Georgia man convicted in 1976 death of Missouri waitress

COLUMBIA, Mo. | A 66-year-old Georgia grandfather was convicted Friday of killing a Missouri waitress nearly 35 years ago before going into hiding for the next three decades.

Jurors deliberated for about six hours in Columbia before deciding that suburban Atlanta resident Johnny Wright was guilty of second-degree murder in the August 1976 disappearance and death of 23-year-old Rebecca Doisy. The former University of Missouri student’s body was never found.

Her sister, Kathy Doisy, broke down in tears when the verdict was announced. Wright, who faces between 10 and 30 years in prison when sentenced in March, showed no emotion.

“This is a weight off my shoulders,” Kathy Doisy said after the hearing. “I now know for a fact what happened to my sister.”

Defense lawyer Cleveland Tyson said he would appeal the verdict.

Wright was charged with murder in 1985, after an acquaintance said Wright admitted killing Rebecca Doisy. He wasn’t arrested until 2009, after he sought a criminal background check for a job application at the police department in Lawrenceville, Ga.

Columbia police said Wright lived under the assumed identity of Errol Edwards for years in Seattle, Texas and most recently Georgia, where he raised a family. But he used his real name when seeking the background check, prosecutors said.

Jurors had to decide whether the circumstantial evidence linking Wright to Doisy overcame the lack of physical evidence, including proof that she died. Wright did not testify at his trial, and his defense attorney called just three witnesses.

“We knew it was going to be an incredible uphill challenge, not having a body,” said Assistant Boone County Prosecutor Richard Hicks, the lead prosecutor on the case. “I doubt I will ever be involved in any case like this again.”

Several of Doisy’s friends and co-workers at Ernie’s Steak House testified that Wright was with Doisy the day she went missing. One witness described how Wright, an Ernie’s customer, “badgered” Doisy to go on a date but was rebuffed.

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.

And when Columbia police interviewed Wright’s roommate, Harry Moore, soon after Doisy’s disappearance, the suspect responded by firing shots at him, Moore testified.

Tyson, the defense attorney, told jurors during closing arguments that Wright, a St. Louis native, fled Missouri because he received death threats after being identified as a suspect in Doisy’s disappearance.

“He didn’t want to come back to Columbia because he was scared,” Tyson said.

Wright fled to the West Coast in 1980, and then moved a year later to Beaumont, Texas, before relocating to Georgia in 1986, Hicks said. He worked as a car salesman and in restaurants and married a woman — his fifth union — who accompanied him to court throughout the four-day trial.

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.