Dead End – Times Publications, October 2013

Dead End - HEADER

The dingy white box trailer baked beneath the afternoon sun in the parking lot of an Avis Lube and Oil near Indian School Road and 36th Street in Phoenix.

It had been abandoned there by an unlikely murder suspect—Chad Norris, a Valley businessman and married father of four.

For two days police had discreetly trailed Chad and his wife, monitoring them as they loaded dark trash bags in the trunk of their sport-utility vehicle, hitched the trailer to the back and hauled it up and down Phoenix streets before ditching it in the parking lot.

For police, it was a bizarre twist in an already confounding missing persons case.

Chad’s business partner had vanished after a heated confrontation between the two in their Scottsdale Auto Collision shop. Since then, the man had missed appointments and hadn’t returned to work, used his cell phone or his bank and credit cards.

Obtaining a warrant, officers fanned out around the parking lot amid the barking din of cadaver dogs, which had detected the stench of death.

A detective approached the trailer and yanked open the door.

Dried blood smeared the walls and floor and spattered a pair of gray garbage bins. Bullet holes pierced a wooden door lying on the floor off its hinges, alongside spent shell casings.

With a gloved hand, an investigator picked up a wallet and discovered an I.D. for a 45-year-old man named Jason Johnson—the missing person.

But there was no body.

To solve the mystery of what became of Jason Johnson, detectives would probe deeply into his life, dissecting his closest relationships. They would uncover an atypical tale of two business partners locked in conflict, on a collision course with death.

Jason Johnson disappeared on Sept. 14, 2012. It was a strange detour in the life of a man who, by all accounts, lived life in the fast lane.

Tall and broad shouldered with veined skin stretched across budging biceps, Jason was an imposing hulk of a man who split his time between pumping iron at the gym and working under the hood of a car. Growing up in California near Sacramento, motor oil had been in his blood since he was a teenager, secretly rebuilding engines in his bedroom, recalled his younger sister Erica Weistreich.

“He was always into cars. From freshman year in high school he started working on cars, rebuilding engines,” she said. “He didn’t always have the best looking car, but he pretty much always had the fastest car.”

After graduating from high school, he made cars his career, working at a few shops before launching his own auto body repair business in California.

In 1995, he met a curvaceous blonde named Angie Carter, who would become his girlfriend for the next 17 years. By then Jason had already been married and divorced and had fathered a son. Four years after Jason began dating Angie, they had a daughter named Alli. Unlike his son, with whom he’d been estranged since the divorce, Jason was an attentive father to his youngest child.

“He pretty much worshiped his daughter—she was his world,” said Erica. “They had a very good relationship. He wanted her to have everything he could possibly give her.”

After losing his California auto body shop in a legal snag, Jason followed Angie and Alli to Arizona where he found repair work at a few local dealerships including Chapman BMW in Phoenix. At one dealership, he met a fellow auto body technician named Chad Norris.

A few years younger than Jason, Chad was an Arizona native who attended Phoenix’s Camelback High School and Metro Tech High School, where he learned the auto repair trade. Hefty with a long, scraggly goatee, Chad liked heavy metal and horror movies, big guns and crime shows such as “C.S.I,” “Bones” and “Criminal Minds,” according to his Facebook page. Chad and his wife, Tamara, had four children—two boys and two girls.

Jason took Chad under his wing and treated him like a brother, as he had a tendency to do, recalled close friend Mike Havrelock.

“He was a mentor to everyone he worked with,” said Mike, who also worked with Jason at Chapman BMW. “He was always upbeat and had a ton of energy and could always make everyone laugh.”  dead

In 2008, when Jason’s mom died of cancer, he used his inheritance to open an auto body shop in Scottsdale and asked Chad to be his partner.

Located just north of Thomas on Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale Auto Collision was a full-service collision repair facility that employed about a dozen technicians and detailers. The shop quickly gained a reputation for quality work and strong customer service. They advertised around the Valley, including in the pages of this publication, and were recognized for their signature green, lifted 4×4 truck emblazoned with Scottsdale Auto Collision logo.

Jason put in long hours, never missed a day and almost always worked Saturdays. But at the shop he was also known as a hothead who sometimes yelled at employees. At least one worker quit because of Jason’s temper, calling him a “jerk,” according to the police report. Others said he was “more bark than bite.”

