Man pleads guilty in cold case murder of Oceanway woman

Johnny Johnson sentenced to 20.5 years in Sherry Prather's death

By Vic Micolucci - I-TEAM reporter, anchor, Frank Powers - Assignment manager

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A mother told News4Jax on Tuesday that she can finally rest five years after her 43-year-old daughter was murdered.

On Monday, the man charged in the 2012 murder of Sherry Prather pleaded guilty in the case.

Johnny Johnson, 43, was sentenced to 20 ½ years in prison as part of a plea deal that satisfied Prather's family.

"I can finally lay down and say my daughter is with Jesus," said Norma Ellis, Prather's mother.

Prather, a mother of two, was celebrating a girls' night out at the Boots N Bottles, a bar in the Oceanway area on Jacksonville's Northside, in 2012 when she disappeared.

Ellis searched the city for 31 days after her daughter's disappearance. 

"I looked for every single day," she said. "I always said, 'I will never leave ... until I find peace for you, baby. You are my baby and I will find peace for you before I leave.' And I meant that. I was going to do (that) if I had to do it myself."

Her daughter was last seen riding off on a motorcycle with an unknown man. A year later, police discovered her remains in the woods after getting a tip from a relative of her killer.

Three years later, police arrested Johnson and charged him with murder in Prather's shooting death. 

"You just can’t replace a hole in your heart. And that is what happened. He took my heart and left a shell for me to live in," Ellis said.

The motive for the murder is still a mystery. 

"He told them so many different stories that they did not know what to believe," Ellis said. "I think he was just out to kill somebody and she was there. It was an opportunity for him to do it."

Even without answers, Ellis said, she has some sense of closure after Johnson took a plea deal in court Monday. 

"I am satisfied with that," Prather's mother said.

As for police and prosecutors, Ellis said, "They knew that he did it. But they said they only had one chance and if they failed it, then he would go free. And that whole time, they never gave up."

After the sentencing, she visited the spot where her daughter’s remains were found -- one last opportunity to say goodbye.

"Told her that she could go on, that we were going to be OK and that I would see her," Ellis said. "And how much I loved her."

Ellis thanked everyone who spread the word about her daughter’s disappearance and death -- the volunteers, the police officers and the news media. Thanks to them, she said, she finally has closure and she can finally honor her daughter the right way. 

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