Updated: Dec 12, 2022
This following is part of a series entitled “Unsolved in Montana,” in which author Brian D’Ambrosio will re-examine Montana crimes over recent decades that have never been brought to a definitive legal conclusion. Perhaps readers of Montana Press may be able to bring new information forward to resolve some of these situations and the circumstances that surround them.
There is a tendency in crime reporting to get bogged down in a morass of distant language, of callused formulas, or even worse, a quagmire of apathy. Blanket explanations separate the general public from the murder victim and words are applied, albeit often unconsciously, that make the death just one of another non-relatable incidents.
Amy Marie Johnson reportedly ran with “a bad crowd,” and “a rough crowd,” and she was labeled as “troubled.” But that’s not much of a foundation or conclusion for any story.
While Amy Johnson’s life may be observed in frosty statistics – 24-year-old Native American female, black hair, brown eyes, last seen downtown Livingston, disappeared May 16, 1986, told roommate she’d be back in a few hours – this cold data doesn’t expand the understanding of the mother who never returned to her baby girl, or a daughter who left behind a grieving family.
Perhaps what follows here provides a less impersonal launching spot to re-examine her life: Amy Johnson was the fourth child out of the five adoptees of Cliff and Peg Johnson. Clifford was a native of Wheatland, Wyoming, and Peg was born and raised in New York. The Johnsons had met in Alameda County, California during World War II at the once-bustling Naval Air Station Alameda; Cliff was a seaman second class, employed as a cook, and Peg, a fresh college graduate with a degree in food nutrition, worked as a food inspector.
At the conclusion of the war, Clifford and Peg were still smitten and jointly searching for the next step. Peg knew a couple of family members who were frequent summer vacationers at Livingston, Montana, and after their military discharge and marriage in Big Timber, it became the newlywed’s destination.
Peg was a devout Irish-Catholic, and she convinced Cliff to replace his Lutheran faith with a more dedicated variety of Catholicism. Unable to conceive biologically, they adopted five children. Four of the kids who comprised Cliff and Peg’s family were Native American. Cliff, who was always mindful of his own adoption, saw the act of adoption as a compassionate act, a vital part of the imperfect rotation of life. Setting historical grievances about the harsh realities of transracial adoption of Natives in the United States aside, the Johnsons’ heart seemed to be in the upright place. Perhaps Amy was Salish or Kootenai, certainly born on the Flathead Reservation, most likely in St. Ignatius. Little is known about her biological parents. Born September 4, 1961, and adopted through a Catholic charity service, Amy Johnson attended Saint Mary’s Catholic Church in Livingston and was baptized there along with her other siblings.
The love which the Johnsons bestowed their children appeared as if it transcended race – at least for them, at least inside the control of their own home, and at least in the fair manner that they reportedly conducted their own lives. Some others, however, were less benevolent in their judgment of blending Native children with white households.
“I am the only white boy in the entire bunch,” says Amy’s brother, Chris Johnson, born and adopted in 1952. “My family was so progressive at the time that they took in Native Americans. It wasn’t a political thing where they wanted to just steal a kid from the reservation and bring them into white society. That was the philosophy in the 1950s, getting them off of the reservation, get them into town, and break their traditions. Mom and Dad were not that way. They were accepting. Every one of my siblings is at least half-Indian, and that caused problems in Livingston. Livingston didn’t like dark people. It was a very prejudiced town – and it still is.”
Sweet and Shy Child with Parents Like Saints
Clifford Johnson carried mail through the chill of snow and the gloom of night in Livingston for 30 years. As one of the community’s lifelines, he delivered not only cheery correspondences and telegrams but even death notices to families postmarked from Vietnam.
“Dad was a conscientious worker,” recalls Amy Johnson’s sister, Brigit Craig. “He must have gotten the most presents out of everyone who delivered the mail in Livingston. One of the things he used to do around Christmas time was that he would note which houses hadn’t received a card, and he would leave a card in their mailbox, on a plate with a homemade cookie that was made by my mom. Dad would say that everyone deserved to get a card at Christmas.”
Peg stayed at home with the kids, kneading bread and concocting meals. No Swanson’s TV dinners were served in their household; Peg prided herself in the food that she made from scratch. The Johnsons were progressive, only using their Corvair van to go to church or transport groceries, electing to ride their bicycles or walk around town whenever possible. Cliff was proficient at a number of instruments, including the clarinet, the piano, and the organ, and he performed in a swing jazz band on the weekends at local dinner clubs. He also ran the Catholic choir.
Housekeeper Peg squeezed out enough time to organize the event schedule of the Catholic Daughters of the Americas. The Johnson children counted their blessings before each meal and enumerated their gratitude at bedtime. In fact, the kids were so embedded in their religion that, after eight years of instruction, they hadn’t known many people from other faiths, a fact that changed soon after they started attending public school.
“My parents were like saints,” explains Brigit. “They were really good people.”
“They were not social people in the town,” says Chris. “They didn’t belong to the golf course or the doctors’ or lawyers’ club, but they were active in their church and they were respected, and they raised us to be good kids.”
