PD: Portage couple likely ‘not alive’; son a person of interest

Kalamazoo and Battle Creek

PORTAGE, Mich. (WOOD) — Police say they are leaning toward calling the disappearance of a Portage couple a homicide case and have named the couple’s son a person of interest.

Portage Department of Public Safety Chief Nicholas Armold released the new information during a news conference Thursday afternoon, saying that while he still hopes Gary and Laura Johnson turn up safe and sound, everything his investigators are finding is “leading us to believe they are not alive.”

“Although we’re going to remain optimistic that we’re going to find … the Johnsons, we’re leaning more toward this is going to be a homicide,” Armold said. “Hopefully we’re wrong, but that’s where we’re leading. There’s enough evidence now inside the home and with the vehicles.”

The couple’s son, 27-year-old Nicholas Alexander Johnson, was arrested Tuesday on unrelated charges. At the time, police said they didn’t have any persons of interest in the case. That changed on Thursday.

“Clearly, anytime there’s a case like this, you’re always looking at family members,” Armold said. “So Nick Johnson was someone we were looking for to talk to about this case.”

Armold also wouldn’t say how they located Nick Johnson, who was arraigned Wednesday on charges of being a felon in possession of a firearm and felony firearm. Both are felonies, the first punishable by up to five years in prison and the second by up to two years.

During the Thursday news conference, Armold wouldn’t release details on evidence police found at the elder Johnsons’ home on Romence Road in Portage. He did say the last time the couple had been seen was on Wednesday, Feb. 3.

“Right now, we’re on track for a Chris Lockhart-style case,” Armold said, referencing the death of Lockhart’s wife Theresa Lockhart in 2017.

In that case, Christopher Lockhart left behind a written confession with directions to find his wife’s body before his apparent suicide at the couple’s Portage home.

Investigators have been at Gary and Laura Johnsons’ house since Tuesday. On Thursday, Arnold said the area is still under investigation.

“Unfortunately, I think we’re going to be out there a couple more days,” Arnold said.

Authorities began investigating Tuesday morning after they were contacted by Gary Johnson’s employer who said he did not log on for work in a few days. Officers went to to the Johnsons’ house for a welfare check but the couple wasn’t there.

“Mr. Johnson was a 25-year employee, very reliable and responsible… for the past couple days he hadn’t shown up to work virtually,” Armold told News 8 Wednesday.

“Once they got inside the home they didn’t find the Johnsons; nobody was there. One of the vehicles was missing out of the garage. But they did find evidence inside that led them to believe there was some sort of violent activity that took place,” he added.

Police outside the home of Gary and Laura Johnson in Portage on Feb. 9, 2021.

Authorities said signs of digging in the backyard — a perhaps 12-inch deep depression under a tree — prompted them to bring in extra help, but they ultimately didn’t find anything.

“I hope that we find the Johnson’s healthy and well and maybe tan from being down South, but right now what we have doesn’t lead us to believe that that’s going to happen,” Armold said Thursday.

In 2019, court records show Nicholas Johnson was charged with home invasion and assault at his parents’ house on Romence Road. He ultimately pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of breaking and entering, after which a no-contact order was issued.

During his arraignment Wednesday, prosecutors said Nick Johnson was arrested Tuesday at Milham Meadows in Portage, where Laura Johnson’s car was also found. On Thursday, prosecutors said he was actually arrested at Mallard Cove Apartments in Portage.

Armold said it appeared Nick Johnson had been living in a basement storage unit at Mallard Cove. Johnson’s defense attorney previously said he has been living at a friend’s house for the last few years, though property records listed his address as his parents’ home.

A booking photo of Nicholas Johnson from the Kalamazoo County Jail. (Feb. 9, 2021)

Considering the investigation currently underway into his parents’ disappearance, Kalamazoo County Judge Richard Santoni set Johnson’s bond at $100,000.

“I can’t ignore it,” Santoni said. “It creates a cloud over these proceedings. If I were to ignore it I would be simply ignoring reality, and I’m not going to do that.”

He said he had reviewed search warrants that detail “allegations where the defendant is accused of committing crimes against his parents.”

“We haven’t been able to come up with a rational explanation as to why they’re not at home. Why they are not at work, why nobody has seen or talked to them,” Santoni said. “We hoped that the Johnson’s had just decided to go on a vacation, and that really is even today … our primary concern is where are they and are they OK.”

With every hour that passes, concern grows in the Johnson’s neighborhood.

“This is way too close to home. I live a minute up the road, like this is not OK. This shouldn’t happen in Portage at all — our town’s supposed to be safe,” neighbor Alan Mohr told News 8 Wednesday. “From what I know they were very friendly and very kind. They were church-going people. They were very good people.”

Anyone with information about the Johnsons is asked to call the Portage Department of Public Safety at 269.329.4567 or Silent Observer at 269.343.2100.

**Correction: A previous version of this report misspelled the Portage public safety director’s last name. We regret the mistake, which has been fixed.

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