Murder in Iowa

Angela Johnson could have been the first woman executed by the federal government since December 1953 if the sentence handed down by jurors in her capital murder trial had held up on appeal. Instead she avoided the fate of Ethel Rosenberg after a federal judge declared that Johnson’s defense attorneys muffed the penalty phase of her trial. Her sentence was reduced to life.
 
Johnson was convicted in U.S. District Court in 2005 for her role in helping nerdy but deadly drug kingpin Dustin Honken murder three adults and two children in an attempt to fend off a federal drug probe in 1993. The jury recommended that she pay for her crimes with her life.
 
In 2004 Honken himself became the first person sentenced to death by Iowa jurors in 41 years.
 
Honken was a community college chemistry whiz who began manufacturing methamphetamine with his brother and a childhood friend in 1992. He sold several pounds of the deadly stimulant to two Iowa men, Terry DeGues and Greg Nicholson.
 
His drug dealing career didn’t last very long and Honken was arrested by federal authorities in March 1993. Over the spring and summer of that year, Honken and his attorney negotiated with the feds and Honken learned that Nicholson was cooperating with the government. Honken agreed to plead guilty to federal drug charges in July 1993.
 
However, the week before Honken was scheduled to appear in court for his plea, Nicholson disappeared along with his 32-year-old girlfriend Lori Duncan and her two daughters, Kandi, 10, and Amber, 6. Honken subsequently backed out of his guilty plea and with little evidence, the government was forced to drop its case.
 
In November 1993, DeGues also dropped off the face of the earth.
 
Although that case against Honken collapsed, he was nabbed again in 1996 and a year later pleaded guilty to meth dealing and got a 27-year prison sentence.
 
If he had been able to keep his mouth shut, Dustin Honken would have gotten away with murder. But behind bars, face is everything and Honken, a wussy little doormat of a con, had to talk tough to stay alive.
 
His first mistake was telling enough of the truth to other cons who immediately put it to their own use. Honken’s second screw-up was involving Angela Johnson in the killings.
 
Armed with Honken’s jailhouse confessions, authorities arrested Johnson on conspiracy and murder charges and put her in the Benton County, Iowa jail where she met Robert McNeese.
 
McNeese was on his way to prison to serve a life sentence for heroin delivery when Johnson began confiding in him that she was connected to multiple homicides. She wanted to kill one friend who had implicated her in the murders of the Duncans, DeGues and Nicholson, and was afraid that Dustin Honken was looking to eliminate her, as well.
 
On the stand at Johnson’s trial, McNeese admitted that he saw an opportunity to help himself by making believe he could help Johnson find someone else to take the fall for the crime.
 
“I told her I had been in prison a long time,” he said. “I knew a lot of people. I told her she would have to describe how the crimes were committed, what the people were wearing when they were killed and where the bodies were located.”
 
Johnson bit and provided all of the information McNeese wanted, including a map which led police to recover the bodies of Honken’s five victims.
 
When she learned she had been double-crossed, Johnson attempted suicide.
 
Eventually, Honken and Johnson would be put on trial and the truth about how their victims died would come out.
 
“I killed my rats,” Honken told federal prisoner Fred Tokars, who is serving life for murdering his wife.
 
Honken used Johnson to get to the victims. On July 25, 1993, she showed up at Duncan’s home posing as a cosmetics saleswoman who was lost. She let Johnson into her home and Honken followed, brandishing a handgun.
 
Tokars testified at Honken’s trial in 2004 that Johnson herded the Duncans into a bedroom while Honken forced Nicholson, who had worn a wire as a cooperating witness, to videotape a statement exonerating him.
 
The group was then tortured, bound, gagged and shot in the back of the head. Tokars testified that Honken told him in 1998 that Kandi and Amber Duncan saw their mother and Nicholson murdered. They were rats being raised by rats, Honken said.
 
A tape played at Honken’s trial, recorded by a cooperating inmate witness, reveals Honken enjoyed killing. “It’s like getting high,” he said.
 
The corpses were driven to a field southwest of Mason City and dumped in shallow graves.
 
Months later, Angela Johnson lured DeGeus to his death. Johnson called her former lover and asked him to meet her on Nov. 4, 1993, the last time he was seen. He was beaten to death with a baseball bat and shot several times.
 
During the penalty phase of Johnson’s trial, Lori Duncan’s brother recalled that his father blamed himself for his granddaughters’ deaths. The girls had wanted to stay overnight with him on July 25, 1993, but it was inconvenient for him at the time.
 
The man is haunted by the belief that “if he had watched the girls that night, they’d still be with us now,” his son said.