Family recalls lively 5-year-old, caring mother found shot to death

Family recalls lively 5-year-old, caring mother found shot to death

Mixed picture of murder suspect Ross Anderson emerging

December 9th, 2015 by Shelly Bradbury in Local Regional News

Colton Johnson, 5, and his mother, Rachael Johnson, 30, pose in these undated family portraits. Both Colton and Johnson were found shot to death inside their Cleveland, Tenn. home on Monday, Dec. 7.

Colton Johnson, 5, and his mother, Rachael Johnson,...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Cleveland Police investigate a double homicide.

Cleveland Police investigate a double homicide.

Photo by Harrison Keely /Times Free Press.

Colton Johnson was just learning to spell.

The last time his aunt saw him, the boy dashed through a hotel room in jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt, shouting out letters. It was December 2014.

"J! O! L! V!" he exclaimed, punching the air with each letter as he climbed on top of an ottoman and peeked out a window.

"I'm coming down now," he announced a moment later, in a loud, sing-song voice.

He carefully crawled off the ottoman and dashed across the room as soon as his socks hit the carpet.

That was Colton — always smiling, always on the move.

A mommy's boy with an infectious smile.

"They will be terribly missed," said Abby Mason, Colton's aunt.

On Monday, 5-year-old Colton and his mother, 30-year-old Rachael Johnson, were found shot to death inside their Cleveland, Tenn., home. Cleveland police charged Johnson's boyfriend, Ross Anderson, with two counts of first-degree murder.

A mixed picture of Anderson emerged in the day after their deaths — the 31-year-old worked as a Cleveland firefighter for five years until he resigned in 2014. Childhood friends remembered Anderson as a normal, friendly guy. But neighbors said he was known as odd, erratic and sometimes irrational.

Early Monday morning, hours before Cleveland police found Johnson and Colton's bodies, Anderson knocked on a stranger's door 140 miles away in Murfreesboro.

He told the homeowner the house seemed like a nice place to stay. The homeowner called Rutherford County Sheriff's deputies at about 4:22 a.m., said public information officer Lisa Marchesoni.

Deputies took Anderson to a local hospital for an evaluation — and then, nine hours later, officers in Cleveland discovered Johnson and Colton dead inside their home on Hillview Drive NW.

Anderson was booked in Rutherford County and then transferred to Bradley County authorities late Monday night, according to the Rutherford County Sheriff's Office. He is now being held in a local health care facility in Cleveland, public information officer Evie West said.

Police have not said what evidence led investigators to Anderson, or what motive Anderson may have had for the attack.

Fire Chief Ron Harrison confirmed Anderson resigned from the fire department in May 2014. He could not say whether Anderson was in good standing when he left.

Ross Anderson

Ross Anderson

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Cleveland Police Chief Mark Gibson talks about a double homocide from the street on Hillview Drive, NW Monday evening following discovery of a woman and her young child in their home.

Cleveland Police Chief Mark Gibson talks about a...

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Erica Hafley, who grew up with Anderson, said he was a fun-loving kid, and she'd never known him to have a temper.

"There is no good in this situation," she said. "You always look for the good in the situation, and there is no good in this one. Basically, right now, we just hope he gets the help he needs."

A man who answered the door at a home where some of Anderson's relatives live declined to speak with a reporter Tuesday.

Johnson had just graduated from Western Kentucky University in May with a master's degree in biology, school officials confirmed. Smart and caring, she loved all kinds of animals and worked at Wolftever Pet Hospital in Harrison, Tenn. She'd previously worked at a tiger sanctuary in Texas and always kept animals around, Mason said. She'd take in all sorts of strays.

Johnson's family dog also was killed in the attack.

Mason said she met Anderson only once, when she drove to Tennessee to visit her nephew and sister-in-law late last year. Anderson dropped Colton off at the hotel where they were staying, Mason said.

"He seemed like a genuinely nice guy," she said. "Colton hugged him goodbye and seemed to really love him. That was my only interaction with him."

She added that the whole family is in shock.

"Rachael was an incredible mother to Colton," she said. "All she cared about was his well-being. She would have done anything for him. I believe without a doubt that she would have tried to protect him to the very end."

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or with tips or story ideas.