Grainy Pic Was Only Clue in 40-Year-Old Cold Case—Until Now

Reeves K. Johnson vanished from his cabin in 1983. A mystery man picked up his last paycheck.Updated Mar. 17, 2024 4:41AM EDT / Published Mar. 17, 2024 12:07AM EDT Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty Images and Courtesy Kittery Police Department/Murder, She ToldIt took two missed Sunday phone calls for Reeves K. Johnson III’s family to worry about him.The 31-year-old had

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Reeves K. Johnson vanished from his cabin in 1983. A mystery man picked up his last paycheck.

Pilar Melendez

A collage of photographs of Reeves Johnson.

Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty Images and Courtesy Kittery Police Department/Murder, She Told

It took two missed Sunday phone calls for Reeves K. Johnson III’s family to worry about him.

The 31-year-old had recently moved to Kittery, New Hampshire, where he got a welding job and rented a cabin. An art lover with long brown hair who enjoyed reading and playing his guitar, Johnson was known in his family as someone who didn’t waste his words, especially about his private life. But he rarely missed a Sunday phone call to his family and wrote short letters every two weeks.

“My parents tried Reeves after they got home from their Bermuda trip in February of 1983,” his sister Sally Swartz told The Daily Beast this week. “But we couldn’t get a hold of him. He was not the type of person to just go off and vanish. He wouldn’t go off the grid.”

Johnson’s parents called the police to check the cabin, but officers found no sign of Johnson or his belongings. Weeks later, an unknown stranger picked up his last paycheck from a post office box.

“That was our only clue,” Swartz said.

A clue that led nowhere.

For four decades, Johnson’s disappearance has remained as vexing a mystery as it was in 1983. There is no body, much less a suspect. Police have no idea where he went after finishing his last morning shift at Donnelly Manufacturing on Feb. 3, 1983.

But thanks to a reinvigorated investigation and a true-crime podcast series, there is finally new information in the Kittery Police Department’s only missing person’s case. Only time will tell if it will lead Johnson’s family to the answers that have eluded them for so long.

A photo of the man who picked up Reeves Johnson’s last paycheck.

A stranger picked up Reeves Johnson’s last paycheck. His mother snapped this photo.

Photo Courtesy of Kittery Police Department/Murder, She Told

Kittery Detective Brian Cummer first came upon Johnson’s thin file during an uneventful night shift over 15 years ago.

Back then, he was a patrol officer who would sometimes go back to the records room to read old cases. The lack of information in Johnson’s folder nagged at him, and he would thumb through it every few months.

“I couldn’t wrap my brain around what happened,” Cummer told The Daily Beast. “I don’t think officers at the time thought this case would even last that long.”

The case file has some photocopied pictures, handwritten notes, the official missing person’s report, and a brief overview of the case.

It recounted how after Johnson left work around 3:30 p.m. on Feb. 3, he purchased guitar strings that were later found in his cabin. A neighbor told police he saw a mustachioed man in a black leather jacket make a brief visit to the cabin a few days later.

“The neighbor did not have a lot of information; I’ve spoken to him since,” Cummer said. “I have no information that indicates that the police then figured out who that person was. That didn’t lead anywhere.”

The first Sunday call that her younger brother missed was on Feb. 6. “I just assumed he was doing something with friends,” Swartz said. “I had spoken to him the week prior and he sounded fine. He wasn’t a chatty guy so the conversation was short. Also, it was expensive to call back then.”

Four days after that, someone who looked like Johnson went into Ocean National Bank and withdrew most of his savings account, police said. And then on Feb. 13, Johnson missed the Sunday call again.

“Then I started to get worried. And I started calling every day, like 50 times a day,” Swartz said. “When my parents got home, I told them, ‘I haven’t heard from Reeves and I have been calling and calling and calling.’ They said they would take it over from there.”

Reeves Johnson and his mother Barbara

Johnson and his mother Barbara

Photo Courtesy of Kittery Police Department/Murder, She Told

Around that time, Cummer said, Johnson’s checks were being used to make large purchases around town, including groceries, two sets of thermal underwear that were not his size, and Radio Shack speakers and a car radio. The purchases totaled around $580—about $1,800 in today’s dollars—and overdrew his bank account.

