Johnus Orr sentenced to 120 years in jail

Tribune-Star/Lisa TriggA tombstone in the Timmons Cemetery west of Sullivan marks the grave of Tiffanie Adams and her unborn son.

Expressing mixed emotions — but mostly sadness — a prosecutor and a sheriff on Friday both said they were glad that a Sullivan man convicted of killing his stepsister and her unborn son received a 120-year prison sentence.

“I can’t say much of anything — good or happy — about this entire case, other than justice,” Sheriff Clark Cottom said after the sentencing, when asked if he was pleased with the lengthy prison sentence imposed on Johnus Luke Orr, 31, for the death of Tiffanie Adams, 20, and her unborn son.

“Johnus Orr killed her, and he was held accountable for that today,” Cottom said somberly.

“This is the culmination of a sad set of events. It’s a sad situation,” prosecutor John Springer agreed following the hearing. “Hopefully, the people who cared about Tiffanie take some comfort in the fact that he’s being held accountable.”

Orr was convicted in June by a 12-person jury during a weeklong trial for the homicide of Adams, and her unborn son, Brynsten Edward. Adams was eight months pregnant when she was reported missing from Sullivan on Nov. 5, 2014. Her body was found in a corn field northeast of Sullivan on Dec. 30, 2014. An autopsy determined that she died of ligature strangulation, and that her unborn son died of suffocation due to the death of his mother.

Cottom testified during the trial that investigators believed Orr — driving a borrowed vehicle — picked up Adams in Sullivan on the day she went missing, and that he transported her to the area where her body was later found. Evidence in the cornfield showed that there was a struggle between Adams and her attacker, he said. She was strangled with her own jacket.

“We have to remember that a young girl lost her life,” Cottom said on Friday, “and she was pregnant. And an unborn baby who never had a chance to live also lost their life, so we have to keep that in perspective. That’s what this is about.”

He acknowledged that the investigation was complicated. At first, there was doubt about what happened to Adams, even though her father said he felt she was abducted and harmed. There was misdirection about who might be responsible for her disappearance. Her father Bruce Adams blamed Brian Orr — the young woman’s stepfather and the father of Johnus Orr — for her disappearance, based on a garbled telephone call that he received from Tiffanie on the day she went missing.

And then there were cell phone text messages between Orr and his wife that added a sometimes confusing dialog to the disappearance. The recovery of Tiffanie’s cell phone from Sullivan Lake, near the area where her body was found, came almost nine months after she went missing. A forensic report about the calls and text messages sent from and to that cell phone helped connect Orr to the cornfield where the woman’s body was found.

“We wish that we did not have to be here today,” Cottom said Friday. “I never want to work another murder case in my entire career, but sadly, these things sometimes occur, and we have to do our part to bring justice to them as best we can. And I feel that justice was done in this particular case.”

During the hearing, Judge Hugh R. Hunt heard from two aunts of Adams, who talked about the loss of the young woman and the effect the homicide has had on their family. There has been a history of disputes between the Adams and Orr families, as documented by court records and protection orders.

In imposing the consecutive sentences, Judge Hunt pointed out that Adams should have had no reason to fear death at the hands of her stepbrother, and her unborn son was a “completely vulnerable” victim.

Orr made no statements during the sentencing hearing, but his attorney said that his client has maintained his innocence since Adams went missing. Defense attorney John Kesler said that Orr plans to appeal his conviction and sentence.

Prosecutor John Springer asked Judge Hunt to follow the penalty recommended by the county probation department when it prepared its pre-sentence investigation. Orr had multiple prior convictions for battery, domestic battery and other incidents. Chief Probation Officer Barbara Lance recommended a 60-year sentence for each count. The advisory sentence for homicide is 55 years, with up to 10 years either added for aggravating circumstances, or subtracted for mitigating circumstances.

Kesler argued during the hearing that any sentence should run concurrently because both deaths occurred during one incident.

“Whoever did this did not commit a second crime,” Kesler said, “did not commit a first crime and then, with a conscious decision, with purpose, commit a second crime.”

Kesler said that Orr “feels a horrible loss” due to his stepsister’s death, but has maintained his innocence.

“I know everyone wants the defendant to show some sign of remorse,” Kesler said. “But in this case, Johnus still maintains his innocence.”

Addressing Orr’s prior criminal convictions, Kesler said that some of those incidents occurred 14 years ago, calling them “ancient history.”

Judge Hunt gave more weight to prior convictions as aggravating factors, however. He pointed out that Orr has been charged with battery six times as an adult, and once as a juvenile. On at least three occasions, he was charged with battery against women. He also has multiple convictions for trespassing, as well as a drunken driving incident.

That criminal history shows that Orr is unable to control his emotions and actions, Hunt said.

The fact that Adams and her unborn child were left in the field, and subject to the effects of nature and the scavenging of wild animals, showed “particular callousness,” the judge stated.

The judge ordered that Orr receive credit for the time he has served in jail awaiting trial. According to state law, Orr must serve at least 75 percent of his sentence, or at least 90 years.

Orr was led from the courtroom in shackles to a van that took him to the Sullivan County Jail to await transport to the Indiana Department of Correction.

As he passed his family members, Orr looked at his father and said, “I love you.”

His father Brian Orr responded that he was praying for his son and loves him.

“God is on our side,” Brian Orr said to his son.

After the hearing, Brian Orr and his wife Christine — who is the mother of Tiffanie Adams — said they believe that Johnus Orr is innocent and that someone else is responsible for the young woman’s death.

“I feel like today, I’m just in shock,” Christine Orr said.

Brian Orr told the Tribune-Star that investigators have refused to look at other suspects in the case. He said believes that the Adams family and others are involved in the death of Tiffanie.

In response to those assertions, both Cottom and Springer said the evidence points to Johnus Orr as the killer of Tiffanie Adams.

“They have made multiple claims to that effect throughout the course of this case. Base upon the exhaustive investigation, we have no reason to believe that there are other suspects,” Springer said.

“It’s not uncommon that there are strong emotions on any side of any particular case like this, for the victim’s family and the defendant’s family,” Cottom said. “I feel confident the right person was arrested and convicted for this case.”

Cottom said he also feels that running the sentences consecutively was the right thing for the judge to do.

“You know, he’s got a history,” Cottom said of Orr, “and he doesn’t need to be back out on the street.”

Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or at lisa.trigg@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter at TribStarLisa.

Lisa Trigg has been a reporter at the Tribune-Star since 2009. With more than 30 years of newspaper experience, she now covers general news with a focus on crime and courts.

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