North Carolina

An unsolved 1997 Outer Banks murder pushes reporter to search for leads in new podcast

A new podcast looks at an unsolved 1997 murder in Kill Devil Hills, N.C.
A new podcast looks at an unsolved 1997 murder in Kill Devil Hills, N.C. WTKR

When first responders found Denise Johnson stabbed in a burning house in Kill Devil Hills, a small community on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Delia D’Ambra was just four years old and had moved to the area a couple months before.

D’Ambra had no memory of the crime from 21 years ago. But now she’s a reporter working for a television station in Fort Myers, Florida. She liked the new trend of true-crime podcasts, she said in an interview, and was surprised to learn that there was a brutal unsolved murder not far from where she grew up on Roanoke Island.

D’Ambra took her skills as a journalist back to the community she calls home to tell the story of Johnson’s unsolved murder.

She may not have had any memory of the crime, but her father did. He was the police chief for Manteo, North Carolina, just down the road from Kill Devil Hills.

Denise Johnson was 33 when she died on July 13, 1997, according to the Kill Devil Hills Police Department.

dambra and donnie johnson.jpg
Donnie Johnson, sister of Denise, poses with reporter Delia D’Ambra. Courtesy Delia D'ambra

Firefighters responded to a blaze at Johnson’s childhood home that night and found her stabbed in the neck, according to a story from television station WTKR marking the 20th anniversary of the crime. The station reported that an autopsy found Johnson had tried to fight off her attacker before she was killed.

D’Ambra said she was looking for a true crime story to tell and found Johnson’s case while searching on Google for unsolved crimes in December 2017. “I would know if there was something like that on the Outer Banks,” she figured. But she was wrong. So she started to reach out to police and Johnson’s family in the tight-knit communities she calls home, where her parents still live.

The reporting on Johnson’s murder became the Counter Clock podcast.

“I was able to track down the people who were there at the beginning,” she said. Some of the first responders still live in the area and have moved up in the ranks of the fire department, and she was even able to find the people who called 911 for the fire.

D’Ambra has posted six episodes of the podcast so far, with a seventh scheduled to be released next week. She explained that she is reporting the story and getting new interviews all the time, and that ongoing work shapes each episode as they’re released. “This changes week to week,” she said.

“That community is very tight knit and people are very hush-hush,” she explained. “People know each other and people want to protect each other.”

She described one interview she set up with a man police had questioned about the case. “He ghosted on me,” she said, and she has not been able to find him again.

A recent story in the Outer Banks Sentinel describes the people D’Ambra has talked to so far for the podcast: Johnson’s family, her former roommate, journalists and investigators who were on the case at the time. The Sentinel asked D’Ambra if she thinks she knows who killed Johnson: “I think we have a lot of people who know more than they’re saying. But I don’t know who killed her,” she told the newspaper.

D’Ambra said the podcast is an entirely self-funded project. She has hired a company to help with editing and technical aspects of getting the podcast out to an audience. She said she is “putting 100-percent of my own work on this to the journalism.”

The hope, she explained, is “to bring the case to 2018.” She described talking to people who have not been interviewed about the case in two decades. She said she doesn’t hope to solve the case, but she hopes she can give what she learns to law enforcement to “put it in the hands of the people who have the power to solve it.”

She plans to have 11 episodes released through November and take a break for the holidays before she can continue reporting the story next year.

Charles Duncan: 843-626-0301, @duncanreporting