A month after her 17th birthday, Paige Johnson needed to let off some steam.
The Kentucky teenager’s life had changed drastically over the last two years: She’d dropped out of Simon Kenton High School to care for her baby, Makenzie, and was still adjusting to life as a mother. And so, she accepted an offer to hang out with friends one Wednesday night in September 2010.
The Sept. 22 party was just a handful of people hanging out at a house, authorities said, and she left with a friend, Jacob Bumpass, a few hours after she’d arrived.
“She was a social butterfly in school, always taking the time to talk to people and always had a smile on her face,” one of her high-school friends told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “It wasn’t out of the ordinary at all to see her at parties after she left school. She was always a joy to have around.”
But when her family woke up the next morning, Johnson was nowhere to be found. Her disappearance kicked off a massive effort to locate her, with extensive multi-county searches, but remained a mystery for the next decade—until this week, when the Covington Police Department announced the teen mom’s remains had been found in a wooded area off a highway in Clermont County.
“A lot of ways, you feel relief but you still have a lot of questions about why she disappeared in the first place,” Covington Police Chief Rob Nader said at a Wednesday news conference announcing the discovery. “So after you had that moment of relief where you could tell her mom, you went right back to work to find out why she disappeared in the first place.”
Authorities said Johnson’s remains were found Sunday morning near Williamsburg Township in Clermont County, about 45 minutes away from her parent’s home in Florence, Kentucky. A woman who called 911 said her husband had found a burned human skull just off the highway while deer hunting in the woods.
The Clermont County Sheriff’s Office, Covington police, and the Clermont County coroner all responded to the scene, where they found additional items likely associated with her body. Johnson’s remains were identified on Wednesday using dental records.
“We all wanted to find Paige alive,” Nader said, noting that the teenager’s mother was notified shortly before the press conference. “Today, I’m sad to say that hope evaporated entirely.”
Johnson’s older cousin, Alicen Franks, told The Daily Beast that while her family is in shock, they’re also feeling “relief that after nine and a half years—we found her.”
Franks, who was one of the first people authorities called on Wednesday to deliver the news that Johnson had been found, said she has been bouncing between “happy and angry screams.” She’s grateful that her family can bury Johnson and begin the process of getting closure.
“I do feel like this huge burden has lifted a little bit, to know that we're not crazy and that something bad had actually happened to her,” Franks said. “Now, we just want to bury her and give her the send-off she deserves.”
She added that Donna Johnson, Paige’s mother, is grateful for the discovery, but still “upset because she wants to bury her daughter’s whole body.”
“It’s been hell on earth for her these last several years,” Franks said.
While authorities did not identify her cause of death on Wednesday, the discovery of Johnson’s remains marks the first big break in a case that Kenton County Commonwealth Attorney Rob Sanders said has been riddled with false testimony and misleading claims.
Sanders said that there were witnesses in the case who refused to cooperate or lied to authorities during the investigation, including making one false claim that led investigators to “dig a hole the size of an Olympic-sized swimming pool” as part of an unsuccessful search for Johnson.
“I can’t promise charges will ever come out of this, but I can promise there are people who are very worried now—and rightfully so,” Sanders told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “They could have brought closure to Paige’s family years ago but they chose to lie or be uncooperative. Now they’ll know what it’s like to live with uncertainty.”
“They will be looking over their shoulders and they’ll never know when it might just be us behind them,” he added, confirming no suspects have ever been arrested in the frustrating investigation.
On Sept. 23, 2010, Johnson’s older sister, Brittany Haywood, reported her teenage sister missing after noticing she never returned home.
Authorities said Bumpass, who had picked up Johnson at her mother’s house the previous evening, was immediately questioned. At the time, the then-22-year-old said he had dropped his friend off at 15th Street and Scott Boulevard in Covington at 1 a.m. after hanging out—an intersection that was at least 15 minutes away from her home.
“It was hard for authorities to find out any information from people who were at the party,” Franks said. “Everyone there was partying—drinking and some even doing drugs—so they all had slightly different stories and it was pretty unclear what exactly happened that night.”
Investigators, however, discovered that phone records placed Bumpass near Johnson’s home in Florence at that time and not in Covington. The records also showed Bumpass sent a text message from East Fork State Park in Clermont County at about 4:28 a.m. that night. Authorities searched the 10,000-acre park with cadaver dogs but were unable to track down any clues.
Authorities said they found Johnson’s body about a mile and a half from the cell phone tower that pinged Bumpass’ phone almost a decade ago.
Sanders—who has been working with Covington Police on Johnson’s case since the day after she was reported missing—said that in 2010 he helped comb through the teenager’s Facebook and MySpace pages in hopes of learning more about her interactions with Bumpass.
“Investigators found Mr. Bumpass’ limited statements to be untrue or unverifiable,” Covington Police Det. Gwen Kelly wrote in the search-warrant affidavit from 2010. “Mr. Bumpass was unwilling to provide an explanation of the whereabouts of Paige Johnson.”
Two months after Johnson’s disappearance, Bumpass was arrested for having liquor in his home, a violation of his parole for a theft conviction. Bumpass was released from Kenton County Detention Center in 2012 but has refused to speak with police about the missing person’s case since the start of the investigation.
“She didn’t deserve what happened to her, and Jacob Bumpass and one of his close friends know exactly what happened to her yet refuse to come forward,” Haywood told The Cincinnati Enquirer several years ago. “I know there are other people who know what happened to my sister that night... How they sleep at night is baffling to me.”
Bumpass has never been named as a suspect or arrested in relation to Johnson’s disappearance. Neither Haywood nor Bumpass immediately responded to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
Franks said that she is hopeful justice will be found soon for her little cousin, whom she described as a “beautiful girl” with “magnetic brown eyes.”
“There was something about her that I felt this deep connection with,” she said, adding that Johnson was “really athletic, really funny, and really sweet.”
“She was a very beautiful girl who was crazy about her daughter Makenzie,” Franks said. “That's how we instantly knew something bad had happened to Paige. In no world would Paige have willingly left her little girl.”