On Feb. 14, Johnson’s father called the Kittery Police Department to report him missing. An officer who went to the cabin found Johnson’s contact lenses, cardboard boxes, and the guitar strings. A day later, his 1973 red Volkswagen was found at a local gas station after being towed from an unknown location.

“At some point, someone that looked like Reeves went to the mechanic there and said he wanted a quick repair on the car because he wanted to ‘go south,’” Cummer said. “We also don’t know where the car was towed from or who that person who posed to be Reeves was.”

The plot was about to thicken. The detective who was then on the case asked Donnelly Manufacturing to hold the welder’s final paycheck so someone would have to pick it up in person.

“I don’t know where the miscommunication was or if the person was really convincing, but someone called Reeves and said he was moving on and asked to mail his check to his P.O. box,” Cummer said.

By then, Johnson’s parents had come up from Philadelphia to help authorities in the search. They offered to stake out the Kittery Post Office, pretending to be tourists with a camera, Swartz said. On Feb. 24, Johnson’s mother was alone inside the post office when a man wearing green overalls and a red hat opened her son’s box, flipped through the mail, threw away everything except for the check, and went to walk out.

“My mom took a photo of the man,” Swartz said. “He covered his face, so we don’t know who he is but I looked at that photo all of the time.”

Her mother asked where Reeves was—and the man said he was at a nearby apartment and she could go there with him. But as they walked out of the post office, the man took off and was never seen again.

“That was someone who was trying to get away and outside,” Cummer said. “Reeves’ mom was not going to be able to stop this person. He seemed young, maybe Reeves’ age, and bigger than her. ”

The case went cold. Johnson’s check was never cashed, there was no more financial activity, and nobody showed up to his cabin.

“All this stuff, when you put it all together, leaves me to believe that this involves someone local. I think it was someone who knew him well enough to know where he lived, where he worked, and some basic facts about him,” Cummer said. “It’s not a random person.”

The original missing person flyer

The original missing person flyer

Photo Courtesy of Kittery Police Department/Murder, She Told

Questions about what happened to Johnson tormented his family as the years passed. He was legally declared dead in the early 2000s and his mother later provided her DNA to the police in the hopes that one day unidentified remains could be matched.

Cummer said he couldn’t shake the feeling that there had to be more evidence out there and in October 2021, he reached out to Johnson’s siblings and re-opened the case. Not long after, he got a call from Kristen Seavey, the New England true crime podcaster behind Murder, She Told, who had learned about the new investigation from a local newspaper article.

She wanted in. Seavey offered to produce a special episode about Reeves, and the Kittery Police Department offered up rare access.

“We spent two days digitizing the case file and going through every piece of evidence the police department had. Letters, timelines, old reports,” Seavey said. “The very last piece of evidence was a 1978 letter from Reeves and he mentions Cheryl.”

A letter Reeves Johnson had written to his father about Cheryl from 1978.

The letter from Reeves Johnson that mentions the mysterious Cheryl.

Photo Courtesy of Kittery Police Department/Murder, She Told

“I immediately knew Cheryl must be a girlfriend,” she added. “It felt like a huge moment and a piece of the puzzle that we had been searching for.”

Seavey’s hunch was confirmed by Swartz, who remembered that Cheryl lived near her brother and may have had a young child. “I remember asking for them both to come visit but I never got to meet her,” Swartz said. “She would have been a lovely girl. I’d love to meet her.”

Seavey and Cummer acknowledge that finding Cheryl—who they believe was in her late twenties or early thirties at the time—might not yield answers to Johsons’s disappearance. But they say she might have insight into the welder’s life in Kittery. Cummer said that since reopening the case, he has not found anyone in Kittery who seems to remember Johnson. He and Swartz are offering a $6,000 reward for information that breaks the case.

Swartz said that she is sure her brother is no longer alive, but still holds out hope that the day will come when she no longer has to wonder what happened to him.

“He was never the kind of person to just vanish,” Swartz said. “And I’ve been waiting for so long for answers.”

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