Warning: Details in this story are graphic and may be disturbing to some readers.
It was a violent crime unlike any ever seen in Oak Park, a town known more for Frank Lloyd Wright architecture and Ernest Hemingway's birthplace than brutal murder mysteries.
On April 13, 2020, Thomas Johnson, 69, and his wife Leslie Jones, 67, were discovered dead in their home on the 500 block of Fair Oaks Avenue. Johnson was stabbed 17 times, and Jones was stabbed 34 times, according to medical examiner’s reports.
The home did not appear to be ransacked. Nothing in the house was stolen -- no money or jewelry. The couple was described by friends and family as revered community members who dedicated their lives to civil rights.
Oak Park Police declined to talk to NBC 5 Investigates about any aspect of the unsolved case citing their ongoing investigation, but in a Feb. 2 video statement, Oak Park Police Chief LaDon Reynolds said that despite no answers found after nine months, “I can personally assure you that the investigation of this shocking and brutal crime has not stalled or slowed in any way.”
Lawyers & Activists
Both Jones and Johnson were graduates of Harvard Law School. Jones earned her bachelor’s degree in economics from Yale University and MBA from the University of Chicago. Johnson earned his bachelor’s degree from the American University.
Johnson and Jones were partners at the law firm Johnson, Jones, Snelling Gilbert & Davis, which was founded by Johnson in 1984. The firm specializes in health care, employment and labor law, civil rights, and commercial litigation.
Jones specialized in “federal litigation, real estate, corporate transactions and zoning,” according to the law firm’s website and taught an ethics class at the Northwestern Law School. She was also a supporter of the arts.
“Leslie was a talented knitter, jewelry-maker, basket-maker, Japanese ink painter and screen-printer," Kaidrea Stockman wrote on the Oak Park Area Arts Council website.
Johnson practiced law for over 40 years, handling a variety of clients from large corporations to impoverished individuals according to his resume. He served as counsel for Chicago Mayor Harold Washington on his campaigns as well as Timothy Evans’ mayoral campaign and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia’s 2014-2015 campaign. Johnson represented the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) for over 24 years to establish affordable housing in Chicago, worked on voter registration and the electoral system in Cook County and worked with Chief Judge Timothy Evans to reform the county’s bail system.
Johnson also served as a hearing officer for the Chicago Police board since 1991, presiding over police misconduct cases involving Chicago Police officers. He oversaw more than 350 administrative disciplinary cases including high-profile Laquan McDonald, Bettie Jones and LaTanya Haggerty.
The couple met in 1975 while working together at the Legal Assistance Foundation, a non-profit organization providing free legal services. The foundation has since changed its name to Legal Aid Chicago.
They married and had three children.
Possible Theories in the Crime
NBC 5 Investigates spent months reviewing the autopsy reports, the legal work the couple was involved in and talked to friends and family. We shared our reporting with veteran homicide detective Richard Schak who retired after 30 years of working Chicago homicide. He is now the chair of the Criminal Justice program at National Lewis University.
"I don’t think this was random because of the overkill," said Schak. "I think somebody planned it and had something against them. Mr. Johnson was a late-night guy. People would know that by casing the place and determine when people would be in bed."
The couple was attacked apparently as they slept in their upstairs bedroom. Johnson was found facedown in the bed stabbed 17 times in the head, neck and back, according to autopsy reports.
“I’m looking for enemies," said Schak. "I’m looking for anybody that would want to do that much damage to somebody."
Johnson’s wife Leslie was at the bottom of the stairs, dressed in her nightgown apparently trying to escape. She was stabbed 34 times in the eye, mouth, ear and forehead.
“There’s anger and rage there," added Schak. “Probably twice as much as with Mr. Johnson. It shows she might have put up a struggle or the killer just went off and kept stabbing.”
Autopsy reports indicate there was no sign of forced entry, stating, "the front door to the residence closed but unlocked" and "did not appear to be ransacked." The only item noted was Johnson’s wallet, which was found on "the bedroom floor with its contents scattered."
"You could say the person was looking for something specific and found it or didn’t or they were trying to make it look like a robbery or home invasion that it wasn’t," Schak said.
A Clue in the Case?
The family dog known to bark was wounded but not killed in the violent attack. An Oak Park detective reported that the “couple’s dog was alive and still present in the residence.”
"Nobody’s mad at the dog. The dog was doing his job," noted Schak. "You stab the dog one time to silence the dog and then, mission accomplished."
The autopsy reports also noted that “prints from the dog and offender stepping in blood were visible in the residence.” A possible clue?
“They’re not totally definitive but put you in the right direction,” Schak said. “Sometimes a type of shoe size can be identified by that.”
DNA Left at the Crime Scene?
Autopsy reports indicated that Jones and Johnson died of “multiple sharp force injuries" from a knife.
“When you see an attack that violent with a knife, it’s easy for the offender to be injured himself," Schak said, adding that it would not surprise him if the offender left DNA at the crime scene. "It is likely the killer left his DNA. Unless the offender wore protective clothing or gloves."
After eliminating friends and family, Schak said detectives would run any unidentified samples of DNA through all existing data banks of known offenders.
In reviewing the case, Schak said that investigators have undoubtedly looked for disgruntled legal clients at Johnson's job as a hearing officer at the Chicago Police Board handling hundreds of complaints against officers since 1991. Johnson presided over police misconduct cases in which officers lost their jobs and pensions, and some of the couple’s friends and family have wondered if the suspect could be a police officer.
“Certainly you would look at that," said Schak, but added, "I personally don’t think it was law enforcement. If law enforcement was involved, I think it would be quicker and cleaner. They’re going to do it and get out."
At the heart of this murder mystery is a devastated family. Their three sons are grown, some living out of state, and told us it was too difficult to talk. The house has been sold but no one on Fair Oaks Avenue will forget what happened or the couple who gave so much to so many.