Episode 108: Paige Johnson

March 11, 2024

A teenage girl goes out partying with friends and doesn’t come home, setting off a decade-long search for answers. What happened to Paige Johnson?

Episode Media
Paige Valisa Johnson (Facebook)
Paige and her mother, Donna (Facebook)
Wooded area where Paige’s body was found (WKRC)
Jacob Bumpass (Clermont County Sheriff’s Office)
Episode Sources
Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime. This week I’m bringing you a missing persons case that sent a family on a decade-long search for answers. This episode discusses sensitive topics, so listener discretion is advised.

Paige Valisa Johnson grew up on the outskirts of Cincinnati, on the southern banks of the Ohio river. Her parents were very young when they got together and needed help raising their children. Paige spent much of her childhood living with her grandmother in the small town of Edgewood, Kentucky. According to her cousin Alicen, most of their extended family struggled financially and several family members battled long-term addiction, not uncommon in an area where many lived below the poverty line.

Growing up, Paige was especially close to her older sister Brittany. Despite their three-year age difference, the pair were inseparable, each other’s constant companion in a world that could be unpredictable. Paige looked up to Brittany and wanted to be just like her big sister.

Their mother Donna described Paige as friendly and outgoing. She was also athletic, excelling in gymnastics and cheerleading. Brittany told The Vanished podcast that Paige was on track to take her talents to the next level. But as she got older, her fun-loving nature led Paige into the party scene. She and Brittany would sneak out at night to meet up with friends. They would drink and smoke weed into the wee hours of the morning.

When she was 15, Paige found out she was pregnant. Brittany learned she was pregnant around the same time, and the sisters leaned on each other for support. Paige dropped out of school, and soon gave birth to her daughter Makenzie. According to her family, Paige loved her daughter; she was crazy about her. But being a teenage mom was difficult, and Paige was still young and naive. Eventually, baby Makenzie went to live with her father’s family, and Paige visited her every weekend.

By the fall of 2010, Paige and Brittany – by then 17 and 20 – were back on the party scene. They were often out all night with their large group of friends, drinking and doing drugs. On the night of Wednesday, September 22nd, Paige wanted to go to a party and asked Brittany to go with her. But Brittany wanted to stay home with her boyfriend that night, so the sisters agreed to meet up later.

But hours passed and Brittany didn’t hear from Paige. She remembered Paige saying that her cell phone was out of minutes and she was leaving it at home, so it made sense that she hadn’t called, but Brittany was still a bit unsettled. She called their mutual friend Jason to ask if he had seen Paige – she had been planning to swing by his place that night – but Jason said Paige had never showed up. Brittany wasn’t really worried, Paige was probably still out partying. It wasn’t that unusual for her to stay out all night.

Brittany decided to go to bed and check on Paige in the morning. However, when morning arrived and her sister was still not home, Brittany knew something was up. She logged into Facebook to check her messages and was surprised to see one from Paige. Shortly after midnight, Paige had messaged Brittany, “girl call me now, I need to talk to you ASAP”.

Brittany figured the message was about Paige’s boyfriend, Ronnie. Paige had been worried that Ronnie was cheating on her, so Brittany assumed that something had happened at the party. Maybe Paige had gotten some bad news and wanted to talk about it. But Brittany couldn’t call her sister – Paige’s phone was at home, and Brittany had no idea where to find her. Then, Brittany got a call from Ronnie asking where Paige was. He hadn’t seen her since the day before and was worried about her.

Now Brittany was worried too. She called their mom to let her know what was going on. Donna was out of town, but when she heard that Paige hadn’t come home, she immediately drove back. Donna told The Vanished that the whole ride home, she had a bad feeling that something wasn’t right.

Brittany told her mom that Paige had left Donna’s house late Wednesday night when their friend Jacob had picked her up and taken her to a party. This information put Donna even more on edge. She knew about Jacob, and she didn’t like him.

Jacob Bumpass was 22 years old and a part of Paige and Brittany’s friend group. Donna had never actually met him, but she had seen pictures of him with Paige. Aside from the fact that Jacob had recently served time for a theft conviction, Donna didn’t like the idea of a 22-year-old man hanging around a bunch of teenagers all the time. Just a few weeks prior, Donna had told Paige that she didn’t want her hanging around Jacob, but Paige told her mom not to worry, Jacob was harmless. Donna was not convinced.

While she waited for her mom to return home, Brittany contacted the Covington Police Department, and an officer came to the house to take a report. Brittany told the officer what she knew and who she believed Paige was with, but the officer suggested that Paige was probably just out having fun, or that she had possibly run away. Brittany insisted that this wasn’t the case, so the officer filed the missing persons report as requested.

Of course, Paige’s family wasn’t going to wait around for the police to do their thing. They immediately began printing out flyers and hanging posters around town, calling all of Paige’s friends and posting her picture on social media. Donna and Brittany went to Jacob’s house and asked him point blank where Paige was. Donna told The Vanished that Jacob admitted he had been with Paige that night – they had gone to a party, then ended up back at his place where they had a few beers. Then, he had dropped her off in the nearby town of Covington at the corner of East 15th and Scott Street. He hadn’t seen her after that.

