Boyfriend is suspect in triple slaying

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS and MARIA ELENA BACA , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: October 28, 2008 - 11:54 PM

Charges are expected today against Johnny Lee Ellis, suspected of killing his girlfriend, her sister and their mother, found at their home in Mounds View.

Charges expected today may shed light on what motivated a 38-year-old man suspected of killing his girlfriend, her special-needs sister and their mother in their Mounds View home.

Police said Tuesday that the suspect, Johnny Lee Ellis Jr., was dating Angela Vigen, 40, and had been living at the home she shared with her sister, Jennifer Vigen, 35, and their mother, Jolyn Vigen, 75.

Jennifer had Down syndrome and Angela was an office manager at TSE Inc., an agency that serves people with disabilities.

As family members grieved Tuesday and neighbors drove slowly by the home on Sunnyside Road, where yellow police tape presented a grim contrast to a pumpkin and a basket of flowers, co-workers and friends came forward to remember the victims.

On Tuesday, a TSE van pulled into the home's driveway and Angela's co-workers delivered 15 carnations -- one for each of the 12 clients and the members of the team Angela Vigen worked with.

"We wanted to show the neighborhood the type of person she was, and that she'll be missed," said co-worker Christina Huisa.

Angela served as her sister's primary caretaker, said TSE president and CEO Lynne Megan, who fondly remembered how the two were the life of a recent Halloween party, dressed alike as the Pink Ladies from the musical "Grease."

"It was just beautiful to see them together and the love that you could see for each other," Megan said. "They weren't just sisters, they were absolutely best friends."

Mounds View Police Chief Mike Sommer said two of the bodies were found shortly after 12:30 p.m. Monday at the Vigens' home in the 5100 block of Sunnyside Road when a relative who had been unable to reach the women called police. The third body was found about 8 p.m. after authorities conducted a more thorough search. Each was found in a different room.

Sommer did not say how the women were killed, but KMSP TV reported that the Vigens' sister, Elizabeth Plante of Moorhead, was being interviewed by its sister station, KVRR of Fargo, when she received word that the three had been stabbed to death.

While investigators were processing the house Monday evening, Minneapolis police were called to an apartment at 3001 N. 3rd St. on a report that a man was threatening to kill himself because he had committed a crime in another city, said Minneapolis police spokesman Sgt. Jesse Garcia. They found a man with a knife in the back bedroom.

Ellis was threatening to kill himself and hurt the officers, police said. They used a Taser on him, but he began to stab himself in the chest. Police used the Taser again, and officers wrestled the knife away.

As he was being led handcuffed from the building, Ellis tried to jump off a third-floor railing, police said. He was taken to North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale. He now is in the Ramsey County jail.

The Mounds View Police Department and agents of the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension had been tracking Ellis and arrived at the Minneapolis apartment around the same time as Minneapolis police. Minneapolis officers did not immediately know Ellis was the suspect in the slayings.

A friend of Ellis', Anthony Darnell Williams, 47, who leases the apartment where Ellis was found, was arrested on suspicion of obstructing the legal process. Garcia said it was unknown whether Williams knew that Ellis was a suspect in the homicides.

According to records, Ellis pleaded guilty to three instances of driving while intoxicated between 1996 and 1999. In June 2001, he was booked into the Ramsey County jail on multiple offenses, including domestic assault with intent to cause fear, property damage and trespassing. Court records also show that he pleaded guilty to fifth-degree assault in 1997 and disorderly conduct in 1999, both in Stearns County.

'An awful day'

Jolyn Vigen moved with two of her daughters to Mounds View from Thief River Falls, Minn., 10 years ago after retiring from her job as the director of the Head Start program in Pennington County, said Betty Tangen, who worked with Jolyn for almost 20 years. Jolyn and her husband, now deceased, had six children and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

"When her children were growing up, she had her youngest daughter, Jennifer, in Head Start," Tangen said. "She became a very strong advocate for children with disabilities." Jolyn worked to help build a preschool wing at a Thief River Falls school and worked on a governor's council for special education, Tangen said.

Jolyn passed along her passion for helping others to her daughter Angela, Tangen said.

Angela Vigen joined TSE last March and quickly proved herself competent, creative and talented, Megan said. Angela, Jennifer and Jolyn Vigen were well known to TSE (training, support and employment) because of Jennifer's involvement with the organization.

Employees remembered Jennifer as quiet and gentle and said Jolyn served as a member of TSE's human rights committee and volunteered to teach sewing to TSE clients.

Megan said that Angela never spoke much about her personal life, but that Ellis occasionally picked her up or dropped her off. He joined the three at TSE's summer meeting.

"We are triply disheartened by this whole thing," Megan said, her voice breaking. "It's an awful day in our office, and a very sad day throughout our whole company."

Staff writers Lora Pabst and David Chanen contributed to this report. asimons@startribune.com 612-673-4921 mbaca@startribune.com • 612-673-4409

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