St. Paul man held in death of wife found in White Bear Lake garage

  • Article by: CHAO XIONG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 8, 2013 - 11:04 PM

Friends said nothing seemed amiss with the couple.

Manya Johnson spoke glowingly of her husband, Steven, and with time neighbors who were initially lukewarm to him because of an old criminal conviction found themselves warming up to him, too.

The couple, she 32 and he 34, moved into St. Paul's Como neighborhood a few years ago. They made major renovations and had a son about two years ago.

"Everybody knew them as the great couple," said Claudine Starkey, Manya Johnson's best friend. "She would often end conversations with, 'Yeah, I love that guy. He's so great.' "

But something went wrong Monday. Manya Johnson didn't show up for work. Police eventually found a woman deceased in a White Bear Lake garage about 3 p.m., and Steven R. Johnson was later arrested at the couple's house on suspicion of murder. He has not been charged.

According to a police report, Starkey and a neighbor identified the woman as Manya J. Johnson. Authorities have not said how she died, pending autopsy results.

"He was as good a neighbor as I could have, so I was surprised," said Peter Loveland, who lives next door to the couple. "Totally delightful. Never saw any squabbles or fighting. I never suspected anything."

Manya Johnson was a witty, caring friend who loved her family, said Starkey, who worked with her in marketing operations at Target Corp.

"She was a lovely, giving, beautiful person," Starkey said. "Everyone at Target is just heartbroken."

Starkey said she started to grow worried when Johnson didn't show up for work. She called Steven Johnson, and he told Starkey that, as usual, Manya had left the house before he did.

"He was very quiet, and I just took his demeanor to mean he was concerned about the situation," Starkey said.

Starkey met with Johnson about 2 p.m. They searched a Metro Transit Park and Ride lot off of Hamline Avenue for Manya Johnson's car. They called hospitals. They visited a bank, where Steven Johnson checked their account for activity.

"He was definitely playing along with the ruse," Starkey said.

Starkey and Johnson pulled up to the Johnsons' house about 4:30 p.m., the same time St. Paul police were arriving.

A concerned citizen had called White Bear Lake police about 3 p.m. about a possible homicide victim in a garage in the 2200 block of 8th St. White Bear Lake police then alerted St. Paul police.

Authorities released few details about the case, citing the ongoing investigation, but said no violent acts are connected to the White Bear Lake house. A man at the residence declined to comment.

Loveland and Starkey said there were never any indications that something could be amiss.

"We are completely shocked," Starkey said.

There were no court filings for the couple that would indicate marital discord. The only police calls to their home involved Monday's incident.

Loveland said neighbors were aware of Steven Johnson's past, and were distant with the couple when they moved in. Residents eventually warmed up as they became regulars at neighborhood events, he said.

In 1996, Johnson, then 18, pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting criminal sexual conduct. He was sentenced to serve about 17 years, and was released from prison in February 2008, according to the Minnesota Department of Corrections. He is on supervised release until 2018.

A 2005 Minnesota Court of Appeals decision in his case shows that he received twice the presumptive guideline sentence because of aggravating factors, including: multiple acts of penetration, physical restraint of the victim resulting in injury, references to a weapon, "significant advance planning" and "particular cruelty by forcing the victim to be nude in 50-degree temperatures."

Johnson had filed for post-conviction relief, alleging that his Sixth Amendment rights were violated. The plea was denied.

Police are not seeking other suspects in his wife's death. Charges could be filed about noon Wednesday.

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib

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