If Jason was a pit bull, then Chad was a cobra—silent and elusive. Chad tended to be reserved, but he could also be arrogant, said coworkers. Still, his more mild-mannered management style earned him the loyalty of some of the other technicians.

When it came to Jason, however, Chad seemed bitter. Over the years he grew resentful and increasingly seethed with repressed hatred, according to Jason’s sister.

“Jason and Chad didn’t really get along,” said Erica. “Jason liked Chad—he brought him into the business. But Chad couldn’t stand Jason. Of course Jason didn’t know that.”

A gun enthusiast who owned several weapons, Chad was also often armed. When he bought a new gun, he was known to bring it to the shop to show it off, according to police.

Then in 2012, after nearly four years on Scottsdale Road, Jason and Chad learned their lease would not be renewed. Searching for a new location, in June they signed on for a building in Tempe.

At the same time, Jason’s love life hit a speed bump. After 17 years together, he and Angie split, and he moved into his own place in Fountain Hills. Jason began seeing the shop’s receptionist, Bre Rose, an attractive, much younger blonde.

Angie and Jason, however, continued to speak and before long their romance rekindled, unbeknownst to his new girlfriend. Just a few months after moving out, Jason rented a house at Laurel Drive in Scottsdale, with plans for Angie and Alli to join him in late summer.

Meanwhile, Jason and Chad prepared to make a business transition, taking Scottsdale Auto Collision to its new home in Tempe.

A red ribbon unfurled along the front of the building for the grand opening of Scottsdale Auto Collision’s Tempe headquarters on Aug. 1, 2012.

Photographers snapped pictures as a dozen people mingled in front of the store. Jason stood proudly next to new Tempe mayor, Mark Mitchell, as he cut the ceremonial ribbon.

But despite the official celebration, the shop was not open or fully operational.

When the partners had leased the building at 7015 S. Harl Ave., the interior was unfinished and in need of complete renovations.

During the transition, the staff was split; half working in Tempe while the others maintained operations in Scottsdale. Jason remained in charge of the day-to-day management in Scottsdale, while Chad managed the Tempe facility and oversaw renovations.

Under Chad’s management, however, construction moved slowly.

Unlike Jason, who was known for his consummate work ethic, Chad lacked focus and follow-through, according to employees at the shop. His work was sporadic—he would often ignore projects or abandon them midway and move onto others.

“Chad had a habit of starting a lot of projects and never finishing them,” said Mike, who worked at the shop. “It was Chad’s project to get that store going, and he could never get anything finished. Jason would get so frustrated.”

As a result of Chad’s lack of organization, at the time of the grand opening the shop was far from being fully operational, said coworkers. The walls hadn’t been painted, exposed cables hung from the ceiling and plastic sheeting was taped over the unfinished concrete floors.

As the weeks passed, Jason’s frustration turned to anger. In the days leading up to his disappearance, Jason seemed deeply unsettled, although he didn’t discuss what was bothering him.

Several times he stopped by the Tempe shop and ended up yelling at Chad. To many of the workers it seemed like Jason was always “laying into” Chad.  

Chad Norris poses under Scottsdale Auto Collision’s green, lifted 4×4 truck emblazoned with the company logo.

Chad Norris poses under Scottsdale Auto Collision’s green, lifted 4×4 truck emblazoned with the company logo.

As the morning passed, Chad seemed distracted, and around noon he left, telling one of his workers he had to run some errands.

A few hours later, Jason was driving to Tempe in his black Toyota Camry. One of his employees, a detailer named Michael Ashley, rode along with him in the passenger seat, and later described the experience to police.

During the ride, Michael noticed Jason seemed agitated and angry but didn’t mention why he was upset.

Around 2:30 p.m., Jason’s girlfriend, Angie Carter, called his cell phone. They spoke for a few minutes, but he was very short with her and she asked what was wrong.

“I’m just dealing with a lot of crap right now,” he said.

It was the last time she would hear his voice.

Jason pulled his Camry into the parking lot of the Tempe auto shop and stormed into the building.

His glare darting between the four men working on the dented and damaged cars, Jason noticed Chad Norris was not there.

“Everyone stop what you’re doing,” he yelled.

At the sight of their angry boss, the employees froze. It was about 3 p.m. on Sept. 14—a Friday.

“If any of you want a job, then you’ll report to Scottsdale on Monday,” Jason hollered.

