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Defendant found guilty of first-degree murder in death of teen Riley Whitelaw in CO Springs Walgreens

Posted at 1:46 PM, Oct 04, 2023
and last updated 2023-10-04 17:34:59-04

EL PASO COUNTY, Colo. — A jury found Joshua Johnson, who is accused of killing a teen in a Colorado Springs Walgreens in 2022, guilty of first-degree murder on Wednesday afternoon.

The jury entered deliberations around 12:45 p.m. Wednesday before they returned with the verdict.

Defendant Joshua Johnson is accused of fatally stabbing 17-year-old Riley Whitelaw, whose body was found inside the Colorado Springs Walgreens store where they both worked in June 2022.

Wednesday morning started with Johnson answering Judge Eric Bentley on his intention to not testify on his own behalf. The jury entered the filled courtroom just after 9 a.m. Judge Bentley went ahead and instructed the jury they would be hearing the defense's case as the prosecution rested Tuesday.

The defense's first witness called to the stand was Corporal Taylor, whose name and rank were Detective Perry at the time of Riley's killing. Corporal Taylor was one of the first witnesses brought forward to the stand by the prosecution.

The defense provided a report from the night of Whitelaw's murder between Corporal Taylor and Crystal Ishmael, a supervisor at the Walgreens. The defense focused on Ishmael's account of the night, the defense pointed out that in Taylor's report, Ishmael said she had cracked a door, saw the bleach, and then proceeded to head to the dumpster corral where she reported more bleach and the unidentifiable person. That was all the questions the defense had for this witness.

In the redirect, the prosecution wanted to know the condition of Ishmael when she gave this report. Corporal Taylor said she was hysterical and there was a lot of multi-tasking happening by everyone at the scene. That is all the prosecution had for their redirect.

The next witness called to the stand was Blaine Withers. Withers was the store manager of a different Walgreens within the city at the time of Riley's killing. Withers got involved when other higher-ups required specific keys and access to the Walgreens building.

The defense asked about how Withers spoke with lead Det. Mike Lee about specific employee complaints and employee files. Withers said due to the fact that he was not the manager of the store, he had no access to employee files or formal complaints. This ended the defense's line of questioning for the witness and the prosecution declined to cross-examine the witness.

Following a question about an inventory tracking device, Withers was dismissed from the case as a witness. The defense followed by calling Det. Mike Lee to the stand.

The defense asked Lee about the discussion of formal complaints from Withers regarding the defendant. Lee said it was not Withers's responsibility to come up with those complaints. The defense counsel focused on whether there was any formal written documentation of complaints against Johnson. Lee said none were ever provided. The defense finished their questioning.

The prosecution in cross-examination asked more about who would go ahead and provide these documents, to which Lee said it would come from the regional district manager of the Walgreens store. This ended the prosecution's cross-examination of Lee.

Following a bench conference, the juror questions could not be asked.

The defense then called Patrick Gurney, an investigator with the public defender's office. His role as an investigator includes taking subpoenas and processing scenes. The defense asked if Gurney had taken photos from where Johnson dropped his vehicle along I-25 near mile marker 42. The photos of this scene were entered as evidence.

One of the photos first shown was a picture from the railroad tracks looking at the highway picturing a barbed wire fence. The next photo was an underpass under the railroad tracks where Johnson's car was found with a barbed wire fence along the area. The final photo shown was the surrounding area of where Johnson's vehicle was found depicting the access route Johnson may have taken to dump the vehicle. The defense asked if you take the direct route you would have to go through the barbed wire.

The prosecution went ahead and asked if the car had any evidence of being wrapped in barbed wire. Gurney said not to his knowledge. The prosecution also followed by asking if you could walk the road back to I-25 and Gurney said someone could easily do that. This ended the prosecution's cross-examination.

The defense's rebuttal was one question, asking Gurney if there were any light sources out near the train tracks. Gurney said there were none and the defense rested its case. Following this, the jury questions were read to the courtroom before closing arguments were set to begin.

