Keir Johnson and her 8-month-old daughter, Chloe, went missing in Hampton just over five months ago.
Then, on Sept. 18, Ashanti Billie, a college student from Maryland new to the Hampton Roads area, disappeared in Virginia Beach.
Billie was found dead on Friday, about 335 miles from where she was last seen. A landscaping worker found her body while working in a field behind a church in Charlotte, N.C., with the Mecklenburg County, N.C., Medical Examiner’s Office positively identifying her.
“It is with deep regret that I inform the community that Ashanti Billie has been located, deceased, in Charlotte,” Martin Culbreth, the Special Agent-in-Charge of the FBI’s Norfolk division, said in a statement on Saturday. “I, along with the entire investigative team, offer our most sincere condolences to the Billie family, especially Ashanti’s parents, Brandy and Tony. Our thoughts and prayers are with you.”
Culbreth promised a relentless effort to find Billie’s killer. “We will not rest until the person who robbed Ashanti of her life, her promise and her future is held fully accountable under the law,” he said.
There are some similarities between the Virginia Beach and Peninsula cases.
Both women are described as young, black, and similar in stature — under 5 feet tall and 140 and 133 pounds, respectively. They both held steady jobs and had no criminal records to speak of. And in both cases, the women’s cars were found abandoned in residential areas within days of their disappearances.
The FBI, the agency leading the Virginia Beach investigation, said there’s no known link between the Billie and Johnson cases, but “we are staying open to all possibilities.”
“At this point there is no indication they are related, but we follow where the facts take us and investigate without assumptions,” said Christina Pullen, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s Norfolk division.
But Newport News Police spokesman Brandon Maynard said Newport News detectives don’t think there’s any relationship between the two cases. “I asked one of the supervisors about that, and he said they do not appear to be related at all,” Maynard said.
Last week, with family and friends concerned and investigators unable to find either woman, significant cash rewards were offered in both cases with the hopes of bringing in crucial leads. There was $45,000 put on the table — $25,000 in the Peninsula case and $20,000 in the Virginia Beach case -- to spur the tips.
The Peninsula case
On May 1, Hampton police got a call that Keir Shante Johnson, then 34, of Hastings Drive, had not been seen since noon the day before. Her mother said Johnson was with her then-8-month-old daughter, Chloe, heading for a day at the beach.
“It was brought to my attention that Ms. Johnson left her wallet at home and only took minimal supplies for Chloe with her for their trip to Buckroe Beach,” according to an incident report from a Hampton police officer.
The officer called Keir Johnson’s workplace, Smithfield Packing, and learned that Keir Johnson was on vacation that week, the police report said. Johnson had no known medical conditions and no history of drug use.
On May 14, Keir Johnson’s car — a black 2013 Kia Optima sedan — was found abandoned at a Newport News trailer park at Jefferson Avenue and Arch Street, just south of Mercury Boulevard.
Police from Newport News and Hampton searched a grassy field near the trailer park using police dogs. But they did not turn up any leads. The case was soon transferred to the Newport News Police Department, however, with investigators having reason to believe Johnson was in that city after last being seen in Hampton.
Keir Johnson, now 35, was described as 4-foot-10 to 4-foot-11 inches tall, weighing 140 pounds, with black hair and brown eyes. Chloe Johnson, now just over a year old, also has black hair and brown eyes, and was 20 pounds at the time of her disappearance.
Rhonda Gail Crews — Keir Johnson’s mother and Chloe’s grandmother — could not be reached for comment Friday. She previously has said her daughter called her daily and would never have skipped town without telling her.
“I want to thank everybody for their help,” a nearly inconsolable Crews said though tears at a Hampton police news conference in May. “But I’d appreciate it a lot you could all bring my kids home. Because I really want them home, and I want them back. So anything you all can do to help me — anything — please do.”
Chloe Johnson’s father, Carlos Johnson Jr., of Hampton, could not be reached for comment Friday.
