Above: Ara circa, 1986
Vital Statistics at Time of Disappearance
Missing Since: April 2, 1986
Missing From: Big Sandy, Upshur County, Texas
Classification: Non-Family Abduction
Date Of Birth: March 26, 1981
Age: 5 years old
Height and Weight: 3’0″ and 39 pounds
Distinguishing Characteristics: African American Female, Black hair, Brown eyes, Ara was missing two of her lower front teeth at the time of her disappearance and has a silver filling in her back right molar, she was known to wear her hair in ponytails in 1986 and her hair was pulled back in two ponytails when she was last seen, Ara may use the nickname “Neecee” which is also spelled as “Nicee” or “Niecie”, some agencies spell her middle name as “Denice”
Clothing/Jewelry Description: Orange colored underwear
NCMEC Number: 601780
Details of Disappearance
Ara was last seen in Big Sandy, Texas on April 2nd 1986. She lived in a mobile home located in the 300 block of Boulder Street with her two parents, Ophelia and James Johnson. The two parents put her to bed that night as she had school the next morning. James stated he checked on his daughter between approximately 1:00 am and 2:30 am, he found she was still sleeping. Both of her parents awoke the next morning between 6:30-6:45 am and discovered Ara was missing when they went to wake her up for school.
They immediately contacted police to report her as missing. She hasn’t been seen or heard from since. Authorities performed an extensive search for the child. Tracking dogs were brought to search the areas surrounding the mobile home. The dogs couldn’t locate Ara’s scent anywhere around the mobile home. Searchers on horseback searched the areas as well but found no trace of her.
Investigators also searched nearby abandoned wells and dragged nearby stock ponds. Officers on horseback also searched the banks of the Sabine River which was located just a few miles away from Ara’s residence at the time. Despite all efforts by local police, on and off duty deputies, firemen, and security men from the nearby Ambassador College, no trace of the child was ever found and all signs pointed towards her not being in the area.
It was initially believed that Ara might’ve woken up and wandered away from her house. The area behind the mobile home was heavily wooded but if she did wander away, investigators likely would’ve found her or some trace of her. It’s very uncommon for a child her age to wake up at any odd hour of the night and wander outside.
Authorities believe Ara was abducted by a non-family member at some point during the late night or early morning hours of her disappearance. There were signs of a break-in at the mobile home where she disappeared from. There were pry marks and scratches on the rear door of the home which is believed to have been the method of entry her kidnapper(s) used as it was found open. The fact that the tracker dogs couldn’t detect Ara’s scent beyond the trailer home indicates she was carried away, possibly in a vehicle.
Two days after Ara went missing, officials classified her disappearance as a possible kidnapping and as a result the Federal Bureau of Investigation became involved in the case. They became involved on the basis that whoever took Ara might’ve already crossed state lines with her thus making it a possible federal crime. There was at least one possible sighting of the child during the week after her disappearance but it has never been confirmed.
According to authorities, they already had a good idea of who abducted Ara. They believe it was someone who knew the family’s habits well enough to know when they could take the child without being caught. Her parents were subjected to polygraph testing following their daughters presumed abduction. The results were deemed as inconclusive but it’s generally not believed the case was family related and no information was gained as a result of the testing. Another unnamed man was also given a test and the results were inconclusive.
Investigators are also seeking the blanket that Ara was wrapped inside of when she disappeared. It disappeared along with her and has never been found. The blanket is described as being a burnt, dark orange color. Besides the missing blanket, Ara’s room was relatively un-disturbed and no one in the home reported hearing anything odd during the night she went missing.
Following her disappearance, Ara’s family was at the center of harassing and prank phone calls about her disappearance. Several months after Ara was abducted, someone contacted the child care center where her mother worked and arranged to meet her at a football field in Big Sandy to tell her of news regarding the case. The call was a hoax and the individual(s) had no information about her daughter at all.
The phone calls likely came as a result of a $2,000 reward fund established for any information leading to the return of Ara or information that could lead to whoever abducted her. Despite these calls, Ara’s family never gave up on searching for her and ensuring that her disappearance isn’t forgotten. By November 1986, Ara’s mother had gotten her listed with over 55 missing children’s agencies across the country and planned to contact more.
Despite the various efforts of both her family and law enforcement agencies, Ara was never located and no trace of her has ever been found. Her case became cold after sometime and little to no leads came in for over twenty years.
