Alis Ben Johns

Dawn of the Dead, Autumn of the Alive
…or…The Answer to Question #1

In a recent post, I solicited questions from my minions. I opened the floor, opened my doors, and offered to answer anything. I figured since I made the offer, I should probably come through. So here goes.

Question #1: Go back to the day you felt most alive. The day you could feel the blood pumping through your veins. The day you wanted to last forever. And tell me about it. –CJ

If you’ve ever smelled a Missouri spring night, void of humidity, the musty scent of decaying autumn leaves just fleeing the air, you know what it smelled like that night. You know what April smells like in the middle of Missouri when the lakes aren’t so far away and the animals in the nearby trees feel like fucking. It’s spring and it adds energy to almost anyone who can stand to suck it into their lungs.

The past six months of my life had felt like spring. I’d ridden out the end of fall and full cold of winter in a springlike daze. I’d met my future wife the year before. She’d made me feel more alive than any woman ever had. She’d teased me with clothes that weren’t sexy. She found a way to wear them that made me wander in circles, mumbling and counting to fifty. Then, later, she abandoned all the clothes and wore nothing but a sterling silver necklace. If I wrote about that, corporate filters would block this site and you wouldn’t be able to read it at work.

Gambling and women have always been the two things that made my heart beat faster. That spring, I’d not yet found Vegas, but I was getting my fix. It was passive-aggressive risk-taking at its finest.

I was a little more than a month away from graduating college. Sleep was reserved for the time I wasn’t drinking or rolling around in the covers with the woman who had somehow elevated herself above the standard muse of the moment. The rest of the time I skipped class and thought about Alis.

I’ve written about Alis Ben Johns before. Some people called him Joe. Some people called him Indian Joe. He was a backwoods Missouri boy with little intelligence, but an incredible knack for surviving outdoors.

He was also a born killer.

By the time I got interested in Alis, he’d already killed two people. The first victim was a willing participant in a drunken roadside argument. Alis shot guy named Teddy along Route KK in Pulaski County, MO. He went on the run, which was easy for him. He claimed–and most people believed–he could sneak up on a cop in the middle of the woods and grab the cop’s gun before the officer was ever the wiser.

The cops started getting a little more eager to catch the woodsman after he killed an old man named Leonard. Like he would many times in the future, Alis broke into the old boy’s house and killed him for no real reason other than he could.

A week or so later, as the manhunt started to get a little crazy, I found myself sitting in the old dude’s house. It was the only time in a career that’s now spanned eight years that I’ve ever seen a law enforcement agency convert a murder victim’s house into a command post. It was first time the cops took me back and let me take a look at the actual murder scene, blood stains and all.

They had maps strewn all over the room, coffee makers doing overtime, and a secretary working in the den. It was odd with a capital “O” and I was just beginning to get off on it.

I only worked part-time for a TV station then and I was not required to follow the Alis story wherever it went. Still, I spent an inordinate amount of time tracking through back woods and gullies, doing target practice at lake-area gun shops (I was a crack shot with a .40 caliber), and looking at every man’s face to see if he might be Alis.

No one was really surprised when Alis killed again. He didn’t seem to have much of a capacity to understand that the more people he killed, the harder the cops were going to look for him and the more his picture would be on TV. So, when he killed an old lady named Wilma in southwest Missouri, it stood to reason that the manhunt would intensify.

At that point, I actually started looking for a woman. Everyone knew Alis had a mama somewhere, but no one could find her. Though I can’t remember exactly how I did it, I tracked her down and became the first reporter in Missouri to do so. I eventually made a few hundred bucks selling the interview to CBS’ 48 Hours program.

At one point in the interview she looked up at me and said, “They’re going to kill him.” I couldn’t make myself comfort her by telling her it wasn’t going to happen because I knew that if a cop had an open shot at Alis, he’d take it.

