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Family seeks answers to Puna murder, missing mystery

Brittany Jane Royal and Boaz Johnson. (Photo courtesy of Kathy and Tom Johnson)

Special to Hawaii 24/7 by Tiffany Edwards Hunt | Big Island Chronicle

The family of Boaz Johnson is on the Big Island from Petersburg, Alaska, desperately trying to find answers to disappearance of 22-year-old Boaz and the strangling death of Boaz’s girlfriend.

The morning after Memorial Day, Tuesday, May 28, a fisherman reported finding the body of Brittany Jane Royal, 25, floating in the ocean fronting the lava viewing area. The fisherman was said to have left the body with a lava tour boat operator before authorities arrived. Neither the fisherman nor the lava tour boat operator have been publicly identified.

For a couple of days before police publicly identified Royal, all the public knew was her physical description — “a Caucasian woman possibly in her late 20s or early 30s, about 5-foot-4 to 5-foot-8 with a slim build, short brown hair and a tattoo of ‘Veritas’ on her lower back.”

Within days of announcing the discovery of Royal’s strangled body, police issued a release seeking Boaz Johnson, who they said family members had not heard from since Memorial Day. Another release stated Boaz was a “person of interest” in Royal’s death.

The couple had been camping together before Royal was killed and Johnson disappeared, according to the police statement.

To date, that’s all the public officially knows. But the family of Boaz want the public to know this wasn’t just two people camping together, they were in love and planning a life together.

The Johnson family is here on the island, digging deeper into the mystery, hopeful to find Boaz alive but fearful of what that could mean, and scared too that he also was a murder victim alongside his girlfriend.

Within days of Johnson family members’ arrival, they realized police were following them. During the two-hour interview at a Pahoa restaurant with the Johnsons, an unmarked patrol car sat in the parking lot in plain sight. The Johnson family is not sure why police are following them, and at first were disturbed by it, but are now getting used to it.

They say they haven’t had much contact with the police, that they are treating Boaz like a suspect because he is missing, and, in the course, acting very elusive with the family. In fact, the Johnson family says one of the two detectives assigned to the case, Det. Robert Almeida, has been in Florida since they’ve been on the island.

As the family spoke with BIC, Almeida called them.

“It’s nice that they’re calling right now, it’s the first,” said Tom Johnson and his wife Kathy answered. “It’s kinda hard to run a police investigation from Florida, isn’t it?” Kathy told the detective.

“Are you investigating anybody else besides Bo?” she asked. “Can you answer me the reasons police are following us?”

She also inquired about whether police were able to obtain Boaz’ phone records. After Kathy ended the phone call, she told her family what was said.

“A bunch of non-responses,” surmised Boaz’ older brother Mark.

Kathy said police want her son’s bank records, but the family doesn’t even know where he banked.

The Johnson family is horrified that police are focusing on their son as a suspect, since they believe he is either a victim alongside his girlfriend or hiding out from whoever killed Brittany.

They described Boaz as a naturalist who could shimmy any coconut tree who was in love with Brittany, who was about three months pregnant, and who wanted to make a life with her in Kalapana.

Boaz brought Brittany to Alaska in late April, so he could introduce her to his family. For a few months before the Alaska trip, the couple and Boaz’s sister Ruth rented a house for $700 per month in a kipuka out on the lava field.

The house was surrounded by lava and did not have any vehicular access; none of them had a vehicle. They hitchhiked or caught rides from friends, and hauled their supplies out to the house in backpacks.

While Boaz and Brittany were staying with the Johnson family in Alaska, the couple discovered that she was expecting. They went on to see Brittany’s family in Tustin, Calif., before returning May 9 to the Big Island.

While with the Johnson family, Brittany and Boaz had discussed their plan to buy 10 acres in Kalapana and start up an organic farm.

“Brittany was like-minded. They fit together pretty good,” Tom Johnson said.

Kathy Johnson recalls that Brittany had “an extraordinary voice — a beautiful singing voice.” Boaz and Brittany both played the guitar and ukulele and, during the Alaska visit, they played music with some of Boaz’ siblings. (The Johnsons have 12 children in all.)