Jason called a tow truck and ordered the workers to prepare the vehicles for transport back to the Scottsdale branch. Then he made a phone call to Chad. “Get the hell over here, now!”

Crouching next to one of his customer’s vehicles, Jason replaced the tire, accidentally transferring oil and tire marks onto his shirt. He pulled the shirt over his head and tossed it on the hood of his Camry.

According to witnesses, Chad arrived about 10 minutes later.

Bare-chested, Jason pulled him aside, away from other employees and into a corner of the shop across from the break room. None of the workers could hear the conversation, but Jason appeared angry and animated, arms flailing.

For a while, the other employees stood nearby, sneaking glances. Seth Witte, finding it amusing to see Jason with his shirt off, snapped a few pictures on his cell phone. In the background of the image was a white 2010 Haulmark trailer.

At 3:30 p.m., at Chad’s direction, the workers left for the weekend, filing out of the building.

Jason and Chad were left inside alone.  

Despite the fact that no body was found, Chad Norris was charged with second-degree murder for the death of Jason Johnson. Chad’s wife Tamara was charged with hindering prosecution. A hearing is scheduled this month in the case.

Despite the fact that no body was found, Chad Norris was charged with second-degree murder for the death of Jason Johnson. Chad’s wife Tamara was charged with hindering prosecution. A hearing is scheduled this month in the case.

Jason’s Camry was still parked in front of the Tempe shop when employees arrived on Monday, Sept. 17. It was about 8 a.m. and workers huddled together near the entrance. A sign on the door alerted them that the locks had been changed.

Chad arrived nearly 10 minutes later and gathered everyone together on the shop floor.

“I want to apologize for Jason’s outburst on Friday,” Chad said.

He told them to proceed with business as usual and to focus on renovating the shop, particularly the break room. Over the weekend, the room—previously used for storage and cluttered with tools and equipment—had been emptied and its door removed from the hinges.

As instructed by Chad, a few employees painted the break room bright green, another drilled small holes out of the concrete floor that, according to police reports, no one could recall being there before.

Meanwhile, at the Scottsdale shop, Bre Rose was consumed with worry.

All weekend she had called her boyfriend, but his phone went straight to voicemail. Several times she stopped by his house, where she noticed his Camry was missing from the garage with no sign he’d been home.

When Jason didn’t arrive at work that morning, Bre felt a rising sense of dread.

Angie Carter also had been searching for Jason. Over the weekend, he had missed several appointments, including a scheduled date for Saturday, a fundraiser for Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu and breakfast with his daughter on Sunday.

Angie repeatedly called the shop and Bre answered. Angie told the receptionist she’d been planning to move into Jason’s house that weekend but that he was missing. Stunned by the admission, Bre confessed that she too was in a relationship with Jason. They both were being two-timed.

They each separately called police and filed a missing persons report. Detectives checked Jason’s bank, credit cards and cell phone records and discovered there had been no activity since Friday night.

After speaking to detectives, Bre also called Chad at the Tempe shop, asking about Jason. Chad checked for activity on the business account but discovered none.

Later that day, Chad called Jason’s friend Mike in California.

“Hey, is Jason out there with you?” he asked.

“What do you mean?” Mike responded, confused.

“He was mad on Friday, so I figured he may have come out there and stayed with you for the weekend.”

“Nah. He’s not out here.”

As Mike hung up, he wondered, Where’s Jason?

At about 7:20 p.m. the doorbell rang at Chad and Tamara Norris’ house on Los Feliz Drive and Southern Avenue in Tempe.

Opening the door, Tamara saw two uniformed officers standing on the porch.

Following up on the missing persons report, officers had spoken with both Angie Carter and Bre Rose, as well as interviewed several employees at Scottsdale Auto Collision. By all accounts, the last person to be seen with Jason was Chad.

After officers stated the reason for their visit, Tamara invited them inside. Minutes later Chad emerged from one of the bedrooms wearing pajama pants and a T-shirt.

“Could we have a seat to discuss Jason?” asked Officer Phil Amezquita.

Chad handed him a piece of paper with a handwritten name and number. “This is the name of my attorney. Call him to set something up.”

“Sir, you’re not in trouble,” the officer said. “We are just looking for Jason.”

“I am aware of that,” Chad said. “It’s just the way the events have come down today, I really have nothing to say at this time.”

