Johnson claims self-defense

Murder trial begins Monday in Fort Collins

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— Defense attorneys for Thomas Lee Johnson will argue self-defense when Johnson's murder trial begins Monday in Fort Collins.

The 31-year-old Johnson has been charged with first-degree murder for the death of Lori Bases.

He also has been charged with criminal trespass and mischief for allegedly vandalizing Bases' sport utility vehicle about a month before her death.

Bases, 31, was found dead in her Steamboat Springs apartment in May 2000.

Assistant District Attorney Kerry St. James is the lead prosecutor in the case.

He has argued that Johnson planned the murder and went to Bases' apartment with the intent to kill her.

But on the eve of the trial, defense attorney Norm Townsend countered that Johnson acted in self-defense.

Townsend claims that after Bases' SUV was vandalized in April 2000, she began sleeping with a knife close by.

"On the night of the homicide, (Johnson) went there to talk to (Bases)," Townsend said. "He went to talk to her about his and (Kimberly Goodwin's) wedding. She told Thomas to leave. She went to her bedroom and came out with a knife.

"She came at him. We will be able to demonstrate that," Townsend said. "He defended himself."

Bases had been stabbed numerous times and had wounds throughout her body, including her neck.

More than 150 Larimer County residents are expected to be pooled for the 12-member jury that will ultimately decide Johnson's fate.

The trial is expected to last three weeks and will take place inside a courtroom at the Larimer County Justice Center.

Justice Joseph P. Quinn moved the trial from Steamboat Springs last month, saying pretrial publicity would make it difficult to select a fair and impartial jury in Routt County.

Both the defense attorneys and prosecutors in the case have taken up residence in Larimer County for the trial.

"We are all ready to get this over with," Townsend said. "Let the chips fall where they will."

The trial is the culmination of a case that had numerous twists and turns since the murder took place.

After Bases' death, Johnson and Goodwin went on a trip to Las Vegas. While there, the couple got married May 28.

Prosecutors will argue Johnson killed Bases because she was interfering with his relationship with Goodwin, a close friend of Bases.

Upon returning to Colorado from the vacation, the couple moved to California. The newlyweds separated June 21 when Johnson was questioned in California by Steamboat Springs investigators.

According to court documents, Goodwin claimed to be "emotionally fragile" when Johnson suggested they go to Nevada.

Goodwin claimed she married Johnson because she felt she could trust him, that he had no involvement in her friend's death and that he would aid in her dealing with the murder, court records show.

Last December, a divorce settlement was reached between Johnson and Goodwin in Routt County Court.

After meeting with Steamboat investigators in California, Johnson caught a bus back to Colorado. Acting on a tip, Johnson was detained by Steamboat Springs police on June 23 as he got off the bus at a stop on U.S. 40.

Johnson was taken into custody and ordered to give hair and blood samples to authorities.

Johnson was later released, but authorities continued to monitor his actions. Authorities saw Johnson go to three pay phones in Steamboat Springs and make calls.

Johnson allegedly placed a telephone call to his ex-wife, Michelle Linnebur.

At the time of the call, Steamboat Springs Police Capt. Richard Crotz was at Linnebur's home in Byers and listened in on the conversation.

During the conversation, Johnson allegedly told the woman he divorced in 1996 that he committed the murder.

Johnson was later arrested and jailed in the Routt County Detention Center, where he was held until Oct. 8.

The case was delayed last fall because of evidence sent to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation's crime laboratory.

In December, Routt County Judge James Garrecht determined enough evidence existed to try Johnson in district court on the three felony charges.

The case was originally assigned to 14th Judicial District Judge Richard P. Doucette.

But in January, Doucette, who is the chief judge in the district, reassigned the case to District Judge Joel S. Thompson.

Doucette reassigned the case to Thompson because of a heavy caseload.

The change in judges brought another delay in the case. Motions hearings scheduled in March were postponed until August.

In August, Thompson presided over three days of motions

hearings.

During the hearings, Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Donald Sperry became the focus of the case when he ignored a subpoena to testify.

Sperry illegally obtained telephone records for Steamboat Springs investigators that show Johnson allegedly made the telephone call to Linnebur.

On Aug. 8, Thompson ordered Townsend to subpoena Sperry again to testify later in the month. Thompson threatened to hold the federal agent in contempt if he did not show up to testify.

Two days later, Thompson's live-in girlfriend, Billie Jo Vreeman, was arrested at the couple's home in Moffat County. Vreeman was booked into Mesa County Jail on federal drug charges. Sperry obtained the warrant for Vreeman's arrest.

On Aug. 15, Thompson met with Townsend, St. James and McLimans to notify the attorneys of Vreeman's arrest.

Seven days later, Thompson removed himself from the Johnson case because of Sperry's connection to Vreeman's arrest.

Because Doucette removed himself from the case in January, the state court administrator appointed a new judge to the case Aug. 24.

Quinn, who is a former state Supreme Court chief justice, was assigned to handle the case.

Quinn wrapped up the motions hearings at the end of September when he granted Townsend's change of venue request.

Townsend expects it will take a couple of days for a jury to be selected for the trial.

If Johnson is convicted of the murder charge, he could be sentenced to life in prison.

If convicted of the mischief charge, he faces between one and 16 years in prison.

The trespass charge carries a prison term of between six months and eight years.


To reach Gary Salazar call 871-4205

or e-mail gsalazar@steamboatpilot.com

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