Teen charged in Dani Howard’s murder

A 16-year-old runaway who had lived in the home of Katherine Danielle Howard, known as Dani to her family and friends, stole her minivan, shot her and left her to die in the street February 22, 2006, in Gordonsville, according to a federal prosecutor.

Today, more than two years later, a grand jury indicted Gary Christopher Johnson, a.k.a. "G-Money," now 18, on four counts in the murder of Howard. "It was a cold-blooded killing of a young woman," said U.S. Attorney John Brownlee, right, surrounded by her family and those who have worked on the case, at a press conference in front of the federal courthouse in Charlottesville.

Johnson, from St. Albans, New York, ran away from his foster home in the winter of 2006 and came to live with his cousin, Curtis Waldron, who lived with Howard in Gordonsville. According to Brownlee, Waldron was a known drug dealer who sold substantial amounts of cocaine in and around Charlottesville and kept coke, cash, and guns hidden in the house.

On February 21, 2006, Waldron and Howard drove to Pennsylvania, where she purchased a black Saab. While they were gone, Johnson and another young man, Justin Harris, stole approximately 300 grams of cocaine, $34,000 in cash, and two guns– a MAC 11 and a .357 pistol– and loaded them into Howard's white minivan.

Shortly after midnight, she returned home and noticed the two men driving her minivan in the opposite direction from her neighborhood. She turned around and followed them, honking her horn for them to pull over. Johnson, the driver, stopped, leaned out and shot her several times, according to authorities. One .357 Sig bullet casing was recovered.

In a search of Waldron's house, police discovered a videotape made the day before the murder showing Howard, Waldron, Johnson, and Harris inside the house. They also found a Glock .357 Sig pistol case and two rounds of ammunition. According to a receipt inside the gun case, Howard had purchased the gun September 2, 2005, from a Charlottesville pawnshop as a birthday gift for Waldron.

Investigators traced the gun to the original owner and found bullets and casings from the gun behind his house, where he'd used it for target practice. Those casings matched the .357 Sig shell casing found near the driver's seat in Howard's van, which police recovered in Culpeper March 7, 2006, and indicated the bullets were fired from the same gun.

Justin Harris has pleaded guilty to narcotics trafficking and being an accessory after the fact in Howard's murder. Waldron, her former boyfriend, has been charged with drug trafficking and is in custody in Pennsylvania. Johnson, the alleged killer, is being held locally.

"Dani Howard was a loving daughter, sister, and friend to many," said Brownlee. "Her life ended far too soon at the hands of a violent and dangerous young man."

Howard's father, mother, brother, and stepmother stood behind Brownlee as he announced the indictments. The family was often frustrated by the length of time it took for charges to be brought, as the second anniversary of her death passed a few weeks ago with no arrests having been made. A federal grand jury has been hearing testimony for more than a year, and former Orange Sheriff C. G. Feldman told the Hook in 2007 that the multi-state investigation had slowed the process.

"It feel good, it really feels great," says Michael Howard, Dani's older brother. "I guess it's understandable it took so long." The family had long believed the killer was someone who knew Dani. Waldron, who is from Pennsylvania and was more than 10 years older than Dani, disappeared after her death. "We knew he knew who did it," says Michael Howard.

Friends and family members gathered at the announcement that charges had been filed. "She was like our little sister," says Hiawatha Green, a friend of her brother who wore a t-shirt that demanded justice for Danielle. "She had an outgoing personality and a willingness to help. It's a terrible loss that still feels fresh."

"I'm elated," says Sheila Ford, who describes herself as "like a godmother" to Howard. "I speak with [her mother] Debbie [Umstadter] almost daily. Every day is a struggle for her."

Howard's aunt, Vizena Howard, says her niece was a good girl, adding,"I couldn't see her being involved in anything like this."

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2 comments

hang em high!

Dani was an employee of mine when I owned FoxTales restaurant in Orange. She was a sweet fun girl and an asset to everyone who knew her. I feel terrible for her mother as they were so close. If you read this Debbie know that I have never forgotten the pain you must be living with and I am sorry I am so far away and unable to offer help in any way. I am glad they finally caught this guy and I hope someone will have the guts to try him as an adult. This was a cold blooded murder of a lovely girl. This young man should never be allowed to devastate another family or push drugs in any other towns.