A 66-year-old Georgia grandfather was sentenced Monday to 30 years in prison for killing a waitress nearly 35 years ago in Missouri and then going into hiding for the next three decades while living under an assumed name.
Johnny Wright, of suburban Atlanta, received the maximum sentence from a Boone County, Mo., judge. He was convicted in January of second-degree murder in the August 1976 disappearance and death of University of Missouri student Rebecca Doisy, 23, whose body was never found. She was believed to be strangled or stabbed to death.
Under Missouri sentencing laws, Wright won't be eligible for parole for at least a dozen years. Prosecutor Richard Hicks said in court that Wright deserves to die in prison because of the crime's violent nature. The minimum sentence available was 10 years, meaning Wright could have been released as soon as four years under more lenient parole rules for elderly inmates.
"Anything less than a 30-year sentence would be showing him mercy," Hicks told Circuit Judge Gary Oxenhandler. "He doesn't deserve it."
Wright lived under the assumed identity of Errol Edwards for years in Seattle, Texas and most recently Georgia, where he raised a family. He was charged with murder in 1985 after an acquaintance said Wright admitted killing Doisy but wasn't arrested until 2009 after he sought a criminal background check for a job application at the police department in Lawrenceville, Ga. He presented a recently issued Georgia identification card that contained his real name and birth date in hopes of getting work as a truck driver.
Wright, who has remained in custody since his conviction three months ago, did not speak at the sentencing hearing. Defense attorney Cleveland Tyson reiterated an explanation offered at trial that his client fled Missouri after receiving death threats, not to avoid arrest.
"He was not evading prosecution," Tyson said. "He was fearful for his life and wanted to start over."
At trial, several of Doisy's friends and co-workers at Ernie's Steak House testified that Wright was with her the day she went missing. A resident of her apartment building reported seeing Doisy leave with Wright. Another witness said she later ran into the pair at the Heidelberg restaurant, a popular hangout near the university campus.
And William Simmons, who spent time in a St. Louis methadone clinic with Wright in the years following Doisy's disappearance, testified that Wright bragged about "offing" a woman in Columbia when several other patients were boasting of their role in a St. Louis killing. His account to Columbia police following a burglary arrest in suburban St. Louis led to charges being filed 26 years ago.
Kathy Doisy testified Monday that her sister's death and the unsolved crime had haunted the family, especially her father, a doctor who died after Wright's arrest but before his trial.
"I wish that my father had lived to see this day," Kathy Doisy said after Wright's sentencing. "I've waited for this for almost 35 years."
"Everyone goes through life thinking that bad things happen to other people," she added. "The experience just changes you. I want to be optimistic, but I'm very fearful."
Doisy was the granddaughter of Edward A. Doisy, who shared the 1943 Nobel Prize in medicine with another researcher for their discovery of vitamin K. A research building at St. Louis University, where he taught, is named after the scientist.
She completed three years at the University of Missouri's education school but dropped out to avoid relocating from Columbia for a student teaching job.