Suspected serial killer with Sumter ties located in Florida

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 15, 2004

PENSACOLA – Nearly three years after her murder, officials have arrested the man they believe is responsible for Winnie Johnson’s death.

Johnson was shot to death Nov. 26, 2001 in her home in Gainesville. On Sept. 8, the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office issued a warrant for the arrest of Willie Hodges of Epes on charges of capital murder.

Hodges is being held in the Escambia County Jail in Pensacola, Fla., on charges of the murder of a Florida woman.

Griggers said Florida investigators learned of Hodges’ Sumpter County ties and called the Sumpter County Sheriff’s Department.

“Once they realized he had ties to Sumpter County, they made an inquiry,” Griggers said. “They started talking about the case, and they realized there were a lot of similarities in the two cases.”

That inquiry somehow turned up another interested party as the Cincinnati, Ohio, police wanted Hodges for questioning in yet another murder case they were investigating.

“He’s a serial murderer,” Griggers said. “There is a good chance he has committed other murders that we don’t know about.”

Though the warrant has been issued, Griggers said nothing is going to be done about Hodges until the case in Pensacola is determined.

“Our plan right now is to wait,” he said. “I’ve discussed the case with Sheriff (Johnny) Hatter and we’ve decided to hold the warrant and put a hold on Hodges. The case in Florida could go to court as early as spring 2005. We’ll wait to see the outcome of that trial, and if we’re not pleased with the outcome, then we will go on and arrest him and start our proceedings.”

The problem with trying to make the arrest and start the case now, Griggers said, is that for every hearing including bond hearings, preliminary hearings, motions and more, Hodges would have to be transported from Pensacola to Sumpter County and back.

“Any hearing would require his presence and we would have to take him back and forth, I would like to spare the residents that expense,” Griggers said.

Should Hodges be found guilty in Florida, the local area would be saved even more expense. Because Hodges is being tried for capital murder there, if convicted, the possible sentence is either life in prison or the death penalty. Either way a trial here would be pointless.

“There is a reasonable likelihood he will get the death penalty there,” Griggers said.

Though the arrest comes three years after the murder, Griggers said that is not because of lack of work on investigators’ parts.

“I have to commend Sherriff Hatter and investigator Howard Rhodes from the Sumter County Sheriff’s Department and Darren Blake of the ABI because they just didn’t give up,” Griggers said. “Their tenaciousness just wouldn’t let this murder go unsolved.”

The investigation increased in intensity after the Florida arrest.

“Since Hodge’s arrest in Florida, Sumter County Sheriff’s Office investigators and ABI agents have been collecting evidence and interviewing witnesses,” a Sumter County Sheriff’s press release stated. “Sumter County and state investigators have followed leads through three states and numerous jurisdictions.”

Most of that search has centered around a quest to find the murder weapon, the release stated.

“For more than two and a half years investigators have searched for the murder weapon in the Johnson case, a .270-caliber high-powered rifle. Area bodies of water have been searched by scuba divers. An old well near Hodges residence was excavated and searched,” the release stated. “Sumter County deputies conducted an exhaustive search which finally ended in success on Sept. 2. The Sumter County Sheriff’s Office received information about the whereabouts of the murder weapon and was able to recover the rifle from a north Alabama man who bought the rifle from a resident of Boligee.”

According to the release, the gun can be traced to Willie Hodges through witness statements and documentary evidence.

Other witnesses have come forward and provided additional information as well, and officials feel they have a good chance of convicting should the case come to Sumter County.