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Killer gets life in prison

Victim's mother speaks

By Kathy Jefcoats

kjefcoats@news-daily.com

JONESBORO — The apparent "thrill" killing of a young Riverdale mother by a kidnapping suspect left behind a trail of shattered lives, said her mother Tuesday in Clayton County Superior Court.

Nehemiah Johnson Jr., 29, knew police were looking for him in the Jan. 20, 2012 kidnapping of his ex-girlfriend, Roshanna Smith, and he wanted to go out with a bang, he told witnesses. Clayton County Senior Assistant District Attorney Jeff Gore said Johnson called Smith's sister-in-law and confessed to kidnapping her.

"He didn't know but an officer recorded the phone call," said Gore. "He said he knew he was going to prison so he was going to murder someone."

In the days following Smith's release, Johnson did just that, he admitted in court Tuesday.

Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents connected Johnson and Rochelle Thomas through eight cell phone calls made the day Thomas died, state the warrants. Police described Thomas, 30, as a paid escort who went to the Jonesboro apartment to have sex with Johnson.

Beverly Thomas said she knew her daughter wasn't perfect.

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Photo by Kathy Jefcoats Beverly Thomas with photos of her daughter, Rochelle Thomas, who was murdered in January 2012. Her killer pleaded guilty Tuesday to malice murder and was sentenced to life in prison.

"She didn't have a perfect life," she said after Judge Albert Collier sentenced Johnson to life in prison with the possibility of parole to be served consecutively with 20 years for Smith's kidnapping. "But she had a wonderful heart. She'd helped people who hurt her and then turned around and helped them again."

Rochelle Thomas left behind two sons, 16 and 11. The older lives with his grandmother and is about to become a father himself, she said. The younger boy lives in Philadelphia with his father.

Standing feet from her daughter's killer, Thomas said she forgave Johnson a long time ago.

"I didn't want to spend my life thinking negative things," she said. "I want to raise her children and think about positive things. I don't know why he chose to end her life. He would have liked her if he'd gotten to know her. When he killed her, he killed me, too, but I've got to live. I have five children, four grandchildren and a great-grandchild on the way. I'm going to make it as long as God allows me to.”

Thomas said she doesn't see Johnson as an animal but an imperfect human being.

"We're all human and we make bad mistakes," she said. "I don't consider him an animal, he's just angry and hurt. I don't know what it is. As fast as I can, I will take my family out of this state to put it behind us. We're suffering, her children are suffering."

Smith also spoke to Johnson.

"I just have one question," she said. "Why? You messed up my life, I've got four kids. I lost everything because of you, then you killed someone else. What did I do that was so wrong? What happened?"

Johnson didn't speak during the entire hearing but appeared agitated as he listened to Smith.

Attorneys were getting ready to select a jury in Johnson's case when he changed his plea to guilty. Gore said there was an overwhelming amount of evidence linking Johnson to Thomas' murder.

"We had a lot of scientific evidence," Gore said after the hearing. "We had a very strong case with his fingerprints in her car, his DNA on her, her blood on the cord he used to strangle her. He even made statements. It's one of the more senseless murders I've seen."

Johnson's mother, Vernice Johnson, previously pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence in the case because she helped clean blood and glass from the apartment and disposed of a knife used to cut Thomas, said Gore.