By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
The family of a missing 22-year-old man said they fear he, like his slain pregnant girlfriend, may have been the victim of violence, and believe he’s been unfairly portrayed by the police and media as a suspect in her killing.
Tom and Kathy Johnson of Petersburg, Alaska, the parents of Boaz “Bo” Johnson, said their last contact with him was by phone on May 27, the day before the body of Bo Johnson’s girlfriend, 25-year-old Brittany-Jane Royal, was discovered caught up in a line of a fishing boat off the lower Puna coastline.
They and another son, Mark, are on the Big Island. They said they hope to find Bo Johnson alive or get answers about what happened to him. Police say the couple was camping near the entry to the lava viewing area in Kalapana, not far from where Royal’s body was found. Tom Johnson said that police “haven’t told us much.”
“We don’t even know where the tent is located,” he said. “They told us that they have had people out there for a few days and searched around maybe six square miles and they had helicopters out there looking for him or any evidence. But as far as anything else, nothing that I can recall.”
Lt. Greg Esteban of the Hilo Criminal Investigations Section said police are “actively pursuing leads in the case and we have not found Mr. Johnson.”
“As a result, he is still considered a missing person and he is not excluded as a suspect in the (homicide) case,” he said. Police said an autopsy found that Royal had been strangled.
Kathy Johnson said police showed them photos of the campsite, but it doesn’t look to her like a crime scene.
“There was a photo that showed their guitars and ukulele neatly stacked up in the corner of the tent,” she said. “If there was a struggle in the tent, they probably should have been knocked around and on the ground.”
Esteban said police have executed a search warrant on the campsite and have sent the evidence collected to a forensic lab for analysis.
Bo Johnson brought Royal to Alaska in late April to meet the family and stayed about a week, his parents said. They said they learned about her pregnancy then.
The couple then went to Tustin, Calif., to see Royal’s parents before returning to the Big Island. They said the couple was buying 10 acres of land on the Kalapana lava field with plans of building a home and starting an organic farm. Tom Johnson said the land was the topic of the last conversation he had with his son.
“He was upbeat because he was about to do the most important thing he’d ever done in his life; that was to get that property the next morning,” he said.
They said they discovered their son was missing when he didn’t show up for his appointment to close the property purchase and the Realtor contacted them. Police issued a bulletin about his disappearance on May 30.
Bo Johnson is one of 12 siblings. One of his sisters, Ruth Johnson, said by phone that she came to the Big Island in February and stayed with her brother and Royal in a house they were renting in Kalapana at the time. She’s since left the island. She said that while she was here, she and Bo Johnson went out on the lava flows with a tourist family. She said there was no money involved, but that afterward, a commercial lava tour guide threatened her brother.
“He just showed up at my brother’s house in Kalapana,” she said. “He was under the impression that we’d been taking these people out to the lava for pay. He said he owned all 900 acres of the lava, that he owned it and that we weren’t allowed to go out there.” She said the guide said he had a rifle and would come back to the house and “shoot it up” if they continued to take people out to see the lava. She said that she didn’t call police for fear of retribution. The Johnsons showed the Tribune-Herald some online reviews from tourists who wrote that they were harassed and threatened by guides for declining a tour and traversing the lava field on their own.
Kathy Johnson said mortgage payments were $500 a month and her son had wanted to guide lava tours to make payments until he and Royal could get their farm up and running. She said that he had brought some building materials onto the property the couple was purchasing.
“It was going to be closing very soon, so he was trying to put up some kind of structure,” she said. “When he talked to me, he said there was a place for $350 (a month) that he would try to rent because Brittany was very sick from the nausea and morning sickness, and we encouraged him to get her off the ground, get her comfortable, and she would probably feel a lot better.”
Mark Johnson described his brother as “very smart, brilliant,” and that he had managed an ice cream parlor with 20 employees at age 18. The family said he had also worked as a commercial fisherman and served a hitch as an Army reservist. They said they don’t want to fear the worst, and believe it’s possible that he may be hiding out of fear for his own safety.
“He’s been camping since he was a little boy. I took him camping many times,” Tom Johnson said. “He camped up in Petersburg. He had basic training in the Army, so he’s got some skills. He’s a smart kid. He could take care of himself. These woods are easy compared to what Alaska is like. If he wasn’t injured, he could last out there a while.”
Mark Johnson said his “main concern” is that police “investigate the threats on his life and to others in that area.”
“Whatever channels it takes to go through the legal system, that’s what we’re gonna be willing to do,” he said.
The Johnsons said they believe police have been tailing them.
“We hope it’s the police,” said Mark Johnson, and his father added: “They’re not real crafty about it. I feel like they want us to know that they’re following us.”
The family declined to be photographed, citing safety concerns, and Tom Johnson eschewed any possibility of his son’s involvement in Royal’s death.
“He would not do that,” he said. “This isn’t just two people who met and camped together one night. They were in love. He loved her and he was looking forward to having that baby and making a life for them out there. That was the most important thing to him.”
Ruth Johnson said she’s saddened by seeing her brother’s name “trampled” in the media.
“We all love Bo so much,” she said. “If somebody’s out there who knows what happened, I hope they’ll come forward. And I hope this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.