20 years later, murder of woman in Kill Devil Hills remains unsolved

Denise Johnson (Photo: Kill Devil Hills police)

KILL DEVIL HILLS, N.C. (WAVY) — Police are still searching for whoever killed Denise Johnson 20 years ago in Kill Devil Hills.

On July 13, 1997, firefighters responded to a house fire in the 2000 block of Norfolk Street. They found Johnson, 33, inside. They got her out of the home to try to resuscitate her. Once outside, first responders discovered Johnson had been stabbed.

“She was a beautiful soul,” said Johnson’s sister, Donnie Johnson.

Johnson and her five sisters grew up in Kill Devil Hills. She lived in the family home alone, but childhood memories have been replaced with a horrific crime.

“The whole thing is a sad tragic thing,” Johnson added.

According to the state’s final autopsy report, Johnson had been stabbed in the neck. She had defensive wounds as well, which suggest that she fought back. Ultimately, she died from a combination of loss of blood and smoke inhalation.

“I just remember going, ‘What?’” Johnson asked. “Denise? Everybody loved Denise, so you just couldn’t imagine somebody killing her.”

Authorities collected 59 pieces of evidence at the scene. The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation helped process the crime scene and the FBI was enlisted to create a criminal profile of the killer.

“It’s one of those cases that hangs over our heads that we really want to get answers for the family,” said Kill Devil Hills Lieutenant John Towler.

Johnson was last seen at a convenience store near Avalon Drive. She was with a young, blond female, who stood between 5 feet 5 inches and 5 feet 10 inches tall.  Police say that woman has never come forward and has never been identified.

“We are always hopeful and we are always open to any leads that come in,” Towler said.

“It’s been hard, especially this time of year, because there is no closure for it,” Johnson added.

Officials say advancement in forensic science have allowed for investigators to reexamine evidence collected during the original investigation. Police are collaborating with federal and state agencies on how to best proceed with the evidence collected from the scene.

“Back then, DNA wasn’t as good as it is now,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s family continues waiting for answers.

“I just want to know why?” Donnie Johnson said. “I don’t understand why.”

If you have any information about this case, police are encouraging you to come forward. You can reach out to the police department at 252-449-5337 or submit an anonymous tip at 252-473-3111 or 800-745-2746.