“Do you know if Jason is OK?” Amezquita asked.

“I have no idea,” Chad replied.

As the officers left, Chad followed them outside. He walked to the mailbox, opened it, then returned to his house and closed the door.

“Based on the suspicious nature of Chad’s response to the query of Jason’s whereabouts, coupled with the history of Jason not missing appointments or being away without notifying someone, surveillance was established on Chad,” Tempe police Detective Vic Bermudez wrote in his report.

By Tuesday, the ceremonial red ribbon that once festooned the outside of Tempe’s Scottsdale Auto Collision had been replaced by yellow crime scene tape. The shop was cordoned off; uniformed officers guarded the front doors.

That evening, detectives served a search warrant on the shop, hunting for Jason or any clues to his disappearance.

The dumpster behind the building was emptied and swabbed for traces of blood, but none was found. Cadaver dogs were brought in to check for signs of human decomposition inside the shop, but they detected nothing.

Inside the freshly painted break room, detectives noticed the missing door and made note of divots the size of bullet holes in the concrete floor.

Meanwhile across town, officers had followed Chad and Tamara to the parking lot and discovered the trailer, but no body.

“Upon execution of the search warrant an initial check was made for a body, based on the results of the canine search,” Bermudez wrote. “And upon entry into the trailer numerous items of evidence were viewed to include blood stains.”

Around 4:30 p.m., Chad and Tamara had returned to their residence. Later Tamara’s mother, Debra Wright, who’d been watching their kids, stopped by the house.

To Debra, it seemed something heavy weighed on the shoulders of her daughter and son-in-law, according to what she later told police.

Tamara looked exhausted with dark circles under her eyes. She kept hugging and kissing her husband, who appeared terrified, tears flooding his eyes. Debra knew they were “upset about something” and that it was serious, but neither would tell her what had happened, Debra told police.

According to Officer Bermudez’s report, Chad confided to Debra that he’d “done something wrong” and would “take care of it,” but he didn’t want to involve her.

“What you don’t know, the better,” he told her, according to police interviews.

Later Debra spoke privately with her daughter. When Tamara admitted Chad had done “something bad,” Debra began to cry.

“You need to hold it together,” Tamara said.

Around noon on Wednesday, Sept. 19, Chad was behind the wheel of his car when he noticed red and blue flashing lights in the rearview mirror. He pulled over and was arrested.

In the interrogation room, Chad declined to speak to detectives.

“Chad provided his biographical data and basic information,” Bermudez wrote in his report. “However, when details into who he owned Scottsdale Auto Collision with, Chad said he did not want to answer any questions without an attorney present.”

Chad was indicted on charges of second-degree murder.  

Growing up in California near Sacramento, motor oil had been in Jason Johnson’s blood since he was a teenager. In 2008, when his mom died, he used his inheritance to open Scottsdale Auto Collision, a full-service collision repair facility.

Growing up in California near Sacramento, motor oil had been in Jason Johnson’s blood since he was a teenager. In 2008, when his mom died, he used his inheritance to open Scottsdale Auto Collision, a full-service collision repair facility.

Detectives also confronted Tamara about the abandoned trailer and the trash bags. According to police, Tamara told them she had only been following her husband’s orders and denied knowing anything about Jason’s death or the location of his body. She was ultimately charged with hindering prosecution.

Since his arrest, Chad has remained behind bars awaiting trial. He has pled not guilty. His attorney did not respond to requests for comment. Tamara was released on bail and has also pled not guilty. Her attorney declined to comment on the case due to the upcoming trial.

A hearing is scheduled this month for both Chad and Tamara.

Today, the Tempe shop that fueled so much animosity between the one-time friends has closed. For months, Chad attempted to manage it from behind bars but ultimately shut it down.

Jason Johnson is presumed dead, according to detectives. More than a year later, his remains have not been located. Police suspect he may have been dumped in the desert and may never be found.

Leads have since dried up, and hope of finding his body has dwindled. For Jason’s sister, not knowing his whereabouts is heart wrenching.

“To have to think of my big brother, my big macho protector who was like a father figure all my life, out there like that…it’s difficult to explain how painful it is,” said Erica. “I just want my brother back.”

UPDATE: In 2015, Chad Norris was convicted of murdering Jason Johnson and sentenced to 18 years in prison. His wife Tamara received just 60 days for her involvement in the cover-up.