Murder suspect's body exhumed in Tuskegee

TUSKEGEE, AL (WSFA)The investigation of an unsolved murder in 1992 led investigators from the Worcester Police Department and the Worcester District Attorney's Office to seek the exhumation of a body from an Alabama cemetery, according to Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr.

Working in cooperation with District Attorney E. Paul Jones of the Fifth Judicial Circuit in Alabama, Worcester Detectives planned to have the body of James Earl Johnson exhumed from Ashdale Cemetery. A DNA sample will be extracted from the body to compare it with DNA from an unsolved murder and two unsolved rapes in Worcester.

"I want to thank District Attorney E. Paul Jones for his help in making the exhumation possible," Mr. Early said. "His efforts will provide the Massachusetts investigators with the evidence that we hope can close several horrible cases and bring a measure of closure to the victims' families."

Mr. Johnson lived Worcester for 15 years in the 1980s and '90s.

On December 11, 1992, firefighters battling a blaze in an abandoned building in Worcester found the corpse of Denise Comeau. An autopsy showed that she was strangled before the fire burned her body.  Forensic evidence was recovered during the autopsy and was preserved.

As part of a special effort to solve long unsolved crimes, the male DNA recovered with Ms. Comeau's body was compared with male DNA from two rapes during the 1990s. In one of those rapes Mr. Johnson was identified as a suspect but he was never arrested for the crime. The DNA match implies that the man who committed the rapes also killed Ms. Comeau.

"This is solid detective work by everyone involved," Mr. Early said. "While it is science that provides the key links in these cases, it was the perseverance and determination of the Worcester detectives that brought us to this point."

In 2007, when some of the DNA analysis occurred, the statute of limitations for one the rapes was about to expire. To keep the case alive, the District Attorney's Office presented evidence of the rape to the Worcester County Grand Jury.  That presentation led to an indictment of a John Doe who was linked to the DNA.

Both rape victims have since died and Mr. Johnson died in 2008 at age 61.

The body was exhumed Thursday morning and will be taken to the Ala. Department of Forensic Science before Massachusetts officials will transport it back to Worcester.