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Friday, March 28, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Co-Worker Arrested In Slaying Of Woman -- After 11 Months, Still No Body Or Motive

Seattle Times Staff Reporters

KIRKLAND - The phone call that Greg Johnson had been awaiting so long came just after midnight yesterday.

Exactly 11 months after his estranged wife vanished, King County homicide detectives telephoned him with the news: A 43-year-old former co-worker and family friend had been arrested in connection with her slaying.

It has been a long search for answers since Sandi Johnson, 28, a mother of two, failed to return home April 26. Yesterday at the family's Kirkland home, Greg Johnson and his sister Dana Sutliff said that now they finally might learn what happened to her.

"We pretty much accepted that she was dead, because she would have never run off like that," Sutliff said. "But we hoped it wouldn't have been a murder."

Although Johnson's body has never been found, King County Police have treated her disappearance as a slaying because friends and family have insisted she would never have left her two children, Kaitlyn, 4, and Sean, 5.

King County detectives arrested the suspect Wednesday afternoon at his home in Richland, Benton County. He was booked into King County Jail on one count of murder and two unrelated counts of assault and robbery.

The man usually lives in South King County, but he frequently spent time in Richland visiting family, said Joanne Elledge, King County Police spokeswoman.

A trail of clues

Johnson has been missing since April 26, when she left her Kirkland home to run errands and meet a friend for lunch at Bellevue Square. She never made it to lunch, nor to her son's birthday party the next day.

The morning she disappeared, Johnson either made or received a phone call on her cellular phone, later traced to a bank near Bellevue Square.

Two days later, Johnson's wallet was found in the parking lot of a Rainier Valley-area hardware store, 20 miles from her home. Two days after that, her station wagon was found in a grocery-store parking lot near Tukwila.

Both Johnson and the suspect worked at Bowen Scarff Ford in Kent. But when contacted yesterday, employees said the man did not work there anymore and declined to comment on the investigation.

Elledge said that Johnson and the man appeared to have a platonic relationship and that the two occasionally would eat together. Johnson's family said the man had even come to their home for dinner, but they declined to talk about him further.

The man had been an early suspect. Detectives focused on him recently as they eliminated others, including Johnson's estranged husband, Greg, Elledge said.

In further interviews, detectives discovered inconsistencies in the man's statements, Elledge said.

Detectives also found physical evidence that they think links the man to the slaying, Elledge said, although she would not disclose what it was.

"It developed into what they think is a good case, even without a body," Elledge said.

But why?

Elledge said the motive is still unclear.

King County Police have search warrants for the man's homes in Richland and South King County, and for his car, Elledge said.

The unrelated assault and robbery counts stem from a February 1996 incident in which the man apparently called a 26-year-old woman from an escort service to his South King County home, Elledge said. When the woman refused to have sex with the man, he allegedly choked her and took her money.

It has been a difficult year for Sandi Johnson's family and friends, who distributed nearly 3,000 fliers, contacted the local media, wore ribbons - anything to keep her name in the public's mind.

Although they had hoped someone would come forward, they did it mainly because there was nothing else they could do.

"At the time it happened, we felt so helpless," Sutliff said. "All the fliers, the ribbons, it was our way of saying, `Sandi, we are trying.' "

The family even went to four psychics. Each said Sandi Johnson was dead, but none could help find her body.

"When you are in that situation, you look for anything," Sutliff said.

Then there were Sean and Kaitlyn. The family decided they couldn't shelter the children from the truth.

"We talked to them and told them that their mommy is dead and that she is in heaven," Sutliff said. "They talk about her so much. They miss her."

Tacked above Sean's bed is a photo of his mother, smiling. On the paper surrounding it, he wrote in shaky crayon "I love you mom, XOXOXO."

Husband was suspect

Perhaps hardest for the family, and especially Greg Johnson, was the strained relationship with investigators.

For nearly six months, police considered Greg Johnson a suspect. He had been separated from his wife for nearly four months when she disappeared.

Johnson said he rarely got a straight answer from detectives. "If I asked what color the sky was, they said red," Johnson said.

Even after he was cleared, Johnson said he went for months without hearing from the police.

That changed six weeks ago, when detectives said they were focusing on the Richland man. Since then, Johnson said he has talked to investigators at least four times a week.

Now that an arrest has been made, the family just wants the ordeal to end quickly.

"We are hoping that (the suspect) will confess and tell us where she is, so that we can bring her home and put her with the family where she belongs," Sutliff said.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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