Monday, April 14, 2008

Body of Evidence

by Connie Park

Homicide investigators realize it just takes seconds to dramatically change someone’s life. But you’d never think a teenager’s life would end that one day she decided to miss school with her friends. That one day changed not only the teenager’s life, but the lives of many. In fact, it had an impact on one particular homicide investigator for over two decades.

While in homicide, I’ve had the opportunity to work with several of the best homicide investigators in the nation. Their combined experience adds up to over 1000 years in the Homicide Division alone. I guess I’m dating their ages, but we won’t tell them that. Sgt. John Burmester was a coworker of mine when I first began working in homicide. He worked for the
Houston Police Department for thirty-one years, a quarter century in homicide. Burm retired back in 2003 and currently is loving retirement.

I joined
HPD’s Cold Case Squad in 2006. Eager to start working on cases, I called Burmester one day. I asked him if there were any cases that were unsolved, cases he’d like me to look into. Without hesitation, Burm told me the story of Sharon Darnell, a 14-year-old girl who was violently murdered and found in an abandoned apartment building. He gave me the case number, the date, and the location without consulting a file. That was amazing to me--that he recalled all the detailed information after twenty-three years. Every investigator has those certain cases that really stand out and have a dramatic impact.

On February 7, 1984, Sharon Darnell was on her way to school in southeast Houston. She was just a freshman and looking forward to her high school years. That day Sharon and a few friends decided to skip school and go over their friend’s house. They’d stayed a couple of hours watching television and playing video games. It was time to go home and Sharon and her friends started walking back to their apartment complex. Frederick Johnson, 23, told Sharon he’d walk her through the empty field to make sure she got to her apartment safely. That was the last time Sharon’s friends saw her alive.

A few hours later, two kids walking back from school found a girl’s body in an abandoned building. They saw that she was dead, possibly strangled. Police were called out to the location and learned that the dead girl was Sharon Darnell. She had been sexually assaulted and brutally murdered. She was found lying on the floor nude, her throat slashed from ear to ear, and her hands bound together.

Original investigators that made the scene were J. G. Burmester and S. P. Ward. They processed the crime scene along with Crime Scene Unit Officer Tony Blando. They set to work, collecting physical evidence from both the crime scene and the victim’s body. The evidence from Sharon's body was the key to solving this case. Frederick Johnson (pictured above) was listed as a suspect, but he was released due to lack of evidence. With no other suspects, the case went nowhere.

Fast forward twenty-three years to 2007. The evidence from this case that the investigators collected back in 1984 was sent out to an independent lab in Dallas. The test came back with a male DNA profile that matched that of Frederick Johnson’s. Johnson’s DNA profile was stored in
CODIS, a national DNA databank. DNA testing and technology have advanced so much over the years. The results were astounding. MiniSTR testing is one of the new advancements in DNA technology where information can be recovered from degraded DNA evidence, as in this case. Johnson was already serving a life sentence in a Texas prison unit for two counts of aggravated sexual assault of a juvenile. Surprised? The worst part about it was that without the murder charge in 2007, Johnson would have been was eligible for parole in 2009. Frederick Johnson was charged with capital murder for sexually assaulting and killing Sharon Darnell. He is awaiting trial in the Harris County District Court.

We informed Burmester and Ward of the results of the new DNA testing and the charges filed against Frederick Johnson. When I called Burm on the phone, he was excited the case was solved and that it will bring some peace to Sharon’s family. He wanted to give us the credit for solving the case but Burm is the one who never forgot about Sharon. He never forgot that day Sharon’s life ended and the impact it had on so many lives. Ironically enough, Sharon would be thirty-eight today, my same age.


Unknown said...

Good job, Connie.
After the release of my book about Tommy Lynn Sells, I heard from a lot of detectives across the country who remembered unsolved cases from ten, fifteen and twenty years earlier. After reading my book, they just had to check and find out where Sells was at the time of the crime in question. I was surprised and impressed by the committment of those investigators.

Connie Park said...

Thanks Diane! That means alot. Authors like you tell the personal side of the story and all who are affected.

andy kahan said...


Great post. I am sure you are aware Lt. Williams attended our Unsolved Homicide Event to kick off National Crime Victims' Rights Week yesterday. Speaking on behalf of Parents of Murdered Children we appreciate all you do to help surviving family members find some semblence of justice.
We will be closing out NCVRW on Sat. with a Candlelight Vigil sponsored by POMC--We would love for you to attend.