In July, then-Newport News Police Chief Richard W. Myers said he had 19 employees from six internal divisions working on the case. Together, he said, investigators had logged more than 2,500 hours.
Maynard said Friday that “the detectives from the various units are still hard at work on this case,” but said he had no new developments to release. “We are following up on all leads that we get but cannot discuss them as it may hinder the investigation,” Maynard said. “This is still a very active investigation.”
Maynard said the FBI “reached out” to the Newport News Police Department early on in the case with an offer to help. But he said the department declined the offer, given that the Virginia State Police had already begun assisting Newport News.
“There may come a point that we will accept the services of the FBI, but as of right now, we are not working with them on this case,” Maynard said. “We were working with the State Police prior to the FBI reaching out, so we just went ahead and stuck with the assistance and services of the State Police.”
No search warrants in the Johnson case were publicly available at Newport News Circuit Court on Friday, meaning any such warrants — which would be needed to search homes, cars and phone and bank records — are sealed.
On Tuesday, the Newport News Police Foundation — a nonprofit organization that raises donations from businesses and the public — announced a $25,000 reward for “reliable and new information that leads to the recovery of Keir Johnson and her daughter, Chloe.”
“We feel this is a very important cause and directly aligns with our mission,” said Joe Frank, the former Newport News mayor and the foundation’s president. “It is our sincere hope that these funds will help in the investigation and bring answers to Keir and Chloe’s family.”
Acting Newport News Police Chief Michael C. Grinstead was not available on Friday. But early last week, he told a TV news station, WTKR News 3, that, “We need that one big piece, and we’re hoping the $25,000 will bring it to us.”
Disappearance from Virginia Beach
Five months after Keir and Chloe Johnson went missing from Hampton, Ashanti Markaila Billie disappeared in Virginia Beach.
Billie, a 19-year-old college student from Prince George’s County, Md., had been in Hampton Roads since August to attend culinary school at the Art Institute of Virginia Beach. She was also working at a Blimpie’s sandwich shop on a local military base.
She was last seen alive on Sept. 18.
Billie, in a cream-colored 2014 Mini Cooper with Maryland plates, checked in at a gate on Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, at 4:57 a.m., the FBI said. She was scheduled to open the Blimpie’s sandwich shop that morning.
But she never made it to work. The Mini Cooper was seen on surveillance camera footage leaving the base at 5:35 a.m., though the FBI said it was unclear who was behind the wheel at the time.
“You don’t check out when you leave the base,” Pullen said. “You just check in.”
Billie did not attend her college classes later in the day. Her cellphone was found that day in a dumpster off Azalea Garden Road in Norfolk, west of Norfolk Botanical Gardens. Her car was found five days later, abandoned in a residential section of Norfolk's Ocean View.
She had no contacts with family and friends after her disappearance, the FBI said.
Billie was described as being 4-foot-10 to 4-foot-11 tall, and weighing 133 pounds. She had brown eyes and brown hair, and recently dyed her hair red.
Last Monday, the FBI announced a $10,000 reward for information leading to Billie’s whereabouts. Then the Blimpie sandwich company, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., matched that with another $10,000 two days later, bringing the total to $20,000.
Pullen said Monday that the FBI's portion of the award remains on the table. "It is good for up to $10,000 for information leading to the arrest, prosecution and conviction of the person or persons responsible for (Billie's) abduction," she wrote in an email.
Billie’s body was found Friday behind the East Stonewall A.M.E. Zion Church in Charlotte, local news outlets reported.
“Our community should know that our work does not end here,” said Culbreth, the head of the FBI’s Norfolk office. “Now our mission is to bring justice for Ashanti, and we will be relentless in our efforts to find who did this to her.”
The FBI is working with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the Virginia Beach Police Department and Norfolk Police Department on the case. Anyone with information is asked to call the FBI at 757-455-0100.
Peter Dujardin can be reached by phone at 757-247-4749 or by email at email@example.com