Durham death now called homicide

But autopsy is inconclusive on remains found behind school in October

Staff WriterDecember 12, 2007 

— It might never be known whether Cornelius Wayne Johnson, whose skeletal remains were found behind a Durham school in October, was killed or died from natural causes.

Although investigators have footage from a surveillance camera showing Johnson being stabbed Sept. 29, an autopsy could not determine that he died from the stabbing, according to a medical examiner's report.

But Durham police on Tuesday said they consider his death a homicide, the city's 26th and county's 29th this year. The recently released autopsy report listed the cause of his death as "undetermined."

"The ruling of undetermined does not rule out a homicide," said Durham police homicide Sgt. Jack Cates. "A 26-year-old with no medical problems just doesn't drop dead."

A hole was found in the area of Johnson's left upper abdomen, but it was "impossible to determine" whether it was from an injury before Johnson died or the result of postmortem decomposition, the autopsy report said. No foreign items, including bullet fragments or pieces of a knife, were found in Johnson's body.

Police were initially unable to determine Johnson's age, sex, race or cause of death due to the body's condition, described in the autopsy report as "severely mummified." Medical examiners had to rehydrate Johnson's hands to get fingerprints, which confirmed his identity.

After Johnson's body was found, police said there were no indications that he was slain. Cates said Tuesday subsequent interviews have indicated otherwise. Investigators have a few suspects, Cates said.

Family members reported the Raleigh man missing Sept. 22. A landscaper found his body while working in a wooded area behind 826 Glenco Road on Oct. 19. The area is on Bethesda Elementary School property.

Johnson's wife, Sharvon, was scheduled to deliver their baby boy Dec. 6.

stan.chambers@newsobserver.com or (919) 956-2426

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