a fellow deputy, talking over what he’d seen at Johnson’s house. He’d just heard his neighbor’s dog barking when he felt what he thought was the phone receiver exploding in his hand. It wasn’t until he felt a burst of pain in his chest that he realized what was happening. Borts was shot four times. Bullets struck him in the chest, the hand and the face. He fell to the floor and scrambled for another phone to call an ambulance.
During his trial, Johnson said he had gone there to confess. But when he heard Borts say his name on the phone, he shot through the window. The men had known each other since they were 5 years old; they sang together in the church choir.
“He was like part of the family,” Borts said about the man who shot him.
Johnson walked the two blocks from Borts’ home to the county jail where law enforcement from several jurisdictions had gathered to assist in the manhunt. From outside, Lt. Terry Moore of the Missouri State Highway Patrol had heard the shots from Borts’ house and ran into the jail building to alert the others. A group emerged shortly after, Moore right behind Cooper County Sheriff Charles Smith and another deputy. Other shots rang out. Instinctively, Moore dived for cover, not sure where the attack came from. Smith fell on the ground. The medical examiner would later say that Smith was struck by four bullets: one in the back, one in the neck, another in the right cheek. The last one hit the back of his head — it was the fatal blow. Smith was a Vietnam veteran who’d survived four tours. He was 54. From a new vantage point, Moore then saw Miller County Deputy Sandra Wilson in her car under a street light. She attempted to take cover but was shot in the back; the bullet perforated her heart. She died minutes later. She was 42.
People tell similar stories about the shootings.
Ask the woman at the City Hall reception desk, or the reporters at the California Democrat, or the courthouse information officer what happened that night and day, and you'll hear common memories.
“It was scary.”
“Things like this don’t happen here.”
“I still remember where I was.”
Mary Ann Clennin tells me her story while we sit at the California Nutrition Center, a gathering place for the town’s seniors with a $4 lunch for those 60 and older. It’s a dimly lit building with people quietly chatting, playing cards and dominos. I’ve known Clennin since I was 4. She’s like a second grandma to me.
Clennin recalls being at home when she heard about the shooting and the resulting manhunt.
She was sitting at her kitchen table watching the little box television on the counter when the lockdown was announced. The local television station broadcasted Johnson’s picture as well as a warning that he was armed. The authorities had set up roadblocks in and out of California. Patrols were searching house to house as they tried to track down Johnson, with the help of more than 150 officers from surrounding jurisdictions. Businesses were instructed not to open the next day, and the local school closed. The National Guard had been called in, and a helicopter was circling the county. They were told to stay inside and keep the blinds closed, she says. She thought of all the times she and Johnson had played together as children. Their parents had been family friends, and they had gone to school together. His parents couldn’t have their own children and had adopted Johnson when he was 2.
On the night of the shooting, when Clennin’s husband, Paul, came back from taking care of the cows, she told him the news. She remembers that they discussed what they would do if Johnson came to their home. They kept guns in the house, and they knew Johnson was armed. But they both agreed that they didn’t think they’d be able to shoot him. He had been their friend. Their shared past would have outweighed Johnson’s present.
Dorothymae Miller noticed the helicopters.
It was the night of Dec. 9, and Miller slept through the noise overhead. Early the next morning on Dec. 10, the 82-year-old received a call from her daughter informing her of the shootings and the ongoing manhunt. She told her mother to lock her door. Miller was heading out to do just that when someone grabbed her. When Miller started to yell, Johnson put his hand over her mouth. Her first thought was, “Oh, this must be the man.”
“Don’t yell; I’m not going to hurt you,” Johnson instructed as he followed her inside. He told her he needed a place to stay and didn’t give her an option to refuse. Once inside she could see the two rifles he carried. Miller, a diabetic, told Johnson she needed to eat. She cooked breakfast, and they ate together at her kitchen table. Afterward, he asked to borrow a radio, and he lay in bed and listened. She asked him several times throughout the day to turn himself in, but he told her he wasn’t ready.
She turned on the TV, and news of the manhunt came on the screen.
“Did you kill somebody last night?” Miller asked.
“Yes, but I didn’t mean to.”
By this time, he had killed four people.
He requested several items, including a box of matches and a roll of masking tape. Miller agreed, but said no when he asked to use her car even though he said he’d only take it to the edge of town.
