News From Terre Haute, Indiana

July 20, 2013

Authorities find missing man’s car

Terre Haute-native Morgan Johnson’s vehicle located in retention pond

Lisa Trigg
The Tribune-Star

PLAINFIELD — After two years of searching and wondering, police finally caught a break in the Morgan Johnson missing person case, with the discovery of the missing Terre Haute native’s car early Friday.

An autopsy will be performed today on human remains found inside the car, which Plainfield Police said was pulled from the deep end of a shallow retention pond located less than a mile from where Johnson had rented a room at an Extended Stay motel in Plainfield along Indiana 267.

Johnson, 27, was last scene May 18, 2011 on motel video. He was known to have a seizure disorder.

Johnson’s car — a white 1995 Pontiac Grand Am — was identified by its Vigo County-issued license plate.

Police said the car had all of its doors locked, windows rolled up, the key in the ignition, and the gear in drive when investigators had the white passenger car removed from the retention pond located in the bend of Perry Road adjacent to the former Fundex Games property.

Detective Lt. Jeff Stephens declined to talk about the condition of the body found inside the vehicle when he spoke to media representatives during a news conference Friday afternoon at the Plainfield Police Department.

“I’m not even going to speculate about that,” Stephens said of the body. “Hopefully, tomorrow we will get a positive ID.”

A forensic pathologist will also examine the vehicle as part of the investigation, Stephens said.

The mother of Morgan Johnson — Terre Haute resident Ann Johnson Smith — was notified of the find Friday, Stephens said.

“She just had questions,” he said of Smith’s reaction to the news that her son’s body might have been found. “She wanted to know where it took place. Honestly, I think she was probably happy to have closure, but very sad as well.”

The car was found between 7 and 8 a.m. Friday with the assistance of Dennis and Tammy Watters of Illinois, who operate the non-profit business Team Watters Sonar Search and Recovery. The couple used a remote-controlled drone boat equipped with underwater sonar to search the small retention pond.

The pond is less than 100 yards long and about 50 yards wide, Detective Paul Williams said, and in most areas it is less than 7 inches deep.

Watters said the drone got hung up in the shallow areas of the pond twice, but when it scanned the deepest east end of the pond — which is several yards below street level — the sonar picked up a clear image of the car.

The vehicle was partially buried up to mid-door in the silt bottom, Stephens said, noting that the retention pond had been checked on prior occasions for the missing car. The water is murky, he said, and the car was not visible from the surface.

“I would never have thought that pond would hold a car,” Stephens said.

It is unknown how long the car had been in the pond, he said, but Johnson’s cell phone was found inside the vehicle, and it was last used on the night he disappeared. At a certain time, all calls to the phone start going to voicemail, Stephens said, and it is believed that that is the time that the car left the road, traveled down the embankment and into the water.

Johnson’s missing person’s case has been revisited many times during the past 26 months by Plainfield police. All seven of the detectives in the police department have at times investigated the disappearance of Johnson, Stephens said, and all of them took the case personally.

“We wanted to close this case,” Williams said. “We wanted to find out what happened. That’s what we do. We were never satisfied with not finding him, and that’s the driving force.

“We know we wouldn’t stop if it was our own kid,” Williams continued. “We didn’t stop when it was someone else’s.”

The break in the case came due to a cell phone forensics class that Stephens attended last fall, presented by the Public Agency Training Council. Stephens said he was aware that police could track a cell phone by tracking “pings” from nearby cell towers. But he said he did not know that the data captured from a cell phone could be triangulated based on nearby cell phone towers to give an approximate area of where the cell phone was last used.

In the initial investigation of Johnson’s disappearance, police contacted his cell phone service provider and captured the data about the last usage of the cell phone. That information had been burned onto a CD, Stephens said, and it was taken to a specialist who was able to map an area where the phone was last used.

That area included 16 small bodies of water, Stephens said.

Even though many of those ponds had been previously searched, police decided to call in sonar experts to check the water once again. Dennis and Tammy Watters of Illinois were available on Thursday and Friday, working through the non-profit Texas Equu Search organization that helps locate missing persons.

Dennis Watters, who built the remote-controlled drone, assisted police in searching 13 ponds on Thursday. On Friday, the first pond searched was where the car was located.

Even using the small sonar — a side-mounted unit — does not guarantee that an underwater object will be found, Watters said.

“If the sound misses the car by one inch, it might as well have missed it by a mile,” he said.

Lt. Stephens said an announcement about autopsy results could be made today.