Indian Joe and Why I’m Nuts

I was alone in a dirty little cabin somewhere in the middle of my home state. I was a college student and working for the middle-Missouri NBC affiliate. It was really dark. Everywhere. My camera batteries were on charge. I had one beer in me (all I would let myself drink in the town’s only bar and still drive the station’s embarassing mini-new-vans). The little bit of alcohol wasn’t doing the trick. I couldn’t sleep. It was–in part–because a crazed and homicidal mountain man was somewhere in the woods around me and–in part–because I was so excited to be the guy on the story.

Alis Ben Johns (AKA Indian Joe, Joe Johns) was the real-life equivalent of the feaky mountain men you see in Hollywood movies. His beards alone were enough to frighten small children. His mother (I found her in an assisted living facility out in the middle of nowhere–she invited me in and sat down for an interview) described her son as slow, but the type of man who could live in the woods for weeks at a time. He was the type of guy who could be three feet from you in the woods…and you would never know it. His mother wanted him to come home. “They’ll kill him,” she said.

He was wanted by about a half dozen different police jurisdictions. He killed out of jealousy. He killed for money. He killed three different people in three different far away cities and every new organization in Missouri wanted a piece of the story. CBS’s 48 Hours had a four-person crew in the middle of Benton County, Missouri.

The three weeks previous I had been all over middle-Missouri. I had been down the long dirt roads, in the gun shops where scared people were buying .45’s, in the home of one of Johns’ victims (the Sheriff thought that was as good a place as any to set up a command post), and into that Benton County bar that the Sheriff there had turned into media central. Every few hours the cameras would circle around the young man and he would update us. You can hear my voice in the “48 Hours” story, doing my best not to sound breathless as I asked “Regarding his movement…?”

It was the manhunt of manhunts. The authorities thought they had a pretty good idea where he was and they weren’t letting up. Unfortunately, after that one dark night in that dark cabin’s bed, I had to let up. I was a college student working for a low-budget station. Until that point, I had the freedom to roam Missouri looking for the killer and the people who knew him. But the run came to an end about two days too early. College students have classes to deal with.

I was actually in the TV station when the word came in. I was in a back room learning “how to become a reporter.” (I now know that if I wanted to be a real reporter, I never should’ve left Benton County). Someone walked in the door and looked directly at me. They knew I had lived and breathed Alis Ben Johns for about six weeks.

“They got him.”

I’m not sure how many bad words I said as I grabbed my stuff and ran out the door. I don’t know how many laws I broke as I flew toward Cole Camp Creek in that embarassing little mini-van. I only know that I was soon standing in an emergency room and may have been doing so illegally. The hospital had cordoned off the emergency room door, but not a back door that a maintenance man led me to. Once I was inside, the good Sheriff didn’t make me leave and fed me juicy tidbits. Water Patrol officers had shot Johns’ as he held his girlfriend at gunpoint. I was soon providing a phone report to my employer and my home town station KY3. It was a fine moment for me, but not as fine as if I had been there.

And that’s why I’m nuts.

It’s like a dog seeing the leash but not getting the walk. Or an alcoholic seeing sobriety at the bottom of a bottle. The culmination was cut short. Money shot interuptus.

I don’t think about Indian Joe very much anymore. When I do it both excites and depresses me.

It reminds me of the time when I wanted nothing more than to do my job.

That is both exciting…and depressing.

Related: Alis Ben Johns

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Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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4 Responses

  1. Phillip says:

    I was the surgeon who saved Alis that night. Had a gunshot to the torso, just below the breastbone (sternum) and to the left. Tore up his transverse colon, and grazed the pancreas and kidney. Patient ended up with colostomy (temporary, but to my knowledge, is still there), and had an uneventful recovery in the Bothwell CCU for about 5 days, before transfer to Jeff City for arraignment. Never saw him again. He was terrified the whole time I took care of him. Seemed amazed that I would have done the work I did for him. But hey, this is what surgeons do!

  2. Deb says:

    Ben Johns is where he needs to be but will never bring Wilma Bragg and the others back. I’ve seen his eyes, with the cold dark stare as I went to all of the hearings. The only thing I was thankful for was during jury selection in Buchanan County for the Newton County trial, he decided to plead guilty. No appeals, no new trials, just peace for a family who needed it more than they knew at the time.

  3. Alex says:

    My boyfriend is the son of Ben Johns girlfriend and it amazes me the things that he and his sisters were forced to by that man. My boyfriend used to have to go with Ben into the woods with no supplies at all and live off small animals, herbs, nuts, and berries. Alis could get anywhere he wanted to without having to leave the woods. He would force my boyfriend and his sisters to eat squirrel brains and punish them for getting sick afterwards. And those are only a few of the things this man did. He was completely insane, too many drugs and not enough love or something, I don’t know. But I do know that he has caused a lot of people a lot of hurt, physical and emotional. He will never pay enough for what he has done.

  1. September 12, 2008

    […] Alis Ben Johns and why I’m nuts–Over the years here, you’ve seen me dip into crime coverage from time to time. This post was one of the first to explain why. […]

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