In 2007, investigators named David Elliot Penton as a strong person of interest in Ara’s disappearance. He is a convicted child killer who has claimed more than five victims. In November of 1984, David killed his two month old son, Michael James Penton, by violently shaking him. He said he shook the child because he was angered by his non-stop crying. The crime occurred in Bell County, Texas.
David appealed his guilt in the death of his infant son and was free on bond when he fled. The outcome of his appeal was still pending when he evaded law enforcement. It’s believed that while David was on the run, he abducted and murdered several children.
Christi Lynn Meeks was just five years old when she was abducted from outside her mothers apartment complex in Mesquite, Texas on January 19th 1985 while she was playing hide n seek with her older brother. Her brother witnessed a man abduct his sister. Christi’s body was found in Lake Texoma three months after abduction. Meeks was raped and strangled to death.
Christie Diane Proctor was last seen in February of 1986. She was walking to her apartment in Dallas Texas at the time. She was presumably abducted while walking. Her skeletal remains were discovered in a field in Plano, Texas on April 9th 1988. She had been raped and strangled to death. She was ten years old when she vanished.
Roxann Hope Reyes was abducted near her apartment in Garland, Texas on November 3rd 1987. She was picking wildflowers for her mother when she was taken. Her body was found months later on May 19th 1988 in a vacant lot located in Murphy, Texas. She was raped and strangled to death as well. She was only four years old when she was abducted and slain.
Nydra Ross was reported as missing from her aunts home in Dayton, Ohio on March 31st 1988. She was presumed kidnapped until her remains were found in a dry creek bed in Marion, Ohio eight months later. Much like the other girls, Ross had been raped and strangled to death. She was nine years old at the time of her abduction and murder.
David was a family friend to Nydra and he was known to smoke crack and do other illegal narcotics with her family members. He was specifically acquainted with Ross’s aunt at the time she was taken and killed. He was charged with kidnapping and aggravated murder and was ultimately convicted of the crime years later in 1990. He was sentenced to life in prison for the case.
In June of 2003, Penton was indicted for capital murder in the deaths of Christi Meeks, Christie Proctor, and Roxann Reyes. He ultimately signed a plea deal in relation to the three murders and admitted to killing all three girls. He plead guilty to all three cases in January of 2005 and was sentenced to life in prison. He will remain imprisoned in Ohio until he finishes his sentence for the Ross murder and then he will serve his sentence for the Texas murders.
Investigators believe David is a serial killer and had many more victims besides the four girls and his son that he was convicted in. Multiple police agencies were alerted of David’s criminal history and he’s been named as a suspect in several cases of missing young girls.
David was also named as a person on interest in the case of Amber Nichole Crum. Crum was two years old when she disappeared from Dallas, Texas on December 26th 1983. She was last seen sitting inside the pickup truck of her mother’s boyfriend alone.
He’s also been named as possible suspect in the case of Angelica Maria Gandara. She was abducted while walking back to her family’s residence located in the 800 block of north 6th Street on July 14th 1985 in Temple, Texas. She has never been seen since and her body has never been recovered. She was eleven years old at the time of her disappearance.
David was also named as a suspect in the presumed abduction of Shannon Marie Sherrill in 2009. Shannon was six years old when she disappeared from in front of her mothers mobile home on October 15th 1986 in Thorntown, Indiana. She was playing hide n seek with several other children when she mysteriously vanished without a trace. This is somewhat similar to how Christi Meeks vanished but there’s no evidence that Penton was involved in this case.
Investigators have stated they strongly believe Penton was involved in Ara’s disappearance since he allegedly claimed he was involved in her disappearance as well as the cases of Amber and Angelica. He hasn’t been charged with any crime in the Johnson case but he remains a possible suspect nonetheless. He allegedly mentioned Ara’s case to cellmate which has prompted investigators to look into his possible involvement in her case.
At the time of her disappearance, Ara was enrolled at the child care center where her mother worked and was to start Kindergarten during the fall of 1986 after she disappeared. She wasn’t the first child to be lost by her family. On July 2nd 1985, Ara lost her older brother, Corey Johnson, when he drowned in Galveston, Texas. The family was still grieving this loss when Ara was abducted. Her mother and father divorced sometime after her disappearance. Ara’s abduction remains unsolved and foul play is suspected.
If you have any information concerning this case, please contact:
Upshur County Sheriffs Office 903-843-2541
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
Texas Department of Public Safety
Longview News-Journal 04/03/1986
Longview News-Journal 04/04/1986
Tyler Morning Telegraph 04/04/1986
Longview News-Journal 04/17/1986
Tyler Morning Telegraph 11/11/1986