This story did not ring true to Donna and Brittany. Brittany’s apartment was just a few blocks from that corner – why would Jacob leave Paige there instead of just taking her the rest of the way? Paige’s cousin Alicen told WCPO that East 15th and Scott was “actually a really awful, dodgy corner.” But Jacob insisted that Paige wanted to be let out there, and he wouldn’t say any more about it.

Donna told the Huffington Post, “[Paige] wouldn’t just get out on a dark street corner four blocks from where she was going. It wasn’t even on the same street. She would have had to make a couple turns, and she doesn’t even know that area to know where to make the turns in the middle of the night or early hours of the morning. None of it makes sense.”

Covington Police also had their eye on Jacob Bumpass. When they brought him in for questioning, he told them the same story. He and Paige went out partying, and after a few beers at his place, he dropped her off at the corner of East 15th and Scott around 1am. After that, he went back home alone.

But Jacob’s cell phone data contradicted his story. According to court documents, Jacob’s phone was nowhere near that area of Covington on the morning of September 23rd. Instead, at 4:13am on the 23rd, it pinged 30 miles east in Clermont County near East Fork State Park.

When confronted with this information, Jacob told detectives that he had been fishing in that area. The 2,000-acre was a popular fishing spot, but the park was closed at night. It didn’t seem likely that he had been fishing at 4am. Jacob had violated his parole by giving Paige – a minor – alcohol at his house, then potentially lied about dropping her off in Covington, something that his phone data didn’t corroborate. It was certainly possible that he was lying about his fishing excursion too.

East Fork State Park covered over 7,000 acres of land and water east of Cincinnati. It would be nearly impossible to search it all, so search teams began scouring the area near where Jacob’s phone had pinged. Teams from Texas EquuSearch, a non-profit search and recovery group, joined in the search, as did hundreds of local residents, but after weeks of ground searches on foot, horseback, and ATV, there was still no sign of Paige.

Detectives were able to get a search warrant for Jacob Bumpass’ home and vehicles. Court documents stated that investigators found “hair fibers and a spot of blood” inside one of the vehicles. It was enough to keep Jacob on their list of potential suspects.

Jacob retained a lawyer and stopped cooperating with the investigation pretty early on. He was sent back to jail for violating his parole, but was released in 2012. Detectives questioned him again and again, but there was no real evidence of a crime in Paige’s case; they didn’t have enough to bring charges against Jacob.

Donna told The Vanished that she was afraid that Jacob had done something to her daughter. She didn’t want to think about the darkest possibilities, but she worried that Paige had possibly overdosed at Jacob’s house, and in a panic, he had dumped her body somewhere. Donna told WAVE News that more than anything, they just wanted Paige to come home. “We can’t sleep at night… We won’t stop until we find her.”

The family continued to pass out flyers and keep Paige’s name in the public eye. Paige’s 18th birthday came and went, and still, there were no answers. Covington police received a steady flow of tips, and they followed up on every lead, but as time passed, the hope of finding Paige alive began to fade.

In 2012, a man contacted the Covington Police Department and said that he had helped bury Paige’s body in Knox County, Kentucky, about 200 miles south of Cincinnati. Search teams and crime scene investigators traveled to a farm outside of Barbourville and started to dig. According to news reports, officers dug a hole the size of an Olympic swimming pool, carefully sifting through buckets of dirt, but at the end of the day, there was no sign of Paige.

In a public statement, Commonwealth Attorney Rob Sanders stated that the search was, “frustrating in its lack of fruition, but impressive in scope, cooperation and effort… Paige could still be close by but I assure you she’s not where we were led to believe.”

Over the next few years, Paige’s family experienced many of these false leads. Donna told WKRC that she would get messages and phone calls from all sorts of people, some of whom wanted to describe in detail what they claimed had happened to Paige. As difficult as this was, Donna passed on every message to the Covington police, hoping that something would lead them to Paige.

Police Chief Spike Jones spoke to the Huffington Post and reiterated his department’s commitment to finding Paige. “It’s important for the public and Paige’s family to know we have not given up! Most importantly, the person or persons out there who know where Paige is need to realize we will not give up till we bring Paige home.”

In late 2019, the Covington Police Department sought help from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Assistant Police Chief Brian Valenti told WKRC, “They were here for several days, went through everything that we had from interviews to paper files to digital files to everything. For the most part, their findings were that we had a very thorough investigation… their suggestion to us was… to start from square one.”

The department decided to assign a new detective to the case in January of 2020. Tips had been steadily coming in for the past nine years; the case was anything but cold. Valenti told WKRC, “I’m very hopeful that we’re able to come up with something that’s a new lead or something that we haven’t investigated before.”

Detective Austin Ross combed through every inch of the case file, trying to piece together all the little bits of evidence, and everything kept leading him back to Jacob Bumpass. But the big question was why Jacob had been near East Fork State Park on September 23, 2010. Jacob had claimed he was fishing at 4am, but no one believed that story. It didn’t appear that Jacob had any family or friends in that area, so there wasn’t any obvious reason for him to be there.