The defense theory read to the jury by Judge Bentley states that Johnson did not cause the death of Whitelaw. Johnson said he was in the restroom when he heard screams, ran to the break room where he saw the assailant was attacking, and went ahead and ran from the scene.

Closing arguments began with the prosecuting Attorney Tony Gioia putting an image of Whitelaw up on the courtroom screen, saying this case is about her. Gioia said that the evidence shows that she was murdered by the defendant. The prosecution walked through the definition of murder in the first degree. The prosecution said that the intent to kill Whitelaw was clear when it came to the defendant's intentions.

The prosecution said the testimony heard about Johnson's interactions with the surveillance system showed that Johnson knew what the camera could and could not see. The testimony from Whitelaw's co-worker Bev Crider showed the intent of the defendant to meet Whitelaw on her break, telling Crider she must relieve Riley at 5:30 p.m.

Further evidence provided by the prosecution was the act of placing card stock over the break room window. On top of this, the prosecution said the defendant knowingly stacked crates in front of a camera that would show his escape.

Gioia then showed an image of Johnson, telling the jury they had heard a bunch of different stories about what had happened in the break room where Whitelaw was killed. But to run from the crime scene and drive 100 miles south was because the defendant knew what he had just done, he said.

Gioia then provided a timeline outlining the day of Whitelaw's killing. The prosecution focused on the video of Johnson stacking, telling the jury they heard testimony as to why anyone would stack crates that high when all other employees said it was odd.

The next piece of evidence shown in Gioia's timeline was Johnson entering the office and locker area, where Gioia said Johnson grabbed the Gerber multi-tool that would eventually kill Whitelaw. This was followed by a clip showing Johnson following Whitelaw towards the break room.

The clip was then shown showing Alicia Schwenke, a customer in the store at the time, reacting exactly at the time of Whitelaw's killing. Schwenke testified she heard a scream.

When it comes to the motive of the defendant, Gioia said there is a clear one in this case. He told the jury that they heard testimony about Johnson's advances toward Whitelaw, comments he made to her about how she liked to be choked, and his motive was her rejection.

Gioia told the jury that the only verdict in this case should be guilty.

The defense opened with a statement saying that Johnson did not kill Whitelaw. He was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. O'Riley continued to stress the fact that nobody would know how they'd react to seeing something like that, and while Johnson's behavior was weird, it could be explained by the traumatic reaction.

The defense pointed out that while Johnson had made comments that made Whitelaw feel uncomfortable, Johnson was entertaining a relationship with Ishmael.

The defense went ahead and said that the lack of formal complaints showed the jury that Johnson was not a dangerous individual. The defense said that law enforcement in this case painted him as the suspect and that confirmation bias on behalf of the investigators was a major cause in this case. The defense finished their closing arguments following this.

In his rebuttal, Assistant District Attorney Brent Nelson stated this is not a case about a quick suspect. Nelson stated that Johnson wanted to make Whitelaw feel something, especially after she declined his advances.

Nelson said while it is not the defense's burden to disprove the motive, "the motive identifies who [Johnson] is a person." Nelson stressed that the jury must consider all the testimony heard about Johnson's interactions that made Whitelaw uncomfortable.

Nelson said there is plenty of reflection and judgment in this case, outlying his deliberate actions of purchasing UV flashlights, directing Crider to send Riley on break at 5:30 p.m., not parking in his usual parking space, and then the act of killing Whitelaw herself. Nelson said "the defendant acted 42 times" knowing what he was doing.

Nelson pivoted back to stacking the crates, telling the jury that every employee and manager said there was no reason for an employee to stack them that high, let alone in front of a surveillance camera.

Nelson said that the defendant's account is implausible, stating "the stars would have needed to align" for the back roll-up door to have been left open, the mysterious attacker would have needed access to all the codes and doors, access to Whitelaw, her boyfriend Jacob Leacock, and Johnson's locker codes to plant the evidence of social security numbers and phone numbers.

Nelson ended his rebuttal by asking the jury to find the defendant guilty.

The jury entered deliberation around 12:45 p.m. Wednesday.

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