Chris Johnson observed that his family paid little attention to the pronounced social split of Livingston society, though it was hard not to be aware of its existence.
“Back then, Livingston wasn’t the artsy-fartsy shit, the celebrities, and the candy-flavored alcohol and fruity beers. It was a town of farmers and rednecks. As a kid, the east side kids were tough as nails, home to the railroaders, and the west side kids were a bunch of pansies. The east side was the run-down houses and weed-filled yards and apple trees which hadn’t been trimmed in a hundred years.”
Nonetheless, recollections of Amy as a young girl are uniformly pleasant. Descriptions of her frequently include the words “reserved,” “shy,” “caring,” and “artistic.” She was said to be compassionate with all of the younger kids in the neighborhood. Most of her friends lived within a few blocks of the Johnsons’ family home on Fifth Street. She loved marching around the block, invariably finding a few minutes to stop to play with the neighbor’s dog, irresistibly named Taffy. If you handed her a sheet of paper, she’d represent the world in patterns, lines, and shapes. Her adoption was no secret; it would eventually become a source of strength, her parents thought.
“Our parents never hid the adoption from us,” remembers Chris. “Mom and Dad had a suitcase stored that you never touched with all of the information about each one of our grandparents’ info and info about the tribes and agencies we all came from.
There is a bleary picture of a picture which supports the depiction offered by Amy’s siblings of her being painfully shy: there she is in the foreground, her body language a statement of her personality. Her knees are tucked in at the chest, almost pained in her expression; she seems to be wanting to seek a corner and not be bothered.
Despite her timidity, Amy developed into a solid, kind, and likable girl, a healthy 5 ft. 3 inches.
“I thought she was one of the most beautiful little girls I had ever seen. And she was so sweet and shy,” recalls Agnes Schafer, the Johnson family’s neighbor. “And, sad to say, I don’t think I ever told her so.”
Babe Thrown to the Wolves
School was hard fought, and when she wasn’t feeling confident, Amy’s grades suffered; she sacrificed sleep, and stress blackened her mood. Amy’s innocence rammed against her; as a teenager, she engaged with alcohol and drugs and a mostly idle collection of friends.
Though she graduated from Park County High School, booze and hard drugs accelerated the difficulties of a young woman who for many years already had been struggling with her mental health.
Factors spiraled: gloomy bars compounded her depression; the inevitable stupor of drugs led to her being labeled by some others as undesirable; the scene was rife with accompanying predators who took pleasure in exploiting the vulnerabilities of a young person sorely lacking in self-confidence.
“She was a babe and she didn’t know the ways of the world,” recalls Chris. “They threw her to the wolves – and fed her alcohol. Amy made some bad choices, but I don’t think she was mentally prepared to understand what she was choosing. She was led into a pack of fucking wolves. These people were pukes when I was in high school.”
Amy had a baby with one man, then a second child with another man, and then delivered another child fathered by a separate person. Two of the fathers had criminal histories, one had committed crimes that were predicated on violence, including a conviction for felony assault. Amy permitted the children to be removed from her custody; one of her offspring was adopted out through Lutheran Social Services in Missoula, an exchange that her older brother Chris enabled.
“My mom was such a devout Catholic,” remembers Chris. “The Catholic Church said don’t give your kids birth control – and she didn’t.”
In the spring of 1986, Amy’s life was a tidal wave of bad choices: drugs, familial detachment, pregnancies with hard men that ended in adoptions. Alcohol remained the hellhound on her trail. When she drank, she was usually aggressive and mean-spirited, even slipping into an alternate mental pathology, sometimes calling herself JoJo.
Alcoholic Amy wasn’t the same Amy that most people knew; it wasn’t the soft-spoken nurse who politely served meals and kept the sheets clean or the aloof Amy who frequently stopped over to eat dinner and chat with her parents. Clifford and Peggy always remained firm in their love for Amy. Love and consistency would pull her through, they thought. They prayed harder, and counterweighted Amy’s insecurities with kindness and smiles.
There were encouraging signs that Amy, at age 24, had started to recalibrate her sense of happiness and self-worth. She was working hard as a Certified Nursing Assistant at Livingston HealthCare. Feeding, bathing, and dressing patients were rigorous acts, but she enjoyed the self-esteem boost that the paycheck provided; furthermore, she now had a newborn baby at home, a child she was determined to keep and support this time around.
Amy’s Final Night
Amy’s timeline on that fateful night of May 16, 1986 lacks structure or clarity, primarily recounted as it is through the shifting recollection of her lone roommate. Mary Guana and Amy Johnson had been close since junior high school, rooming together on and off starting when they were teenagers.
“She was a good person who was full of laughter,” explains Mary, who, admittedly, has grappled herself with significant substance abuse and mental health problems. “She could make up a story just like that. We were not everyone’s cup of tea. We would be considered what most people would call lower class people, but you know what, we didn’t care. Amy was tribal and dark-skinned and I’m Mexican, and I guess that’s why we fell into friendship with each other.”
