Solved: The brutal murder of Erica Green
Updated: Apr 8, 2022
A few months ago, I made a YouTube video on cold cases that were solved years later, and people really seemed to like it. Most of the cases on that list went at least a decade before being solved. But some cases only grow cold for a few years before the truth finally comes out.
Our next story went unsolved for four years and is especially brutal — one of the more brutal ones I’ve covered, so be forewarned. But I think it’s an important story to tell for so many reasons. This is the story of Erica Green.
Erica Michelle Marie Green was born on May 15, 1997 in McLoud, Oklahoma. Her mother, Michelle Pierce, had been in prison for just over a month for larceny (some sources said forgery). Erica was the youngest of five children Michelle had with Larry Green. She has three other children, but I couldn’t determine paternity for any of them.
The Mabel Bassett Correctional Center didn’t allow inmates’ children to live with them, so Michelle had to find a guardian for Erica. She chose Betty Brown, a friend of her grandmother. In order to take Erica home with her, Betty filled out a one page form and showed prison officials her driver’s license and Sam’s Club card. There was no background check ever performed.
Erica was raised in Oklahoma, mostly by Betty, who said Erica was one of the most independent children she had ever met. On April 4, 2001, Michelle picked up three-year-old Erica, saying she wanted to take her to a family reunion. Michelle and her then-boyfriend, Harrell Johnson (who she would marry the following year) took Erica and one of Harrell’s children to Kansas City, Missouri, where they moved in with one of his cousins. Michelle had been in the area to look for a job, but ended up getting into drugs. And Betty Brown would never see Erica again.
On the evening of April 28, 2001, police in Kansas City were searching for a missing elderly man when they stumbled on something else. The naked, decapitated body of a young child was found in a wooded area in the city, close to a church. The child’s head was found three days later by a volunteer searcher, stuffed in a plastic bag about 100 yards away from the body.
The body was of a black female, initially estimated to be between three and six. Because of the child’s age and the brutality of the crime, the discovery quickly gained national attention. But despite this, nobody came forward to actually claim the body of the girl, who had been dubbed ‘Precious Doe.’ No children fitting her description had been reported missing in the area, and there were no witnesses to the murder or the disposal of the body.
Due to her age, investigators were stunned that ‘Precious Doe’ hadn’t been reported missing. But in the absence of anyone else claiming her, the public stepped up. Volunteers helped spread the word about the case via radio, newspapers, flyers and knocking on doors. They also raised money for Precious Doe’s funeral, which was held in December 2001 and attended by hundreds of people. They also raised money for a memorial to Precious Doe in Hibbs Park, close to where her body was found.
And investigators were hard at work too. After the body was found, police released a composite sketch and narrowed down the girl’s potential age rage to between three and four years old. In 2002, Precious Doe’s body was exhumed so a new autopsy could be conducted. The body was exhumed again in 2003 so investigators could study the likeness of her skull and create a new bust showing what she may have looked like. The case was featured multiple times on shows like America’s Most Wanted and Cold Case Files. Police received over 1,000 tips concerning the case, some from as far away as Jamaica. But for four long years, all the efforts ultimately led to nothing.
Perhaps one of the most vocal activists for ‘Precious Doe’ was Alonzo Washington. He raised $33,000 for reward money in the case and even released a comic book about it. Every year on the anniversary of ‘Precious Doe’s’ body being found, he put out an ad in a local African American newspaper, The Kansas City Call (sometimes shortened to ’The Call’). These ads urged anyone with information in the case to come forward, and it was one of them that ended up breaking the case wide open.
On April 30, 2005, Alonzo received a tip from a man named Thurmon McIntosh, who claimed to be the grandfather of Harrell Johnson. Harrell lived in Muskogee, Oklahoma, but had been in Kansas City in the spring of 2001 with his wife, Michelle, one of his children, and Michelle’s three-year-old daughter, Erica Green. The Johnsons eventually returned to Oklahoma, but Erica wasn’t with them. Michelle had always told questioning relatives and friends that Erica was with someone else, but Thurmon believed Erica might actually be ‘Precious Doe.’
Alonzo forwarded the tip to a Kansas City homicide detective, and Thurmon McIntosh was brought in for questioning on May 4. He was able to provide investigators with photographs of a girl he claimed was Erica, as well as hair from Michelle Johnson. The photos actually turned out to be one of Erica’s cousins, but the DNA from the hair was a match to Precious Doe. The Johnsons were brought in for questioning that same day and, between the two of them, the full story came out pretty quickly.