One night in late March, I found myself at another odd command post. The cops and media had taken over a small bar in Benton County, MO near Cole Camp. They had reason to believe Alis and his girlfriend Beverly were hiding in the area. It had become a full-blown Bonnie and Clyde story without all the messy bank robberies. I stood in a crush of media, barking questions at the county sheriff. National network camera rolled on either side of me. My voice would later be heard on national TV asking the sheriff about Alis’ movement around the county woods. At the time, that seemed about like the coolest thing ever. That night I spent the night in a noiseless cabin, soothing my nerves with a beer or two, and wondering how close Alis was.

Then came the night. A Water Patrol officer was checking out a house and ran right into Alis. The killer burst out of the door with a .22 to his girlfriend’s head and screamed out, “I’ve got a hostage. I’ll shoot her!”

Just like mama predicted the officer leveled his gun and fired a shot. The elusive Alis Ben Johns was on the ground in a second.

I drove at nearly 100mph all the way to the hospital in Sedalia. When I got there, I found almost every door locked. The glass emergency bay doors were blocked by cops and media. The front doors were sealed shut.

These days I probably wouldn’t do what I did that night. I wandered around the perimeter of the facility until I found a janitor who would let me inside. Once inside, I sneaked up to the emergency room where I found a friendly face: The sheriff of Pulaski County. He fed me a little bit of information about Alis’ condition and how the arrest went down. Minutes later, I was giving live reports from inside the hospital for my employer and my hometown station in Springfield.

I miss those days of pure, new journalism. I wasn’t getting paid anything and didn’t care. It was pure adrenaline and sex and one of the best tomes of my life. I wanted that night to last forever. It wasn’t the only one that got me off, but it’s one of the first and the one I remember most clearly.

Alis is on death row now. That woman in the unsexy sexy clothes is downstairs writing thank you cards to the girls who gave her baby shower gifts. And me? I’m sitting in the dark, drinking unsweetened iced tea and trying to decide which is more important: a sense of home or a sense of accomplishment.

But that’s another answer for another question.

Previously: Indian Joe and Why I’m Nuts

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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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10 Responses

  1. Stacie says:

    Ok first of all My Uncle Joe was no born killer. Just because he pissed the cops off because he out smarted them so many times don’t make him a born killer. If you guys even knew the truth about Joe you wouldn’t call him a born killer, because hes not. A little intelligence, for real i bet hes smarter than you. Who wrote this, because whoever did is on drugs. it sounds like you were in love with him and wanted be spend a night in bed with him. I came on this web site to read about my Great Uncle but i can see now that Ima have to go to a different one because this one sucks. Get all the facts before you go off and write a story about someone you know nothing about, that’s the problem with today’s society.

  2. Jessie Bettis says:

    I knew Alis. I always called him Injun or Ben. I ran into Ben the afternoon that they found the little blue car in the creek near Cole Camp. I had worked with him once on a house build – he was a laborer on the sight. A good hand really.
    Anyway, that afternoon, I was on my lunch break – I was working on a house off of south HWY 5 in Camdenton, down the road that goes just south of the runway at the Camdenton Airport – Rick and Susie Jennings’ house.
    I was southbound on a little road – don’t recall the number now, but it’s just east of town and meanders south back to Hwy 5 ending beside a great big red brick house. I had just passed a little farm and there were two old men standing in the road obviously admiring one of thier new truck. About 500 yards later I met a little blue car – going really slow like I was – looked at the driver, he looked at me, I knew right quick it was Ben. Scared the hell out of me – I thought I gotta get to town and tell somebody – then I thought about those two old men in the road. Knowing that at the time, Ben wouldnt think twice about killing them both and taking that new truck. As much as it scared me, I turned around and hauled ass back to the old men-asked them if they were OK, they said yes but some asshole just about ran them down just now. I guess he recognized me too.
    Ben wasnt crazy – yeah he was they kind of guy you’d refer to as ‘that crazy ass sumbitch’ – but not mean really crazy.
    I think things got way out of hand that day he killed that boy (Beverly’s new/old/recent boyfriend) on that road down by Lebanon. He shot him all nine times with that .22.
    He is one of the most backwoods able people I ever saw, and he isnt the sharpest tool in the shed. At the height of the manhunt, he was a cornered animal and didnt know how to end it – things had gone too far.
    I can say this though…of the several times during the manhunt that I ran into law enforcement roadblocks, it was real obvious that they wanted to catch him on the road like that instead of having to look for him in the woods. Nothing like finding an empty Pepsi can and a half eaten raw rabbit under a tree you walked by in the dark two hours before.