Amy and Mary had a number of pregnancies – overlapping only weeks apart on one occasion – but before either had had any of their children, they traveled frequently as a tight tandem. Amy once lived with Mary in Idaho, but she was stricken with a dreadful bout of homesickness, and she and her friend both returned to Montana.
“She was like my little sister,” says Mary. “I got married on a bet, and Amy came to my wedding. One time we were both pregnant and we had a little black and white TV and were watching scary shows on the VCR. She was ready to go home, and we stepped outside and we saw the Northern Lights, and ran over to her dad’s house and told him. We had our arguments, but she was always there for me, and I was always there for her. Except this one time.”
May 16th was a Friday night. Amy was excited about her date. Mary had a male friend at the house and agreed that she would babysit for Amy if her friend promised to return no later than Saturday morning. Mary had made fun plans of her own for the weekend.
According to Mary, Amy acceded to the timeline before borrowing $20 from Mary’s male friend. Mary, however, was worried about her friend, who, she said, left with a man she had never seen before. She remembered the time that Amy was “beat up and left in the mud to die,” a horrible night about three years earlier when one of Amy’s former boyfriends “hit her in the face with a shovel.” Still, Mary, already spread thin by the responsibilities of watching her own two children, agreed to watch Amy’s infant too. Sure, there were times when Amy didn’t come home for a day or two or longer. But hopefully this wouldn’t be one of them.
Amy Marie Johnson never returned.
Amy left behind a baby girl and all of her belongings, including an un-cashed welfare check. Amy was supposed to have dinner on Saturday night with her parents, but she didn’t appear. Authorities suspected that she was murdered. According to police reports and news accounts, Livingston Police Captain Steve McCann affirmed that Amy was seen with former boyfriend, Ron Phillips (referred to as “a tribal member”), the evening of her disappearance.
When questioned, according to McCann, Phillips said that “he had dropped her off downtown that night after they had driven around awhile.” A report came in that she was seen six days later in a bar at Gardiner, 50 miles to the south, but that information couldn’t be verified.
The police inquiry fell short. Suspects were rounded up, but the absence of a body made the prospect of pressing charges unlikely. Rampant speculation dissolved into passive gossip. People close to Amy clammed up. The pendulum of the investigation swung fast from hot to cold. It stayed stuck mostly on the latter.
Honest Lead to Follow
In the late 1980s, people jotted down their grievances on sheets of paper; back then, and there were many more editors to be found working at messy newspaper desks who would hear them out. Chris Johnson took to scribbling missives – it was, he said, a healthier alternative than drinking prodigious amounts of alcohol and pounding his fist full-force into furniture or occasionally even someone else’s face. Dark and desperate, Amy’s brother’s appeals embody the cruelest aspects of what it’s like to bear witness to the disappearance of one’s own family member.
“What happened? Where is she? Why can’t we get anyone to give an honest lead to follow?... I and my parents are hoping that there is someone who can shed a light on this problem and help put this painful and nagging question into focus for us.”
Chris Johnson always concluded his letters with a plea seeking the public’s help to end his family’s nightmare, along with the meekest of thanks.
The Johnsons eventually turned over Amy’s fourth child to Child Protective Services and the toddler, similar to her mother and her grandfather Clifford, was put up for adoption. (Today, she is a vibrant, successful person, who is said to look exactly like her mother.) Cliff and Peg coped with the disappearance and possible murder of their daughter the best way that they knew how, through stronger prayer and the re-application of greater faith. Let the law do what it does; the rest must be turned over to God.
Yet despite their renewed reliance on their faith, Amy’s parents never reconciled how such a shy, quiet, precious living thing could be torn from their home without forever rupturing it. There was no psalm that could lighten the truth that their daughter might never be joining them again at the dinner table. Even with the grace of God and one another, some days the house was all echoes and loneliness.
The Johnsons moved out of Livingston, following Amy’s siblings, who were either gone from there before Amy disappeared or subsequently dispersed. Clifford died in 2006 of complications due to Alzheimer’s; Peggy died a few years ago.
In the early 2000s, Livingston police were approached by a guilt-plagued man who took them to the craggy, high-mountain draw where he claimed Amy’s remains were stored at one point. Police extensively questioned the individual, who, according to police records, denied that he participated in Amy’s physical murder but did admit to his “forced participation” in the disposal of her body. A team of cadaver-sniffing canines canvassed the area. No Amy. No charges were filed against the man.
More than thirty years later, Amy Johnson’s family members remain convinced in their suspicion that Amy’s body was moved several times and it’s their belief that some of the family members and friends of Amy’s killer must possess information as to what evil befell her on that fateful May night in 1986.
“The Department of Justice in Helena is supposed to be the overseer and auditing all of these people,” says Chris Johnson. “Why does Livingston have so many unsolved homicides and suspicious deaths, and most other places don’t have any? Amy wasn’t one of Livingston’s model residents, but doesn’t her family have the right to learn of her whereabouts?”
Anyone with tips or information about Amy Johnson may contact Lee Johnson, Supervisory Agent, Division of Criminal Investigation, at (406) 586-0902; Brian D’Ambrosio may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.