Missing man found; Charges against suspects upgraded to murder - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

Missing man found; Charges against suspects upgraded to murder

Benny Johnston (Photo source: Harrison Co. Sheriff's Dept.) Benny Johnston (Photo source: Harrison Co. Sheriff's Dept.)

By Trang Pham-Bui – bio | email

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) – "We're frustrated. I mean, the family is frustrated.  We just want Benny home.  That's it," said Katrina Wallace, a friend of Benny Johnston.

Just moments after talking to WLOX Tuesday morning about the frustrating search for the missing 25-year-old man, family and friends received the devastating news.

"They found Benny!" Wallace exclaimed.

"All of us had a little bit of hope that he was out there somewhere, just fighting for his life because he was a fighter. God, Benny was a fighter," said Wallace.

Harrison County investigators found the missing man's body Monday night, in a wooded area off Highway 49 in Covington County. That's about 100 miles from where Johnston disappeared.

"The body was identified through tattoos. The family gave us descriptions of tattoos and physical description," said Deputy Chief Landi Phillips with the Harrison County Sheriff's Department.

The search for Johnston began last Thursday.  He was last seen at a friend's home on Thorton Hill Drive, where witnesses say Johnston was severely beaten.

"It's been an exhausting investigation since Thursday night.  We've had lots of area to cover and this led us to Covington County," said Phillips.

Investigators won't say which of the two suspects led them to Johnston's body. Sean Merritt, 27, and Brian Bradshaw, 25, have been in jail since Friday. They were initially charged with aggravated assault and kidnapping. Those charges have been upgraded to murder.

"I think it's not only the culmination for the investigators, I think it's going to be a culmination for the family as well, to give them some sense of peace," said Phillips.

"He didn't deserve it," Wallace said, with tears streaming down her face.

Those close to Johnston were overwhelmed with shock and grief.  They were left wondering why their friend had to die.  They said Johnston dreamed of being a rapper someday.  

"They took and shattered all his dreams," said Johnston's friend Lisa Corley.  "They took that away from him. They took him away from his momma. They had no right to do this, not to Benny, of all people.  He had the biggest heart"

Sean Merritt and Brian Bradshaw are held in the Harrison County Jail, each under a $1 million bond.  An autopsy on Johnston's body will be conducted either Wednesday afternoon or Thursday morning to determine the cause of his death. 

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