For three months, the family of James Johnson worked to trace his final moments before he disappeared from south Modesto in December.
They accessed his cell phone records and called the people with whom he last spoke. They showed his picture at businesses around town. They called hospitals, jails and coroner facilities.
On March 17, Delores Johnson called the Stanislaus County Coroner’s Office – it was about the third time she’d called the facility. She again provided a description of her brother, his tattoos and a large scar on his stomach from surgery. This time, deputies told her they had a potential match, the body of a man who’d been pulled from the San Joaquin River the week before.
The body was found March 9, floating among driftwood near the north shore of the river by the Old Fisherman’s Club, just past the Stanislaus/San Joaquin River confluence. It was 12 miles from the Budget Inn Motel on South Ninth Street, James Johnson’s last known location at the time of his disappearance.
“For him to just disappear like that is hard because he is so athletic and strong and always on the alert and lookout, always telling me to be careful,” Delores Johnson said.
She wanted to see the body but she was told she couldn’t due to its condition. Instead, her mother and another family member went to the Coroner’s Office to provide DNA samples for an official identification. The family’s fears were confirmed a few weeks ago when the DNA results came back.
“It is real hard, you know, we are happy we got some closure …,” Delores Johnson said, beginning to cry. “And now I am breaking down. It is really, really hard – you don’t get to see the body you don't really know it is him and you just hold out the hope that maybe” the DNA won’t come back as his.
She described her 56-year-old brother as a hard-working, family-oriented, kindhearted, “all around good guy” who was “always cracking jokes, teasing to make you laugh.” She said he enjoyed riding his motorcycle, riding horses and working out.
Although the coroner’s office says it has not determined Johnson’s cause or manner of death, the information the family uncovered during the three months they searched for James Johnson has led them to suspect foul play.
James Johnson worked for a trucking company that hauled scrap metal from Modesto to other parts of the state. He would ride with Valentin Bonilla and helped with the cargo.
Johnson lived in Los Angeles but would also stay at his mother’s house in Sacramento. When he was working with Bonilla, he would sleep in the big rig, which they parked along Carpenter Road.
Bonilla said he and James Johnson were like brothers. He said Johnson counseled his teenage son when he got into some trouble.
On Saturday, Dec. 17, they ended a week of work and Bonilla was to drive James Johnson back to his mother’s house the following morning. He left him at the truck at about 6 p.m.
Bonilla said he returned to the truck the next morning. It was locked, the parking lights were on, but James Johnson wasn’t there.
Several days later, still with no word from Johnson, Bonilla called police to report him missing.
Family, meanwhile, had been calling Johnson’s cell phone but never got an answer. They eventually got ahold of Bonilla.
Delores Johnson accessed her brother’s cell phone records and called the numbers of the last outgoing calls on his phone.
She got a hold of a cab driver who was hesitant to say much but told her to check the Budget Inn on South Ninth Street. She called another number that was associated with a room at the Budget and talked to a man who said he’d seen Johnson a few days before.
Delores Johnson went to Modesto several times looking for James, handing out his picture at hospitals and businesses.
In January, Delores and James’ brother, Gerald Johnson, drove up from Los Angeles and got to Modesto around 3 a.m. He said he’d planned to stay at the motel until he pulled onto South Ninth Street and looked around at the neighborhood.
“I couldn’t believe that motel, it was like a horror movie for me,” he said. “It was like, ‘What would he be doing here?’ ”
Delores and Gerald said they’ve learned the motels on Ninth Street are plagued by drugs, prostitution and violence. A man was fatally stabbed at the Budget just a few weeks after James Johnson’s disappearance.
The siblings acknowledge something illicit might have brought him to the motel and ultimately contributed to his death.
Gerald Johnson said he talked to management and guests at the hotel and handed out his phone number. He said after returning home to Los Angeles he got a call from the woman who said she saw four men beating up James Johnson around the time of his disappearance.
Gerald and Delores said they have given all this information to detectives with the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department, both before and after James’ body was found and positively identified. However, they feel little was or is being done and that all the clues they have so far they obtained on their own.
They said authorities have classified the death as a drowning and that James did not have any fractured bones or other signs of internal trauma. They said, however, that his body had badly decomposed after three months in the river and that evidence of a struggle probably was no longer detectable.
The Stanislaus County Coroner’s Office has not officially listed a cause or manner of death because both remain under investigation by homicide detectives. The detective on the case declined to comment.
The Tuolumne River is about a half-mile from the Budget Inn.
“He didn’t walk ... from that hotel and get into the river,” Gerald Johnson said.
Family members believe James Johnson got into some kind of altercation and was taken there and dumped in the river. They worry that his case will be forgotten and they will never know what happened to him.
They said his death has been devastating. James Johnson leaves behind an adult daughter and a 2-year-old daughter, his parents, four brothers and two sisters, grandchildren and nieces and nephews.
“This has taken a major toll,” Gerald Johnson said. “There is a difference sitting by somebody’s bedside and they are leaving whether they got into an accident or natural causes ... and you are able to put someone to rest, than when someone’s gone (and has) been in a river for three months; that is the part that is wrenching into your heart.”
Johnson’s family has established a Go Fund Me page to help with funeral expenses at https://www.gofundme.com/golden-gates-into-heaven
Anyone with information about Johnson’s disappearance or death is asked to call Crime Stoppers at (209) 521-4636. Tipsters can email through the Crime Stoppers website, www.stancrimetips.org,or text tips to CRIMES (274637) by typing “Tip704” plus a message. Callers to Crime Stoppers can remain anonymous and are eligible for a cash reward.