  3. walter acton says:

    wow just found this what a bunch of bullshit. for your records he was very intelligent and you forgot to say that he was shot in the back.lets at least get the facts straight.

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  5. Ricky says:

    While i agree with my sister Stacie, Joe was no born killer. Granted he was slow but he wasn’t a killer. Also, evidence never implicated him in Stewart’s murder, the police only guessed and assumed like a bunch of dumbshits.

  6. Rachel says:

    Leonard Was my grandpa and I don’t care what anyone says to stick up for Alis, that man took 3 lives and tore my family apart. Some of the best times of my life were going down to “grandpas farm” with the rest of my family and to see what had become of the place the day after my grandpa was found (blood stain on the mattress, footprints cut out of the carpet from that man, doorframe and door missing from him kicking it in, not to mention pulling up to the house in the dark with a bright yellow police/do not cross tape. One man even came back to the house to find the second bullet that was missing from my grandpas body)to the cops turning it into a command post with that guys wanted posted plastered everywhere. That man ruined us and took away the backbone of my family. He deserves to rot in jail for the rest of his life for putting 2 bullets into my grandpas head and for what he did Tommy and Wilma.

    And for everyone who’s saying that he was “so intelligent”‘ then why was the death penalty taken away from him because his intelligence was just under the cutoff?

  7. Rachel says:

    Leonard Was my grandpa and I don’t care what anyone says to stick up for Alis, that man took 3 lives and tore my family apart. Some of the best times of my life were going down to “grandpas farm” with the rest of my family and to see what had become of the place the day after my grandpa was found (blood stain on the mattress, footprints cut out of the carpet from that man, doorframe and door missing from him kicking it in, not to mention pulling up to the house in the dark with a bright yellow police/do not cross tape. One man even came back to the house to find the second bullet that was missing from my grandpas body)to the cops turning it into a command post with that guys wanted posted plastered everywhere. That man ruined us and took away the backbone of my family. He deserves to rot in jail for the rest of his life for putting 2 bullets into my grandpas head and for what he did Tommy and Wilma.

    And for everyone who’s saying that he was “so intelligent”‘ then why was the death penalty taken away from him because his intelligence was just under the cutoff?

  8. Jacob says:

    Alis, though I don’t remember him really. what I hear from family is he could survive , he is my uncle .yes takin lives is wrong unless protecting your family in extreme circumstances but I believe there’s more than what everyone knows or thinks and he lived in a rough time growing up but thank God for my Uncle Joe because if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have been born or my sister’s an brother . thanks for saving my mom from being shocked to death but yeah back to the point when a living thing gets trapped or scared it fights and or flights when a living thing is hungry or thirsty it eats or drinks when a living thing needs shelter it finds shelter with this being said he had to do what he needed to survive while not nowing what was going to happen when the cops found him hell he still got shot and my older sister at five got a gun pointed in her direction by an FBI agent while they where searching my parents property .also many people where pointed at with guns of scared ass cops sweating and shaking while looking at road blocks in the area for Joe. Hes family so sorry to families who lost loved ones but he is my uncle and a big reason I could go live off the grid knowing I could survive because I love the woods I like Joe for who he was in the woods a survivalist who could track any animal and even get close enough to touch he wasn’t all bad just had bad choices

  9. RC says:

    We lived in Henry Co at the time and he got close to where we lived. It was terrifying and we had our rifle and shotgun loaded it was not a good time

  1. May 16, 2009

    […] point, murder and death—even up close—had grown to be just another day at work. I’d followed Alis Ben Johns across Missouri. I’d been at Pearl High School the Day Luke Woodham came in with a gun and kicked […]

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