Robbers Who Targeted Elderly Sentenced

West Virginia Couple’s Violent Robbery Spree Thwarted by FBI, Local Partners

In 2018, a 74-year-old Tennessee woman was attacked in her home by a pair of robbers who ransacked her house and stole her sense of safety.

Days later, a 72-year-old Tennessee man with dementia was attacked outside his home by the same assailants. They forced him inside and threw him down a stairwell after robbing him of a few possessions. Among the items stolen was a bomber jacket from the man’s service in Vietnam. It was an irreplaceable keepsake that investigators never found.

In all, Joshua Small and his girlfriend, Joni Johnson, robbed—and in some cases violently assaulted—seven senior citizens in West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee during a short period in the summer of 2018. In several cases, they subdued their victims by punching or hitting them and then tying them up while they ransacked their homes. The robbers held some of their victims at gunpoint or threatened them with guns.

The incidents shook the small, quiet towns where they took place.

“One victim’s son told us, ‘This is a small town. Everyone here knows me or my dad,’” said Special Agent Wesley Leatham, who investigated this case out of the FBI’s Knoxville Field Office along with FBI Task Force Officer Mark Webber of the Knox County Sheriff’s Department. “It really caused a lot of worry and concern in these communities.”

A break in the case came when a tipster saw a couple driving a rental car that matched the description of the robbers’ car and told local police. Pawn shop employees also confirmed that Small had been seen pawning stolen jewelry and other items.

Investigators found overwhelming evidence against the couple once they were identified, including incriminating evidence on their cell phones. Several victims also identified Johnson and Small based on photos.

The couple lived in West Virginia, and they used Small’s employer, a family paving business, to find some of their elderly victims. In other cases, investigators aren’t certain how the robbers targeted their victims, but they were all in their 70s, 80s, or 90s.

“Everyone really wanted to see justice for these victims, especially given their ages and the level of violence they suffered.”

Wesley Leatham, special agent, FBI Knoxville

With multiple sheriffs’ offices involved, the FBI played a key coordinating role. The Bureau also brought resources to the case, including the ability to press federal charges.

“We had great local partners in this case,” Leatham said. “Everybody came together with outstanding coordination. Everyone really wanted to see justice for these victims, especially given their ages and the level of violence they suffered.”

In July 2019, the couple was convicted of kidnapping charges. In January, Small was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison, and Johnson was sentenced to 25 years.

Investigators hope the outcome brought some closure to the victims and communities that were traumatized. One victim died before the trial and some others were unable to travel to it, but their relatives gave powerful impact statements.

“We’ve heard from the victims’ families since then that this has destroyed their sense of safety. They’re constantly checking the door to make sure it’s locked. Visitors have to call before they come over,” Leatham said. “It’s really had a lasting effect on a lot of people.”