Southern Minnesota husband's 'death party' for wife leads to murder charge

Duane Johnson, 58, seems to have told law enforcement everything, holding nothing back, and that honesty has him facing a third-degree murder charge.

Duane Johnson, 58, seems to have told law enforcement everything, holding nothing back, and that honesty has him facing a third-degree murder charge. Brown County Sheriff

Look past Duane Johnson's memorable mug shot, and focus on the haunting small-town story here. If you're worried about the state of mental health services in Minnesota and/or America, this story will not be a comfort to you.

Johnson, 58, hails from the southern Minnesota hamlet of Searles, a town so unassuming its Wikipedia page makes note of the establishment of a post office (1902) and little else.

That probably means Johnson's responsible for the single most noteworthy thing to happen in that place in a long time, if not in recorded history. He's being charged with third-degree murder, and doesn't deny what he's accused of doing. In fact, he says he did it out of love and devotion.

Back in January, Johnson was arrested at his home after a Brown County Sheriff's deputy discovered him, naked, and volunteering information about Debra, his deceased wife upstairs. There was, the Washington Post notes, a spraypainted note on the screen door, one with references to "death, God, hell, and maybe a party."

"Maybe" a party, Washington Post? This was, for Duane Johnson's wife, the party of her life --  and of her death. That's the story Johnson told authorities, explaining how his ailing wife had begged him to bring her home from her nursing home and throw one last kickass party so she could die happy. They labeled it a "death party," per Johnson's answers to law enforcement, and it featured a healthy amount of methamphetamine.

Duane's wife was 11 years his senior, and had diabetes and affective disorder, a mood-altering mental health affliction that led to the prescription of anti-psychotic medication last fall. Debra had survived two heart attacks in recent years.

According to a criminal complaint, Johnson says this death party was Debra's idea, and that they'd spent the previous five days "rocking out," with frequent plays of their shared favorite tune, Quiet Riot's "Metal Health."

Johnson describes turning the music up loud enough that his wife couldn't hear his crying, and said despite her shaking "violently" at one point, he didn't call an ambulance because a previous trip to the New Ulm Medical Center had revived Debra, and "made my life shit." Johnson also called caretakers involved in extending Debra's life "motherfuckers."

In speaking to law enforcement, Johnson's approach was to defend nothing, admit everything, and cop to being "a moron" and "an idiot," according to the complaint. "I can't lie because I'm too stupid to plan ahead and lie," Johnson's quoted as saying, along with: "I tell the truth and no one believes what I say."

The complaint contains many, many more upsetting details (some of which we'll spare you here). Investigators also found some 47 guns in the residence, "many of which were stolen." 

A charge of third-degree murder comes with a maximum punishment of 25 years in prison, a $40,000 fine, or both. Johnson's new, more severe criminal count comes after he'd been charged with felony criminal neglect in Debra's death.

And here's a couple more lines from the criminal complaint, ones that, given the above information, you won't soon forget: 

"Debra Johnson meets the definition of a vulnerable adult pursuant to Minnesota Statute degree 609.232, subd. 11(4). The Defendant meets the definition of a caregiver pursuant to Minnesota Statute degree 609.232, subd. 2."