In late April 2001, the Johnsons were living in Kansas City with Harrell’s cousin. Also living with them was Harrell’s child, six-month-old Markeshia Johnson, as well as Erica Green. One night, Harrell grew frustrated with Erica because she didn’t want to go to bed. He was already drunk, which could have contributed to his frustration. He was also high on PCP at the time. I knew pretty much nothing about PCP before making this video, but apparently at high doses it can cause delusions, disordered thinking, and detachment from your environment. Some of these things might at least partially explain what happened next.
With Michelle close by, an angry Harrell began kicking Erica. I’m not entirely sure how many times he kicked her, but at least one kick connected with her head, which knocked her unconscious.
When Michelle realized what had happened, she was horrified. But both of them had outstanding warrants for their arrest, so they didn’t want to seek medical help for Erica. Michelle tried to revive Erica by putting her in a bathtub full of cold water, but it didn’t work. Erica never woke up, and it's estimated that she was unconscious between ten hours and two days before she died.
After Erica’s death, the couple hid her body in a baby stroller. Armed with a pair of hedge clippers, they took her to the wooded area where her body was eventually found. They took her clothes off, and Harrell cut off her head with the hedge clippers to prevent her from being identified. They initially put her head in the dumpster of the nearby church, but Michelle was afraid people at the church would smell it. So they took it out and dumped it in the woods.
The next day, when Harrell’s cousin asked where Erica was, Michelle told her Betty Brown, the woman who raised her, had come and taken her back to Oklahoma. Over the next four years, she told similar lies to Erica’s siblings and Larry Green. Sometimes she would refuse to talk about Erica at all. Nobody ever reported her missing because they believed she was simply somewhere else.
On May 5, 2005, it was announced that ‘Precious Doe’ was Erica Green and that the Johnsons had both been charged with second degree felony murder. Both in jail at the time on unrelated charges, they were extradited to Kansas City.
While they were both in jail awaiting trial, Harrell wrote letters to Michelle, urging her to change her story and pin the murder on someone else. But in September 2007, Michelle pled guilty to the second degree murder charge and decided to testify against Harrell. She was eventually sentenced to 25 years in prison, 15 for murder and 10 for endangering the welfare of a child, abandoning a corpse and tampering with physical evidence.
After learning Michelle planned to testify against him, Harrell’s tone changed. He told Michelle he hoped she got ‘ran over,’ though I’m not sure if he meant this literally or metaphorically. He also said she was no better than him, and used to abandon Erica for hours while she did drugs.
After the Johnsons were arrested, a Kansas City police officer said Harrell’s charges might be bumped to first degree murder if a grand jury could provide premeditation. I’m assuming they did at some point because, when Harrell’s trial began in October 2008, that’s what he was charged with.
In addition to the Johnsons’ confessions and Michelle’s testimony, there was physical evidence. Erica’s autopsy report was consistent with the injuries Harrell claimed to have given her. It also listed her cause of death as a ‘closed head injury,’ which is usually caused by the head hitting an object or vice versa. A neurosurgeon testified that if Erica had gotten medical attention right away, she probably would have survived.
Between all of these things, Harrell Johnson's fate was sealed. It took just a few days for the jury to find him guilty of first degree murder, endangering the welfare of a child and abusing a child. In November, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Harrell later appealed his conviction. According to his and Michelle’s testimony, Erica’s death had been in the heat of the moment and not premeditated, a requirement for first degree murder. But the appeal was denied because of the deliberate decision not to seek medical attention for Erica, which probably would have saved her.
In 2010, Erica’s biological father, Larry Green, filed a lawsuit against the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. According to the lawsuit, they should have monitored Erica after she was born and had better procedures in place to determine who would get custody of her. It also said the Department of Corrections should contact the Oklahoma Department of Human Services when an inmate gives birth so the child could be better cared for. The lawsuit was settled in 2013. The DHS, DOC and the University of Oklahoma Medical Center — where Erica was born — agreed to “adopt new procedures to ensure the babies born to mothers in prison will be referred to DHS to plan for the safe placement of the newborn before the baby leaves the hospital.” An undisclosed amount of monetary compensation was paid to Larry Green, and the DHS said they would collectively refer to the new policies as ‘Erica’s Rule.’
On May 15, 2017, community activists gathered at Erica’s new grave to have a party for her on what would have been her 20th birthday. At the party, activists handed out fliers for groups like Momma on a Mission, Mothers in Charge and Corey’s Network, all dedicated to advocating for victims of violence and their families.
This is everything I have on the case up to the present day. I am very curious to hear your thoughts in the comments below.