Laura Johnson hosted game nights, cooked meals from scratch, and answered to “mom” from not just her sons but their friends as well.
For years she was that kind of mother, to her five boys in suburban Vancouver, Washington.
And while she resembled herself less as addiction took hold — first to pain pills, and then to heroin — her boys say she never stopped loving them.
Laura, 49, was murdered in Billings in 2018 by her on-again off-again boyfriend, Gregory Green, a jury found last week. She had been working toward a new life: making strides in drug treatment, breaking it off with Greg, landing full-time work, and dreaming about her own apartment and car.
Laura's sudden silence that autumn scared her family. Her parents drove from Oregon to Billings to look for her, and they contacted police. Her son Stephan and his fiancee, Casey White, came to town and posted fliers and began knocking on doors, efforts that would spark the criminal investigation into Greg.
Learning about the progress his mother was making in the weeks before her death was one of the toughest parts of the case, Stephan said.
“That was kind of the cusp, like the catalyst that we were waiting for,” he said. “It’s not even about us. I don’t want you to cater to us,” he remembers thinking. “I just want you to be in a healthy position every day.”
Stephan, 30, testified against Greg in Greg's trial last week, along with his brother, Jonathan, 28, and Laura's father, Larry Braaten.
Now, with a conviction, the family can exhale.
Life in Vancouver
Laura had a knack for art, her sons said. She made a quilt for each boy when they were young, and when those faded and tore, she let them pick fabric for a new one. Stephan still has his, covering the couch in his Vancouver home.
Jewelry making tools covered Laura's work table. Painted ceramic vases decorated the house.
“She always had some sort of project going on,” said her oldest son Justin, 33.
The boys were all roughly a year apart and close in age with cousins who lived in town. When Braaten, Laura’s father, made stops during his long-haul trucking route, they’d get a call an hour before and gather for donuts and chocolate milk. On the boys' birthdays, they picked the menu: Laura's sloppy Joes, her banana cheesecake, her enchiladas.
Justin, 33, said his mother was careful to teach her sons right and wrong.
“The golden rule of growing up was: Make sure you always treat women with respect, you know? Treat them no differently than you would treat your mom,” he said.
But in spite of the trappings of a happy family, the Johnson parents struggled.
After a construction accident in the late 1990s, Laura’s husband, Howard, had to have a portion of his hand removed, leaving him with raw, fiery nerve endings. He was prescribed a daily painkiller, and the doses grew.
“They basically fed my family methadone for 14 years and then told them, ‘Go live life,’” Stephan said.
Laura took a dose one day to treat minor pain, Stephan said, and the seeds of addiction were sown. She went from taking pills occasionally to taking them every day.
Heroin entered the picture through the couple’s oldest son, who’d turned to it after getting hooked on the methadone pills, which he’d started stealing from his dad’s medicine cabinet while in high school.
The drug abuse created distance, and maybe some resentment, in the family.
“But it was all — it was all under the assumption that it wouldn’t be this way forever,” Stephan said. “That we would have the chance to like, reconcile, tell her how we felt.”
Laura and Howard eventually split up but never divorced. After charges were filed against Greg, Howard followed the case as closely as his sons did, calling the prosecutor’s office for updates and poring over Google Maps with his future daughter-in-law, Casey, trying to reason where Greg might have taken Laura’s body.
'The woman who raised me'
Laura met Greg, 54, online. She was living with her parents in Utah after leaving her husband, and she’d take day trips down to Las Vegas to gamble and visit Greg. Later she moved in.
Gradually, Laura’s family became aware that Greg was controlling. Phone calls were cut short. Arranging visits grew difficult.
Justin said about a year before his mother's death, they spent an hour or two together. She was happy to see him and said she was proud of him. But she seemed anxious to leave. It was the last time he saw her in person.
She didn’t make it to his wedding.
“That was another Greg thing, where she was planning on coming but when it came down to it, she wasn’t able to make it,” Justin said. “Because something just came up.”
When the controlling behavior escalated into violence and Laura landed in the hospital, her children — scattered across the country, building their own lives — were left to absorb the pain.
“To find out that the woman who raised me and, you know, is responsible for a good part of who I am and my personality, had to deal with that — it’s just heartbreaking,” Stephan said.
Investigation and trial
When Laura’s family stopped hearing from her in September, they worried. They knew she was living with Greg.
Stephan and his fiancee drove the 14 hours to Billings, leaving at 1 a.m. on a Sunday. They spent days knocking on strangers’ doors, posting fliers and visiting any place they imagined she might have gone.
At Greg's home, which Stephan located through a credit check, he stormed up the driveway, threw back the lids of garbage bins and pounded on the garage door yelling his mother’s name until Greg came outside. Stephan said midway through the conversation, Greg began to insult him, saying he hadn’t heard of Stephan before, that Laura had not mentioned him.
Stephan bit back.
“The last thing I told him before I walked away, I was like, ‘I’m going to be the f---ing end of you,'" he said. "'Don’t think this is over whatsoever.'"
A few days later, Stephan and Casey watched video footage from a neighbor’s surveillance camera that showed Greg carrying what was believed to be Laura’s body to his pickup. It would become the key piece of evidence in Greg’s murder trial.
The footage also marked a turning point for Stephan, who now understood what happened to his mother, and had to begin reckoning with the fact that he wouldn't see her again.
Greg was arrested roughly six months later in Nevada. By that point, he had a new girlfriend, according to trial testimony from detectives, who took a statement from the woman at the time of Greg's arrest.
Greg had moved to Montana in June of 2018. Roughly two months before, a warrant had been issued for his arrest in Nevada for assaulting Laura. In a dark twist, he wouldn’t be taken into custody on that charge, a misdemeanor, until he'd returned to the state after killing Laura in Billings.
During the trial, Stephan went back to his hotel room each night and spent a couple of hours updating the rest of the family by phone or video chat. In the courtroom, he sat in the front row, a few feet from Greg’s seat at the defense table, making sure the jury could see him.
Stephan said getting a conviction was only a part of the healing process. Now the family wants to find Laura's body.
He said his grandfather, Larry, has talked about selling his home in Oregon, buying a camper, and returning to Montana to search for his daughter. Larry's wife died in January, a fact he couldn't explain to the jury without a long pause and a halting voice.
Whatever happens, Laura's absence will continue to be felt. She wasn't there for her mom's memorial service, and she won't be at Stephan's wedding next summer. She never got to meet her first grandchild, now almost 4 weeks old.
Stephan is hoping more family members can travel to Billings for Greg's sentencing hearing, which has yet to be scheduled.
On that day when he takes the stand, he says he won't talk about the man going to prison, but about "the woman he took from us."
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