Thirty years after Patricia Ann Green’s lifeless body was found in a roadside ditch, technology caught up and helped identify her killer, who is serving life sentences for the murders of four other women in Sumter County.
Green’s body was found off the Sumter Highway in Hopkins the morning of May 10, 1987, in what Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott called a “very gruesome scene.”
The 34-year-old mother of three had been shot in the face with a shotgun at close range, according to State newspaper archives. Two truckers leaving Columbia spotted her body in the ditch about a quarter-mile from the entrance of McEntire Joint National Guard Base near Eastover.
Lott said there were no leads on the case and it ran cold. Within the past month, though, he said, investigators with the department’s cold case unit reviewed the case and submitted DNA evidence from the crime scene for analysis.
Never miss a local story.
“Our DNA people matched up the DNA found at the crime scene that day to Phillip Johnson, of Sumter,” Lott said. Johnson’s DNA was found on Green’s clothing, he said.
‘Just a cold-blooded killer’
Johnson, 53, was arrested in 1988 and later convicted in the murders of four women in Sumter County, the sheriff said. Detectives learned Johnson killed two women in Sumter County before Green’s shooting, and another two after.
The four Sumter County murders happened in close proximity to each other.
Johnson is serving four life sentences in the state prison system and is currently housed at Kirkland Correctional Institution in Columbia, according to the S.C. Department of Corrections. He also has convictions for rape, kidnapping, burglary, armed robbery and assaulting a corrections employee.
Richland sheriff’s investigators went to the prison to interview Johnson, who confessed to the killing before they even brought up the DNA evidence.
“He gave information in his confession that only that killer would have known,” Lott said. “His motive was that he was just a cold-blood killer. ... There was no motive except that he was on a killing spree, and (Green) was somebody that he shot and killed.”
Green lived with her three children and sister at an apartment on Rice Street, which is just off Pickens Street in downtown Columbia, the newspaper reported in 1987. Lott said he spoke Monday with her family members, who have declined to speak publicly.
“I don’t know that there’s words to describe how a family feels after such a long time,” Lott said. “They lived with it every single day, but they didn’t have any closure. ... If there’s any type of closure you can give, we gave it to them Monday.”
Cold case squad
No identification was found near Green’s body, but her untied shoes were found nearby, on the bank of the ditch, according to archives.
Investigators said at the time it appeared Green was killed at that location.
“At that time, we didn’t know what DNA was,” Lott said. “Forensics back then was fingerprints, and that was about it.”
The sheriff’s department in 1997 launched what Lott called the “cold case squad” to review cases in which leads had dried up.
Jeff Fuller worked violent crimes for the department before going to the State Law Enforcement Division in 1988. Since retiring, he has joined the cold case unit and regularly reviews cases for new leads.
“It’s just another set of eyes,” he said. “It’s like witnesses at a crime scene. They might see the same thing, but it’s two different perspectives.”
Bill Simpson said he had just submitted his resignation to leave the sheriff’s department for another job in 1987 when Green was killed and he was assigned to investigate. He contacted Fuller several weeks ago about looking into her case.
“He called me because this case had bothered him for years,” Fuller said. “He still remembers the crime scene – he still remembers details. I hate to say trauma, but I guess it traumatizes you when you see such heinous crimes.”
Green’s case is the 11th unsolved murder that the cold case squad has closed since 1997, according to Lott. The oldest murder they wrapped up happened in 1961.