After more than 2 years, Hibbing man charged with murder in death of 2-year-old girl
VIRGINIA – A Hibbing man was arraigned on a murder charge Friday in the case of a 2-year-old Virginia girl who died in March 2012, after officers found her gasping for air and with bruises on her head.
Russell Shannon Johnson, who police said was the only person of interest during the more than two-year investigation, was charged with felony second-degree murder at the St. Louis County Courthouse in Virginia. The arraignment came about six weeks after what Virginia Police Chief Dennis Benz called “the break” in the case.
According to the Virginia Police Department and the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office:
Virginia police officers were called to a residence at 9:11 a.m. on March 21, 2012, on a report of an unresponsive 2-year-old girl. Officers found Caroline Shenze Marie Medicine-Chavez on an air mattress. She was bruised and struggling to breathe. The child was transported first to a hospital in Virginia, and then to a hospital in Duluth, where she died the next day. Doctors determined the cause of death to be blunt trauma to the head.
Doctors told authorities that a CT scan revealed the child had a fresh brain bleed on the back, left side, and what appeared to be hemorrhaging in the left eye. The child’s glucose level was extremely high, indicating she was under stress.
Johnson, 26, who was dating the child’s mother, was alone with Caroline at the time of the incident and initially claimed she had suffered the injuries as the result of a fall. Johnson’s brother, Reed Johnson, also was found at the residence when police arrived. Reed Johnson has not been charged in connection with the case.
According to the complaint, Johnson told law enforcement that after the child had fallen, he picked her up, placed her face up on the air mattress, and “began rubbing her stomach to ask if she was alright.”
The investigation into Caroline’s death came to a stall last summer, Benz said, but was re-energized in July when police received additional information from witnesses, along with cell phone recordings – evidence Benz said points to homicide and incriminates Johnson in the alleged crime.
“We didn’t want to make a mistake,” Benz said during a press conference. “We just needed to wait for something else hopefully to happen.”
Benz said police identified Johnson as a suspect at the outset of the case, but a lack of evidence prevented officers from making an arrest.
Authorities monitored Johnson throughout the investigation by checking his Facebook page, Benz said, and were able to stay informed of his whereabouts. Police have described Johnson as homeless.
“We had an idea of where he was frequently showing up,” Benz said. “It wasn’t like we were watching and watching him, but we kept track of where he was.”
The evidence police said ultimately led to the arrest was first submitted to a Facebook page named “Justice for Caroline,” which is run by the victim’s family.
Police were notified of the new information and conducted interviews with the witnesses, who said they knew Johnson and had spoken with him about the incident involving Caroline.
During one conversation, a witness said she asked Johnson to tell the truth about what had happened.
Johnson allegedly told the witness that Caroline was bothering him the morning of the incident and that she was a “really whiney kid.” He pushed Caroline against the wall, he allegedly told the witness, demonstrating how he did so with his palm facing outward. The child hit her head against the wall and immediately was unresponsive, according to the witness.
While he recounted the story, Russell Johnson was crying, the witness said. He talked about how the incident was weighing on his mind.
Police arrested Johnson near Hibbing Thursday afternoon and transferred him to St. Louis County Jail, where he is being held until a Sept. 15 scheduled court appearance in Virginia. The charge carries a maximum 40-year sentence.
“These things are lengthy; they’re complex,” Benz said of the investigation. He had told Caroline’s family last summer that the investigation was closed, but he said Friday that the case had always been open.
“Maybe using the word ‘closed’ – my fault,” Benz said. “The investigation was never ever – they are never ever – closed until we get some type of ending. We never gave up.”
Benz and St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin thanked Caroline’s family members for their involvement during the investigation. The family has been posting messages honoring the child on the “Justice for Caroline” Facebook page.
Jennifer Medicine, Caroline’s mother, wiped back tears Friday on the courthouse lawn. She has another small child and is pregnant with a third – due in December – she said.
“It’s hard,” said Medicine, who told police she was at an appointment the morning of the incident. “They’re not going to know who their sister was.”
Cody Chavez, Caroline’s father, who later separated from Medicine, said Friday that he was “excited that actually something is happening” in the case.
“I’m just happy,” he said. “I want to cry. I want to smile.”
Caroline’s Great Aunt Roberta Porter described her as a happy child who enjoyed hot dogs, Cheetos and digging holes in the family’s yard. Porter and the rest of Caroline’s family were notified early Friday morning that an arraignment had been scheduled, Porter said.
“I think it put us all kind of in a state of shock,” she said. “We just couldn’t function for a while.”
The March 21, 2012, encounter wasn’t Johnson’s first run-in with police.
He has been convicted of possession of less than $250 in stolen property, DWI and possession of marijuana.
Medicine also called police on March 3, 2012, when Caroline became unresponsive following a separate incident.
Russell Johnson had been asked to check on Caroline. A short while later, the child was unresponsive; her eyes were open and fixed on the ceiling, Medicine said.
Russell Johnson said Caroline had tripped and fallen.