JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A man accused of killing a woman and then setting fire to her apartment almost five years ago is now a free man.
The State Attorney’s Office has dismissed murder and arson charges against Randal Wagoner in the death of Katherine Johnson.
Wagoner has always maintained his innocence in Johnson's 2013 death.
Johnson, 43, lived above Greybeards Tavern on Commonwealth Avenue and was found naked, facedown on a partially burned mattress inside the apartment on Dec. 1, 2013, according to the SAO. She had an injury to the back of her head and drugs in her system.
The state’s medical examiner initially ruled her death a homicide.
But when the defense asked Circuit Judge James Daniel to release Wagoner in 2017, saying there was no reliable evidence that Johnson’s death was a murder, nor reliable evidence the fire in her apartment was arson, the judge agreed, releasing Wagoner on his own recognizance.
Wagoner has been fighting to get the charges against him dropped, and on Nov. 15, the State Attorney's Office did just that.
“After thorough investigation and completion of discovery, the state cannot overcome Wagoner’s claims of innocence with competent proof of his guilt," SAO spokesman David Chapman said in a statement.
Jacksonville police had said that Wagoner knew Johnson and asserted the killing was the result of a fight over drugs and sex. Wagoner's motorcycle was seen leaving the scene.
Wagoner was arrested three months later at a bar in Starke.
But in the disposition report, the SAO said a “weak” case against Wagoner has “gotten weaker, not stronger.” The “state cannot prove how Johnson died, or how the fire began," the report said.
Jessica Mears, a longtime bartender at Greybeards and a friend of Johnson, said Johnson had only known Wagoner for a couple of weeks before she was found dead.
“It was kind of shocking (to hear the charges were dropped), because I really did think that they would convict him or reduce the charges to something,” Mears said. “I didn’t think he would just walk.”
The medical examiner changed his ruling from homicide to undetermined death, there was no DNA evidence linking Wagoner to the scene and there were potentially three other suspects the defense was aware of, according to court documents.
The State Fire Marshal’s Office found no physical evidence the fire in the apartment was accidental, and so determined it was arson by process of elimination, which is unreliable.
The defense contended Johnson passed out while smoking and hit her head and the lit cigarette caused the fire, which was consumed by the flames.
The state said the evidence against Wagoner was circumstantial, at best, and does not prove he murdered Johnson. The state said there was not a reasonable probability of conviction in the case.
The SAO advised Johnson’s family of its findings in 2017, but the family refused to attend any further meetings, and told the SAO it would have no further contact with it.
Wagoner's attorney, James Boyle, told News4Jax that he is very glad the state “made the right decision,” but that no decision can ever give Wagoner back the more than three years he spent behind bars. He declined to comment on whether Wagoner plans to sue the state for wrongful prosecution.