Cold case: Triple-homicide in Clifton community remain unsolved 28 years later

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Mary, Thomas and son David Johnson were found stabbed to death in the bedroom of their Cedar Street home in Clifton in early 1993. Today, the case remains unsolved.
Mary, Thomas and son David Johnson were found stabbed to death in the bedroom of their Cedar Street home in Clifton in early 1993. Today, the case remains unsolved.

It was a Saturday in January 1993 when Mary Johnson failed to show up for a hair appointment.

Concerned, the hairdresser called Johnson's daughter-in-law, and the two went to her two-story Clifton home on Cedar Street to check on her.

When they opened the door, they discovered Johnson, 77, her husband Thomas, 81, and their 43-year-old son, David, dead from multiple stabbings.

News of the triple murder spread quickly through the mill village of 2,000 residents.

"They never bothered anyone," Ken Coggins, minister of music at Second Baptist Church in Clifton, told the Herald-Journal at the time. "They were just good people."

Rev. David Moore described the Clifton community as "close-knit people."

"Mary was one of the most Godly women I've ever known," Moore said in the days that followed the tragedy. "She was from the generation that had 'stickability.'"

The house on Cedar Street in Clifton where three family members were found stabbed to death in early 1993.
The house on Cedar Street in Clifton where three family members were found stabbed to death in early 1993.

The elder Johnsons were retired from Clifton Mill Number Two. They had lived in the five-room mill village house for about 35 years, and had three sons. David was the oldest. Another son was killed in a car accident 10 years earlier.

The only surviving son was Keith Johnson, who declined to be interviewed by a reporter the day after the gruesome discovery.

Investigators combed the house and surrounding area, looking for clues. Neighbors were interviewed.

Signs of a struggle

A double homicide and suicide was considered at first, but then ruled out.

Robbery was deemed doubtful because the house was not ransacked and there was no forced entry, former Sheriff's Office spokesman Mike Little said at the time.

But there were signs of a struggle, as all three suffered broken ribs, Richard Seay, then-chief investigator with the Coroner's Office, said at the time.

Their bodies were found on the bed in a downstairs bedroom where all three slept, according to a Herald-Journal story. Blood stains were found in the kitchen, in the den around the telephone, and on a chair, according to Seay.

"I can say they all died within a short period of time of each other and that they were stabbed with a knife," he said at the time.

In the days, weeks and months that followed, no motive could be determined. And no arrests were made.

Still unsolved

Twenty-eight years later, the triple homicide remains unsolved, among 46 cases in Spartanburg County dating back to 1970.

Earlier this month, Spartanburg County Sheriff's Office spokesman Lt. Kevin Bobo said the cold case investigator was aware of the case, but did not provide any update.

Sometimes, a case is solved, often with the help of forensic science. In September 2019, Sheriff Chuck Wright announced that a 1988 murder case in Pauline had been solved with the help of DNA evidence.

The Clifton welcome sign.
The Clifton welcome sign.

Larry James Smith, 44, was brutally beaten with a hammer on Dec. 3, 1987, and died of his injuries in 1988. Wright said the killer was neighbor Roger Wayne Switzer, who died of a heart attack in 2008.

But the Clifton triple-homicide stumped investigators. Bill Coffey was sheriff at the time.

Three months after the murders, daughter-in-law Elizabeth Johnson, the surviving son Keith's wife, expressed frustration at extensive questioning of her and her husband.

Clockwise, Mary, Thomas and David Johnson were found stabbed to death in the bedroom of their Cedar Street home in Clifton in early 1993. Today, the case remains unsolved.
Clockwise, Mary, Thomas and David Johnson were found stabbed to death in the bedroom of their Cedar Street home in Clifton in early 1993. Today, the case remains unsolved.

"They won't tell us nothing," Elizabeth Johnson in April 1993 said of investigators. "I think the sheriff's department let the trail get very cold messing with us. I don't have a bit of faith in them. But who knows, maybe in time they'll solve it."

Responding at that time, Coffey confirmed that the Johnsons were interviewed at length.

"We've tried to be as open as we can with them, but there are just things we cannot discuss with them to maintain the integrity of the case," Coffey told the Herald-Journal in 1993. "We don't give up on these cases. We never do."

He said investigators had some suspects, but they lacked evidence linking anyone to the crime.

In 1997, four and a half years after the murders, Coffey announced that Spartanburg Public Safety Director Tony Fisher created a special unit to study old homicide cases. Fisher said recent developments in DNA testing and the use of lasers to lift fingerprints Johnson could help solve old crimes.

Meanwhile, 28 years after the Clifton triple-murder, some people who were initially interviewed by the Herald-Journal have died, and others could not be reached for comment.

A woman who now lives in the former house of the Johnsons said she is aware of the tragedy that happened there, but she declined to talk about it.

Contact Bob Montgomery at bob.montgomery@shj.com

This article originally appeared on Herald-Journal: Clifton triple homicide one of many Spartanburg County cold cases