Miller told him she had plans to go to a Christmas party that afternoon, and she needed to attend or the people at the party would get suspicious. The carpool came to pick her up at 3 p.m., and after nine hours of sharing her home with a killer, she was allowed to go. As she left the house, Johnson commented how pretty her dress was.
Once they were out of sight of the house, Miller and her carpool alerted the police, and law enforcement arrived at the residence with a special emergency response team. Johnson spoke with a crisis specialist, Officer Terry St. Clair, on the phone. The negotiation between them took over two hours.
“They’re all around me.”
“Who’s all around you?” St. Clair asked.
“The Viet-Cong.” Johnson was a Vietnam veteran. Two years later, these experiences formed the basis of his defense in court. The transcript between Johnson and police is fractured with him saying he hadn’t seen his commander in days and asking why the operator spoke “American.” But he also said his marriage was over and wanted to know what the press was saying about him. Most damningly, he spoke bitterly about local law enforcement, the people he had targeted during his killing spree.
Finally, Johnson gave up his three weapons, surrendered and was arrested.
Rumors are persistent, even after 28 years.
People are still trying to divine their own answers to why the shooting happened. At the Good Hair Day hair salon on the outskirts of Clarksburg, Robin Arnold remembers how the town lockdown affected her.
“I missed two days of beauty school,” she says as she bustles around the salon. “And you pay by the day, so I had to pay for two days I didn’t even use.”
Her sister Rita Arnold sits reading a magazine as she waits her turn for a haircut. The family reunion is a coincidence, but Rita also had run-ins with Johnson.
“You know, Jim drove me home from the racetrack when I locked my keys in my car a week before it happened.”
“Really?" Robin says. “You never told me that.”
“Yes, he did!”
They have different theories about why Johnson did what he did.
Rita doesn’t look up from her magazine as she comments, “That fruitcake of a girlfriend of his was fooling around with the police department,” and that’s why Johnson targeted the police.
Robin disagrees. She had heard that Johnson did “some things” with his stepdaughter, though she adds that Johnson had always denied it. Her theory is that Pam Jones was the real target of the spree. Jones was a teacher at Dawn Becker’s school, and the thought was that Becker told her what was going on. Johnson had killed her to keep the story quiet.
The rumors that circle around the Johnson shooting are rampant and impossible to confirm. Ray Scherer was a reporter for the California Democrat at the time of the shooting. “I never paid much attention to the rumors that were flying around,” he says. “They’re just unverifiable.”
Two years after the shootings, Johnson's legal team offered a defense.
It was less salacious defense than the reasons discussed in the local hair salon. The team argued that Johnson was experiencing a war flashback during the shootings. His lawyers described the death of a friend in combat and a baby who was stomped to death by fellow soldiers as the root of the post-traumatic stress disorder that contributed to the shootings. The prosecution was quick to counter that Johnson was in Vietnam for only two weeks.
The exact reason for the shootings can no longer be known, but does it really matter? The defense didn’t work for the jury, and Johnson received a death sentence. That sentence was carried out by lethal injection Jan. 9, 2002. Always a religious man, Johnson’s last words were, “May the God of all grace bring you peace.” He was 53.
And then it was over.
The shootings have more or less faded into history, for better or for worse. There’s a plaque for Leslie Roark in the sheriff’s office and one for Pam Jones at the Clarksburg school, as well as a scholarship fund in her name. Kenneth Jones was elected to represent the 117th District in the Missouri House of Representatives, serving from 2005 until 2011. One of his sons, Caleb Jones, represented the 50th District from 2011 to 2017*. When I asked my dad how I could have gone so long not knowing, he said:
“It happened a long time ago. It’s already been talked out.”
And maybe that’s true. As the arrow of time continues forward, nothing can stay in the forefront forever. Maybe that’s for the best. If this one event had become California’s defining moment, it wouldn’t have been the town that I grew up in, and it wouldn’t have been the people I grew up with. It certainly would have been darker and sadder than it is now.
As it is, a train still rattles through town every hour, and the Casey’s still serves greasy pizza. The county fair retains its title as the longest continuous fair west of the Mississippi. It’s my home. We’ve moved forward. We have not been defined by one terrible moment. None of us are.
*CORRECTION: The years Kenneth Jones and Caleb Jones served in the House of Representatives have been corrected.