Then, in a stroke of luck, the answer came.

In the early morning hours of March 22, 2020, a deer hunter walking in the woods in Clermont County came across a human skull. Sheriff’s deputies came out and roped off the scene, a wooded area just off State Road 276. Right away, they contacted the Covington Police Department – the location was just 2 miles from East Fork State Park where they had searched for Paige all those years ago.

Dental records confirmed that the remains belonged to Paige Johnson. When the family was notified of the discovery, they were filled with a mixture of relief and sorrow. Donna told WCPO, “I’ve been wanting to bring my baby home for so long, and now I get to. This is a day that I was worried that I would go to my grave without ever getting.”

Over the next week, search teams returned to the wooded area to look for more clues and possibly more remains. The more they found, the more likely they would be able to determine a cause of death. A team from Texas EquuSearch returned to help with the new search, but it was certainly a challenge. The terrain was difficult, and it was clear that weather and animals had disturbed the remains over the past decade. EquuSearch director Dave Rader told WKRC, “There’s a lot of vegetation, and it’s very muddy. It’s swamp-like. I mean, it’s just a nasty area for these guys to go through. The chainsaws we had to cut our way through to do the grid patterns… but we’re making progress.”

Ultimately, forensic anthropologists could not determine a cause of death, and there was not enough evidence to file murder charges. But on July 28, 2020, Jacob Bumpass was indicted on charges of abuse of a corpse and tampering with evidence in the disappearance of Paige Johnson. Jacob pleaded not guilty to the charges and was released on $50,000 bond.

Paige’s family was relieved. Donna told WKRC, “Almost every day for the last 10 years, every day I’ve been sad. There hasn’t been one day when I haven’t been sad. I just got really happy today when they said they were going to arrest him.”

But as we know, the wheels of justice turn slowly. It would be three years before Jacob Bumpass went on trial.

When the trial finally began in July of 2023, the prosecution relied heavily on the cell phone evidence. They told the jury that the trial wasn’t about Paige’s death, but about how Jacob Bumpass concealed her body and tampered with evidence. They believed he had taken her body from Kentucky and driven it to Ohio, where he dumped it in the woods off Mathis Drive. His cell phone records placed him in the area where Paige’s remains were found. Prosecutor Zach Zipperer told the jury, “He drove to Clermont County, somewhere rural near the state park and he dumped her. He dumped her with a complete disregard for the value of her life. He dumped her like she was nothing more than a bag of trash.”

The defense told the jury that there wasn’t any real evidence against Jacob Bumpass. Everything the prosecution had was just circumstantial. Paige Johnson was a party girl living a high-risk lifestyle; anything could have happened to her. They argued that cell phone records from 2010 weren’t as accurate as they are now, and there was no proof that Paige’s remains hadn’t been left in the woods by someone else on some other day. In his opening statement, Defense Attorney Louis Sirkin said, “They couldn’t really pinpoint perhaps some idea of when this body may have been exposed to the climates. Could it have been the body was put there in 2011, 2012, 2013?”

During the course of the trial, multiple police officers testified about the evidence collected during the investigation. There was evidence of text messages between Paige and Jacob the day she disappeared, showing that they had met up as planned. Jacob’s phone had pinged near Donna’s house around 1am, then at his own house two hours later. At no point did it travel to Covington where he said he dropped Paige off. Instead, it pinged in Clermont County at 4:13am when he sent a text to a friend. A second ping a few minutes later showed him traveling in the direction of where Paige’s body was found. After that night, Jacob never tried to text or call Paige again, and just a week after she disappeared, Jacob changed his phone number altogether, the number he had had for over 10 years.

During closing arguments, the prosecution told the jury that any reasonable person could see that Jacob Bumpass was responsible for dumping Paige’s body in the woods on September 23, 2010. His own cell phone data proved he was there in the exact location where she was found ten years later. The defense argued that they didn’t need to prove Jacob’s innocence – the prosecution was responsible for providing the burden of proof and they hadn’t done it. Anyone could have left Paige’s body in the woods at any time. There wasn’t anything to prove that it had been Jacob.

After two days of deliberation, the jury unanimously voted to convict Jacob Bumpass of tampering with evidence and abuse of a corpse. Paige’s family was relieved by the verdict, so glad to finally have justice after all this time.

Donna told WKRC, “It has been a long wait, and [not having her remains] has been very hard… Being able to bring her home finally and give her what she deserves after having to wait all this time is a feeling I can’t really describe… I get to bring my baby home and give her the dignity that she has deserved.”

Jacob’s defense team filed a request for a new trial, arguing that the trial was unfair and that improper procedures had been followed. The request was denied, and on September 7, 2023, Jacob Bumpass was sentenced to four years in prison, the maximum allowed by law for his charges. He is set to be released in 2027.

In the aftermath of the verdict, Paige’s family continues to seek healing and comfort. Every year since Paige disappeared, her friends and family have gathered at Devou Park in Covington, where a tree is dedicated in her memory. Paige Johnson was a bright, outgoing young woman – a sister, a daughter, a mother – who will never be forgotten by those who loved her.