Body in trunk: missing diabetic

"It is definitely a homicide," a sheriff's spokeswoman said. Deputies found the man's body in the trunk of a car.

Published October 10, 2005

TAMPA - The clock started ticking a half hour after 25-year-old Chris Johnson left his home early Wednesday evening.

When he did not return at the promised time, his mother knew something was wrong. A severe diabetic, Johnson had not taken his second insulin shot that day.

She was right to worry. Johnson was found dead in the trunk of his rented Dodge Charger on Saturday evening in a parking lot behind a Best Western hotel.

A foul odor alerted authorities to the car at the hotel at Adamo Drive and Ware Boulevard. Johnson had been in the trunk about three days, Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies said.

"I think he was dropped there," said sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter. "It is definitely a homicide."

Deputies found no signs of trauma on the body, and no cause of death had been determined, authorities said. There were no suspects Sunday afternoon.

Officials confiscated the 2006 rental car, which Johnson was last seen driving. A female friend rented it for Johnson, whose car was in the repair shop, Carter said.

Authorities said a small amount of marijuana was found in the trunk.

On the evening he disappeared, Carol Johnson reported her son missing to the Tampa police, who alerted law enforcement agencies across Florida.

In Tampa, family and friends posted fliers with a picture of Johnson's long dreadlocks and full beard.

"We only had so many hours before we could find him, because of his health condition," she said.

Without insulin, Johnson would pass out. His family had to call him every morning to make sure that he had not passed out overnight.

As the hours grew into days, family and friends gathered at his grandmother's house at 4511 N 41st St., in the Jackson Heights neighborhood. Johnson, whose full name is Alvin Christopher Johnson, had a room there and frequently spent the night.

He also stayed nearby at another house owned by family members. The day before his disappearance, someone tried to break into that house but was thwarted by an alarm, family members said.

A burglar succeeded on Thursday night or Friday morning, tearing up the house and stealing dozens of pairs of shoes from Johnson's colorful wardrobe, family members said.

As the family waited, their phones buzzed with rumors. Friends called after hearing word on the street that Johnson was in a car trunk in Miami. His family now thinks that someone who knew what happened had been bragging.

"Everybody's a suspect right now," said Johnson's twin sister, Christina Johnson. "You can't trust nobody."

Johnson had known trouble. His criminal record in Florida lists 16 arrests since 1998 on charges including possessing drugs, intent to sell or deliver drugs, burglary, underage drinking and giving false names to authorities. The last arrest came in July in Hillsborough County on charges of driving an unregistered car with an invalid license.

Family members said Johnson was trying to straighten up after time in jail. He was excited about becoming a parent to Anaya, born prematurely a month ago. An older son about 8 years old, Chris Jr., lives with his mother in Alaska.

A former football player at Armwood High, Johnson graduated in 1998 and went on to Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. He dropped out after developing diabetes, his family said.

In recent years, he struggled to hold jobs as a laborer. He could not stay in the sun for long, family members said. Still, he loved to ride dirt bikes in Brooksville.

Fashion was his passion, family members said, showing off a photograph of Johnson wearing a white bowler and matching tie to a recent boxing match in Tampa.

He was quick to give friends money for bail and to help people at the church near his grandmother's home.

Women seemed to stick to him like honey, his mother said, laughing at the memories.

But her eyes grew moist and tight as she tried to grapple with the death of a son who would have turned 26 on Tuesday.

"I'm just not absorbing," Carol Johnson said. "The only thing that I want to see is my baby coming home, walking in the door."

--Letitia Stein can be reached at 661-2443 or lstein@sptimes.com