Over the next few days, we'll take you behind the headlines and inside two murder investigations. Family members claim both cases are linked by possible corruption at the highest level.
In part one of our series, “Murder at the Crossroads,” we take a look at the deadly beating of Hank Johnson.
A pair of shoes, a ripped t-shirt, and jeans – it’s all Sandi Johnson has left of her son.
“Hank was a very trusting person.”
In the summer of 2008, Hank left his home in Pasadena and moved into a motel room in Hearne. The 27 year-old spent his days working as a welder at the Oak Grove Plant in Robertson County.
Hank Johnson's good reputation didn't fit in at the Executive Inn. Police called it a hub for drugs and prostitution; the type of place locals would tell you to avoid after dark. But for Johnson, room 125 was his temporary home.
On the night of July 10th it became a crime scene.
Just before midnight, Johnson's girlfriend, Sunney Carter, found him on the floor of his room. Barely conscious. Barely alive.
“You could see there was some blood. He was just sitting there slumped over his knees. I called the front desk and told them something happened, and that it looked like he had been beaten.”
Hearne police roped off the scene while paramedics transported Johnson to St. Joseph Regional Health Center in Bryan. He slipped into a coma and died less than two weeks later with his mom by his side.
“What happened that night took my heart, and my family's heart, and his kids' heart."
Back at the scene, cops questioned several people, knocked on doors and combed the area for evidence. Two of Johnson's guitars were missing from his room.
The assault investigation turned homicide case fell into the lap of Sergeant Steve Stokley, a former detective with the Hearne Police Department.
Stokely, who would only talk to News 3 off-camera, says he quickly developed several possible suspects. Billy Blackburn, 41, was the first.
In and out of jail since the eighties, Blackburn's rap sheet is littered with burglary, assault and witness retaliation charges. What's more interesting - his brother-in-law is Robertson County District Attorney John Paschall. Johnson's mother claims the connection is a conflict of interest that led to a cover-up.
“At that point I knew something was wrong. I knew it.”
Paschall would not talk about the Johnson case on camera, but did admit he met with Blackburn about Johnson's assault.
Paschall's move eventually prompted Ms. Johnson to file a federal lawsuit. She and her attorney want Paschall pulled from the case. The lawsuit claims Paschall violated basic investigative procedure, according to the state's rules of professional conduct, because a law enforcement officer did not witness the interview.
Paschall says when he met with his brother-in-law, Blackburn unleashed information about another suspect; a man who Blackburn said had a reason to want Johnson dead.
Ralph Martinez, 41, knew Billy Blackburn, and had ties to the motel where Johnson stayed. According to Paschall, days before the attack Martinez told Blackburn he suspected his girlfriend was cheating on him with a plant worker, and said he might need "help."
Even though Hearne police were investigating, Paschall questioned Martinez and his girlfriend, Patricia Nelson.
According to the D.A.’s report, both Nelson and Martinez admitted they were at the scene the night Johnson was attacked, but denied being involved. The report shows Nelson and Martinez's statements didn't add up. Both were badly bruised.
According to the report, Martinez stated he had been hit with a baseball bat.
Ms. Johnson believes the injuries matched her son's. A possible lead that Johnson claims investigators ignored.
“I noticed a wood mark on his arm and I said, ‘there is a wood mark on my son's arm’ and he says, ‘I don't know what that would've been.’”
Paschall told News 3 he believes Martinez is capable of murder. In fact, shortly after their interview, Martinez took a polygraph test. According to Paschall, he failed. Just when Ms. Johnson thought the D.A. was closing in on her son's killer - another blow.
The suspect’s sister, Esther Martinez, was supposed to testify against her brother to the grand jury, but backed out at the last minute. The move left detectives scrambling for a new lead; they turned to Patricia Nelson, Martinez's girlfriend.
The day before Nelson was supposed to take a polygraph, Paschall called the Hearne police detective heading up the case. Steve Stokely told News 3 off camera that's when he learned Paschall was conducting interviews behind his back. The conversation turned ugly, and Stokley hit record.