22 years since the unsolved KDH murder
July 13 marks the anniversary of a crime that stunned the Outer Banks and that remains unsolved to this day. Twenty-two years ago, 33-year-old Denise Johnson was brutally murdered in her Kill Devil Hills home.
On July 13, 1997, the KDH Fire Department responded to a house fire in the 2000 block of Norfolk Street. Firefighters discovered Johnson inside the residence and removed her in an attempt to resuscitate her.
Once outside the residence it was discovered that Johnson had not succumbed to smoke or fire alone, but had also been stabbed. According to the state’s final autopsy report, she’d been stabbed in the neck and there were additional wounds on her body to indicate Johnson had fought for her life.
In an interview last year, Kill Devil Hills Police Lt. John Towler, characterized the Johnson case as “an open murder. It always remains a priority.” In recent years, some of the most aggressive sleuthing on the case has been done by Delia D’Ambra, a Florida TV news reporter with deep ties to the Outer Banks.
D’Ambra — a UNC grad and the daughter of former Manteo Police Chief Francis D’Ambra — was four years old when her family moved to Roanoke Island in 1997, the same year Johnson was murdered.
Beginning her investigative work in January 2018, she has thus far produced 18 episodes of the podcast “CounterClock,” in which she has re-examined the case in painstaking detail — hoping to uncover enough new leads and information to give law enforcement new tools to solve the case. (To learn more about this podcast, log on to https://counterclockpodcast.com/.)
In an interview this past week, D’Ambra said that CounterClock is on hiatus, but will resume next year. Asked what people should be thinking about as another anniversary of the murder passes, she said: “I want people to remember that there is a family that is still grieving a heinous crime. And they have gotten no answers.”
One prominent member of that family is Denise’s older sister Donnie, a former Kill Devil Hills firefighter, who has remained vigilant about the case over the years.
“I feel that the podcast has helped me answer a lot of the hard questions I had,” she says. “As for knowing who really did it, I can only speculate.”
When she was asked what people should remember on this sad anniversary, Johnson responds, “just what a bright light Denise was.”