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Kenneth Johnson
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This ditch at the intersection of Blackford and Kelly streets in Chattanooga is where the body of Kenneth Johnson was found on Nov. 12. Police believe he was killed sometime in the evening on Monday, Nov. 11.
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Site where Kenneth Johnson's body was found.

A woman witnessed the deadly Nov. 10 assault on associate minister Kenneth Johnson and called 911, but it took police 48 minutes to arrive and the officer failed to spot Johnson, who by that point was likely dead in a ditch.

It was not until 7 a.m. the next day that police discovered Johnson's badly beaten body after a second neighbor called 911 to report a suspicious vehicle on Blackford Street. Investigators since have arrested and charged 22-year-old Steven Kelley and 26-year-old Jordan Craig with first-degree murder in the death.

Now the witness - who asked to remain anonymous - is speaking out about what she saw that night.

"[That no one showed up] is the only thing that bothers me," the woman said. "Maybe he could have lived. But I don't know. I know I called."

The woman lives in an apartment complex adjacent to the alley where the 59-year-old Johnson was killed.

She said she took out her trash between 9:30 and 9:45 p.m. and was sitting on her porch browsing her cellphone when noises made her look up.

She looked across a small, empty parking lot and yard and spotted three people - two men and a woman - in an alley.

"I could see a man getting attacked with a bat," she said. "I couldn't see people's actual faces, like features and all that. But I could see everything happening."

The attack ended and a man and woman left, but they came back maybe five minutes later, she said. They shut off Johnson's car - which had been running in the alley - and seemed to clean up a bit. They picked something up from Johnson. The witness said she struggled with whether to call police and called her son and daughter instead.

They told her to call police. So she did, at 9:59 p.m.

"I told [the dispatcher] that someone was hurt over here," the woman said. "She asked me, 'What makes you think someone is hurt?' And I said, 'Because I seen him getting hit with a bat.'"

Chattanooga police declined to release the audio from the 911 call or the step-by-step computer-aided dispatch report from the night because Johnson's homicide is still under investigation.

But 911 records show the woman's call was labeled as a "suspicious vehicle" or "suspicious activity" and that an officer was dispatched to the scene at 10:16 p.m.

Before then, all the officers in that area were busy with an unrelated foot pursuit that ended around 10 p.m., said Kyle Miller, communications coordinator for the Chattanooga Police Department.

When the officer eventually was sent on the call, the dispatcher told him what the 911 caller said: She thought she saw someone with a bat, a car was sitting in an alley running and she thought someone may be injured.

But about 15 minutes later - before the officer arrived at the scene - he was diverted to a different call, a disorder with a weapon. He didn't make it back to the call about Johnson's attack until 10:47 p.m.

At that point, the officer circled the block but "could not locate any vehicles or persons on Dodson Avenue or in the alley off Dodson," the officer wrote in his incident report. He closed the call nine minutes after he arrived.

The officers followed proper procedure that night, Miller said.

All calls that come into the police department are prioritized into four levels, he said. The disorder call was a Priority 1, while the suspicious activity call was a Priority 3, so the officer was required to respond to the higher-priority call first, he said.

"It is not uncommon for an officer to be diverted to another location based off of priority level and officers more often than not survey an area based off of the information provided - address and visible details - to dispatch by the caller," he said in a statement.

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Crime scene investigators Heather Williams, right, and Ken Burnette work the scene where the body of Kenneth Johnson was found on Blackford Street in Chattanooga.

He added that so far in November, Chattanooga police have received an average 568 calls per day.

The operators who answer 911 calls are responsible for categorizing each call, said John Stuermer, executive director of the Hamilton County 911 Center. He said each call is unique but generally "in-progress" calls - where the activity is still ongoing during the call - are given highest priority.

"If [a caller] said, 'There's a fight out here and everybody is gone but there is a guy lying out in the street,' that's an in-progress type call," he said. "But if they say 'There was a fight out here, I think someone might be hurt but I don't see anybody,' well, that's not quite a higher priority. You'd still want to go out there and look but if you have a shooting call or something similar, then you'd divert to that."

Since police declined to release the woman's recorded 911 call, it's impossible to check exactly what she said, although she claims she described the attack.

Investigators estimated Johnson died between 9:30 and 9:45 p.m. that Monday. The woman expected police to knock on her door that night to get more details - she said she gave the 911 operator her name and address - and was surprised when no one showed up.

But, she said, she did speak with officers during the homicide investigation and said she's glad officers arrested the couple who may be responsible for the attack.

"I don't know what circumstances brought this minister to the alley," she said. "It's not for me to judge. I just feel like whatever it was, he did not deserve to die like that."

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