Arrests made in Lowgap murder

By Tom Joyce

May 29, 2014

DOBSON — The murderer of a Lowgap man whose body was found in a shallow grave last week has been identified as another Lowgap resident killed in a car wreck in March, three of whose relatives have been arrested as accessories.

A fourth has been charged with suppressing information about the shooting death of Charles Daniel “Chuck” Smith, who lived at 246 Eagles Nest Trail in Lowgap. Human remains later identified as Smith's were discovered buried inside a metal building at 104 River Rat Lane in the Lowgap area on May 21. The body had been covered with cement and was unearthed by authorities executing a search warrant.

Smith, who was 36 at the time, is believed to have been killed last October.

In announcing arrests in the case Thursday, the Surry County Sheriff's Office reported that the investigation that led to the discovery of Smith's body also produced the conclusion that he had been killed by Billy “Wayne” Johnson, 21, of 140 Sweet Paradise Lane, Lowgap.

Johnson died in a motor vehicle accident on Old Lowgap Road in that community on March 28.

After Smith's body was discovered last week, Surry investigators determined that four of Johnson's family members had participated after the homicide by concealing the death and/or assisting Johnson in the disposal of the body.

Those charged include:

• Brian Keith Johnson, 50, Billy Johnson's father, of 104 River Rat Lane, where the body was found;

• His mother, Melody Denise Johnson, 46, 104 River Rat Lane;

• Ashtin Nichole Matthews, 24, aka Ashtin Johnson, of 140 Sweet Paradise Way, Lowgap, identified as Billy Johnson's wife;

• Robin Deanne Barnett, 29, of 102 Fisher Peak Trail, Lowgap, Billy Johnson's sister.

The Johnson couple and Matthews are charged with being an accessory after the fact to the felony of first-degree murder and concealing and failing to report a death. All three were being held in the Surry County Jail Thursday, each under a $100,000 secured bond, pending a first-appearance hearing in District Court.

Barnett is accused of concealing and failing to report a death, and has been released under a written promise to appear in court on Aug. 12.

She was riding in the same car with her brother, Billy “Wayne” Johnson, when he was killed in March. He is said to have been operating the 1995 Nissan Maxima at a high rate of speed before it went off the road and struck a tree, killing Johnson and seriously injuring his sister.

In the aftermath of the wreck, it was disclosed through public Facebook postings by Matthews and Barnett that Johnson was chasing a truck after its driver had attempted to run his car off the road.

But the state trooper who investigated the accident said Thursday that no such person has been identified.

Motive Not Known

Meanwhile, Sheriff Graham Atkinson was unable to shed light Thursday on the circumstances surrounding Smith's death. “The motive, that's one of those things that we're still looking into,” he said. “We've got two or three theories that we're working on trying to establish a motive.”

The sheriff also declined to say if anyone had come forward to provide information about the case, which led to this week's breakthrough. “We don't want to comment on any information sources,” Atkinson said, explaining that this will be focused on in court proceedings, when information about the motive also likely will emerge.

Matthews made an apparent reference to that in a public Facebook posting on Wednesday, the last before her arrest. She mentions how much she misses her husband, Billy Johnson, and how difficult life has been since he was killed, including Smith's murder investigation.

In writing to Johnson in a first-person style, she states: “The only positive thing I can find out of losing you is at least you don't have to go through all this bull****. Then again, I don't think things would be the way they are. I know I wouldn't have made the mistake I made that led to all this and I am so sorry to everyone involved.”

No other arrests are expected, according to Atkinson. “We're confident that everybody involved is either deceased or has been charged.”

The sheriff credited “old-fashioned” police work with resolving the case. “It was a lot of just old-fashioned work on the part of the investigators, looking at particular pieces of information — and they just put it together like a great big puzzle.”

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-719-1924 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.