Brittany was into yoga and meditation, and Boaz got into the same after he started dating her, said Matt Hale, a longtime friend of Boaz’ from Illinois who visited Brittany and Boaz at the Kalapana rental house.

Brittany and Boaz were very holistic and concerned about what they put in their bodies, so they weren’t really the type of people who regularly consumed alcohol, smoked marijuana or used mind-altering drugs, Hale said. He recalls that when he came to visit the couple, Boaz trekked over to the Kaimu Corner Store for a six-pack of beer because he knew Hale liked beer.

Living out on the lava, they would get up when the sun came up, and they would go to bed when the sun went down, Hale observed.

The Johnson family also said that Boaz, who had sought to make money doing lava tours, had a conflict with another established tour operator. Boaz and his sister had both relayed to their parents details of the conflict after it happened.

Tom recalls telling his son, “Watch yourself” and “Take care of yourself,” and, both Hale and Mark, who also heard about the conflict with the lava tour operator, remember Boaz “played it off like it was no big deal.”

The day that Brittany’s body was found the couple was actually scheduled to meet with a realtor to finalize the purchase of the Kalapana acreage. The realtor didn’t hear from Brittany and Boaz, and contacted Boaz’ parents, who were helping with the financial arrangements.

The Johnsons say they last spoke with their son just after 5 p.m. Hawaii time on Memorial Day. Boaz had talked with his mother a few hours earlier, and then called back to talk with his father.

When Kathy spoke with Boaz, he was clearly out on the lava field. She could tell by the sound of the wind in the phone.

Boaz’ conversations with both parents were about them selling his belongings to raise money for the land. But Tom recalls telling his son he didn’t have to buy the land if he didn’t want to; it wasn’t too late to back out and he could spend his money in other ways.

He recalls Boaz telling him how much he wanted to buy the land and how he wanted to homestead out there on the lava and start a hydroponics farm.

The Johnsons also recall talking with Boaz about his desire to rent a house nearby for $350 per month in order to make Brittany more comfortable during her pregnancy.

The Johnsons would like to find the person who was planning to rent the house to Brittany and Boaz. They also want to know exactly where the couple was camping and who might have been camping with them or near them.

Since they have been on the island, the Johnsons have heard that there may have been up to three people camping with Brittany and Boaz, or near them.

Meanwhile, with the police so blatantly following the Johnsons, they acknowledge the presence could be for their protection. After about seven or eight officers followed them to Kona and the Johnsons called the police, they were told that officers were assigned to them for their “protection.”

“I feel like they should be investigating the murders, or Bo’s disappearance,” Hale said.

“My belief is there’s a good chance he’s a victim,” Mark said. “I have to say, with police following us, it gives me hope they know something we don’t know. The hardest part is they won’t tell us enough to get to the point where we can have a conclusion, have that gut instinct.”

“My hope, since they are so intent on us, is that they know something we don’t know,” Kathy said. “I don’t want to entertain the other possibilities, because that would mean he would be gone. (Not knowing) that is the thing that is keeping me going, so I don’t want to give up.”

“I look at it as a 50-50 chance that he’s alive or dead,” Tom said. “Every day we don’t hear from him or police, our hopes slip away that he’s alive. I want justice to be served, and I want to know the truth, whatever the truth is. I want it properly investigated.”

“My gut instinct is he’s still alive,” Hale said. “He’s scared maybe, because his girlfriend was murdered. It’s his unborn child. He’s grieving. Different scenarios have played out in my head. None of them really make sense.”

The Johnson family says they have been in close contact with the Royals, and are on good terms.

“Both families want the truth,” Tom Johnson said. “They know we’re hurting. We know they’re hurting.”

The family referred to online conversations about the case, and how at least one person has indicated having spoken with Bo since his disappearance. The family wants to talk with that person and anyone who has heard from Bo, knows his whereabouts or knows anything about the case.

The family asks anyone with information to contact them at (309)716-4398.

Anyone with information about the case also is urged to contact the detectives assigned to the case. Almeida can be reached at (808) 961-2386 or ralmeida@co.hawaii.hi.us or Fetuutuunai Amuimuia at (808) 961-2278 or famuimuia@co.hawaii.hi.us.

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