BATAVIA, Ohio (Scripps News Cincinnati) — On September 22, 2010, Jacob Bumpass was the last person to see 17-year-old Paige Johnson alive, prosecutors told a jury in Clermont County during opening statements on Tuesday.
The trial is taking place 13 years after Johnson disappeared; her remains were found in 2020 by a hiker off off State Route 276 – just 2 miles from a spot in East Fork State Park where investigators originally searched for Paige’s body following her disappearance.
Now, a jury of six women, six men and two alternates are hearing what prosecutors and defense attorneys say about the night Johnson went missing in an effort to determine whether Bumpass is guilty of abuse of a corpse and tampering with evidence.
Bumpass is not standing trial for nor is he charged with murder in Johnson’s death. That’s because prosecutors didn’t have enough evidence to file homicide charges, in part because coroners were unable to determine a cause of death for the 17-year-old mother.
“Until somebody convinces me that this was not a homicide, I will always be a little disappointed that there will not be more justice available for the Johnson family,” said Kenton County Commonwealth’s Attorney Rob Sanders in 2020.
Dental records helped identify Johnson and DNA evidence allowed prosecutors to file the charges Bumpass now faces.
Bumpass has pleaded not guilty to his two charges. If convicted of both charges, he could spend up to four years in prison.
During opening statements, Assistant Prosecutor Zachary Zipperer reiterated that how Johnson died may never come to light. Prosecutors told the jury only that only Johnson’s skull — which was missing the jaw — was found alongside two other bones.
“She had just turned 17,” said Zipperer. “She was left to the animals, cold and alone. She was discarded like a piece of trash.”
Prosecutors pointed to cell phone records, which has always been the tie between Bumpass and the spot near East Fork Lake where investigators searched on more than one occasion in the years after Johnson’s disappearance. Bumpass’ cell phone pinged off a cell tower near the park in Clermont County after he claimed he’d dropped Johnson off on a Covington street corner after a party.
Zipperer told the jury Bumpass instead took Paige to his home in Taylor Mill, where he stayed until at least 2 a.m. Shortly after 4 a.m. phone records show Bumpass was just outside Batavia, he said. At 5 a.m., Bumpass then traveled back to Taylor Mill.
“At the conclusion of this trial, there is only one reasonable explanation the defendant was in Clermont County, Ohio on September 23, 2010: He was dumping Paige’s body,” Zipper said.
Sanders has said Bumpass was “the main suspect” in Johnson’s disappearance from the beginning because his story to Covington investigators didn’t wash.
“We always suspected that Mr. Bumpass was at least aware of what happened to Paige if not responsible for her death,” Sanders said. “We always knew he was not being truthful with the Covington police department the day after she went missing.”
Defense attorneys maintained Bumpass’ original story, doubling down on the claim that he’d dropped Johnson off the night she went missing.
Attorneys pointed to other people Johnson had come into contact with that night as possibly being to blame for the young girl’s murder.
First to take the stand was Johnson’s mother, Donna, who has been vocal since her daughter’s disappearance, often begging for the opportunity to bring her daughter home so she could be laid to rest.
That’s a wish that still remains unfulfilled. Johnson’s body remains in evidence until Bumpass’ trial concludes.
The still-grieving mother was almost instantly in tears as prosecutor Clay Tharp began asking questions.
Tharp asked her to describe Paige, at one point asking if the teen was trusting.
“Clearly,” Donna said. “I would say naïve, young.”
He then asked her to detail the night of September 22, 2010.
She said she was laying in her bed that night and Paige walked in around 10:30 p.m. to ask if she could go to her older sister, Brittany’s, apartment, which was in Covington. She thought she said her friend Jason was going to give her a ride over there, she said.
Donna said Paige didn’t have a car nor a license and that she knew and trusted Jason. But it was Bumpass who picked her up, not Jason.
Donna said she didn’t know that at the time, nor did she know who Bumpass was, only that she had seen him in a photo in Paige’s room weeks earlier.
“I told her that the picture scared me and I was very concerned about who this was in the picture with her and she just kind of laughed it off and said that was her friend ‘Bump’,” Donna said. “I just got really scared when I looked at the picture because of the size difference and the age difference.”
Paige was barely more than 5 feet tall and 100 lbs. Bumpass stands at more than 6 feet.
Donna said she and her fiancé woke up the next morning and drove to Princeton, Indiana for her fiancé’s job interview. She didn’t know Paige was missing at that point, she said.
At around 10 a.m. she said Brittany called her telling her Paige had never shown up at her place.
Donna said she started calling Paige’s friends and when they couldn’t tell her where Paige was, she called Covington Police. Later that night, however she said Brittany called her telling her not to worry because she saw Paige had logged on to Facebook.
Donna said that put her at ease and she stayed in Indiana for the night before driving back the next day.
But still, Paige was nowhere to be found, she said. She spent a week posting flyers, speaking with police and questioning anyone who knew Paige until she found out she had been with Bumpass, Donna said.
She said she then wet to his house and knocked on his door. When Tharp asked her to explain what happened next, Donna looked at Bumpass, who sat just feet away, and started crying again.
“I was trying to ask him questions but he just kept looking at the ground, and he had longer hair at the time and he kept pushing it back and I was trying to get him to talk with me but he wasn’t wanting to,” she said.
She then asked him if she could check his phone to see if she had called anyone before he allegedly dropped her off, since Paige didn’t have a phone of her own at the time, she said.
“He told me that his phone automatically deletes everything after 24 hours, which to me, at the time and even now, was crazy to me,” Donna said.
After a few more questions, Donna then broke down and addressed Bumpass directly.
“Why would you not take her to the door and make sure she got somewhere safe? I don’t understand that. That makes no sense to me,” she said. “Why wouldn’t you make sure she was safe?”
Donna, overcome with emotion, then made a comment referencing sentencing that garnered objection from both Judge Kevin Miles and Defense Attorney Louis Sirkin, who motioned for a mistrial.
Judge Miles however denied that motion, telling the jury to disregard her final response.
After a break, Tharp continued questioning her, inquiring whether Bumpass ever took part in searches for Paige over the years, to which she said he didn’t.
When cross-examined by Sirkin, she was asked a question that seemed to push over the edge.
Sirkin focused on Donna’s decision to let Paige go out.
“Wasn’t it rather late at night for your daughter to go out or was that common?” he asked.
Donna scoffed and said “Oh, wow.”
“I don’t know, you’re a parent, I guess. Sure. It was probably late for her to go out. Wow. Am I on trial for being a bad mother?” she asked, choking back tears. “Cause I’ll just say I’m a bad mother. My daughter is gone. I should have been a better mom and not had let her leave. I know that. You don’t have to remind me of that. It was too late for her to let me leave and I wish I would not have let her leave.”
Johnson’s sister, Brittany Haywood also took the stand. The trial concluded for the day in the middle of her testimony and will pick back up on Wednesday with her testimony.
This story was originally published by Scripps News Cincinnati, an E.W. Scripps Company.