Testimony and evidence from Jordan Graham’s murder trial paint the first clear picture of what happened that night Cody Johnson was pushed off a cliff in Glacier Park.
By Justin Franz
It was a warm summer evening when a group from the Faith Baptist Church walked into the Dairy Queen in Kalispell. Lisa Blake, a self-employed criminal background checker, approached the counter and ordered a milkshake with her two children.
In a nearby booth, Cody Lee Johnson, 25, and Jordan Graham, 21, talked with other church members who had just left the 6 p.m. service. The pair had been married eight days earlier and everyone was asking how married life was treating them. As always, Johnson had more to say.
Friends and family described Johnson as an outgoing young man who loved life, cars and his new wife. Graham on the other hand was more reserved; so much so that many friends thought the couple made an odd pair. Graham was shy, standoffish and often answered questions with one-word answers.
As they sat in the booth, Johnson played with 3D glasses, popped out the lenses and put them on.
“Cody, you look like a young Jerry Lewis,” Blake joked.
A little after 8 p.m., Johnson and Graham left their fellow churchgoers at Dairy Queen and headed home. It would be the last time Blake or anyone else from Faith Baptist would see Johnson. Two hours later he would be dead at the bottom of a cliff in Glacier National Park.
Five months after she sat in a booth at Dairy Queen, Graham appeared in federal court on Dec. 9, charged with murdering Johnson by pushing him off a steep embankment in Glacier Park on July 7. For four days, from Dec. 9 until Dec. 12, friends, family and law enforcement testified about what they saw in the days before and after Johnson died; painting, for the first time, a clear picture of what happened along the Loop Trail late that summer night.
On the fourth day of her murder trial, Graham shocked the court when she pleaded guilty to second-degree murder shortly before closing arguments were set to begin. The plea deal meant she would avoid potentially being convicted of first-degree murder and of making false statements to law enforcement. A sentencing hearing has been set for March 27, 2014.
Moments before Graham was led away in handcuffs by U.S. marshals, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy asked her a question.
“You have told different stories to different people,” he said. “I need you to tell me what happened on the night of July 7.”
Jordan Graham first laid eyes on Cody Lee Johnson at Taco Bell after church one Sunday night. He was popular, talkative and charismatic. Soon after, on Oct. 31, 2011, Graham and Johnson formally met at a Halloween party. Despite seemingly different personalities, they hit it off and quickly began dating. Johnson was head-over-heels in love with Graham, later telling a friend, “If I get to wake up everyday under the same roof as the woman I love, I’d be happy.”
Johnson decided to act on those feelings and began saving parts of his paycheck from Nomad Global Communication Services to buy Graham a ring. He proposed in December 2012. Soon, a wedding date was set – June 29, 2013 – and the couple began barreling towards adulthood.
Graham was excited, too, saying she was “the happiest I have ever been in a long time.” She even flew to California in April to help record a song she had commissioned from Our Story Our Song, a company owned by Elizabeth Shea, who creates songs for weddings, birthdays and anniversaries. Shea spent time with Graham and Graham’s 16-year-old brother, Michael Rutledge, while they were in California and quickly noticed her client’s shyness.
“I could tell she had trouble opening up. She doesn’t share a lot of emotions,” Shea said. “(But) she would light up and smile when talking about the wedding.”
Yet Johnson’s friends had different opinions about the couple’s pending nuptials, even going as far as jokingly taking bets as to how long it would take the couple to file for divorce. Johnson hated that. And one time, when some friends questioned his reasons for marrying Graham, he stormed out of a restaurant.
Cameron Fredrickson had known Johnson since they were teenagers. They did “anything and everything” together, but especially liked fixing up and racing cars. The two worked together at Nomad.
“I told him not to marry (Graham),” Fredrickson said. “I had reservations about the relationship because it did not seem healthy … Cody was giving his all and he wasn’t getting much back.”
On Saturday, June 29, Johnson and Graham married at Woodland Park in Kalispell. As Graham walked down the aisle, she looked at her grandmother, Linda Record, who was crying, and she too started to weep. Later, at the reception, Graham’s maid-of-honor and self-described “big sister,” Kimberly Martinez, toasted the couple: “The best thing possible happened and I’m so happy for you two.”
That night, the newlyweds took a one-night honeymoon in Bigfork. Johnson wanted to make the night extra special for Graham and he had one of the bridesmaids buy flowers for the room.
On Sunday they returned to their new home in Kalispell and began their new life together. Johnson returned to work at Nomad and Graham went back to her babysitting job where she was most comfortable – friends and family said she always seemed at ease with children. But Graham was harboring doubts about her marriage almost immediately. She sent a text message to her maid-of-honor at 10:31 p.m. on June 30.
“Totally just had a meltdown. I’m completely second guessing everything,” Graham wrote to Martinez. “I don’t know if all of this was the right thing to do. So much happened last night … I just don’t know.”
“About what?” Martinez wrote. “Are you OK?”
Graham said she was having second thoughts about marrying Johnson and she was especially concerned about being intimate. Martinez said those feelings were normal. But the next day, July 1, Graham’s worries continued.
“I cannot freaking pull myself together,” she texted Martinez at 9:11 p.m.
“I haven’t stopped crying since I was married. I wish someone would have stood up and asked me what I wanted, but I can’t go back and change anything. I should be happy and I’m just not. I don’t feel like myself,” she wrote later that night.
What Martinez thought was a case of the “post-wedding blues” was turning into something far different. Martinez urged Graham to talk to Johnson about problems in their relationship, but the new bride was scared because she didn’t want to hurt him; after all, “he seemed so happy.”
The texts continued throughout the week.
“It’s just so freaking hard,” Graham wrote. “I want my happy self back, but I’m a loser who can’t open my mouth and say how I feel.”
On Sunday, July 7, Graham and Johnson went to the morning service at Faith Baptist Church. After church, Graham’s step-father, Steve Rutledge, asked Johnson if the couple had plans to take the kayaks out, like they had on the Fourth of July, but Johnson said Graham had a “surprise” for him. Two other friends, Brad Blasdel and Eddie Colon, had also heard about Graham’s pending “surprise.”
That night, when the family arrived for the evening church service, Rutledge spotted Johnson.
“So what’s the surprise?” he asked.
Johnson said it hadn’t happened yet.
Meanwhile, Graham was texting Martinez again about her depression and issues with her new marriage. Martinez pleaded with her to talk to Johnson and maybe even set up a meeting with the church’s pastor.
“Oh, well I’m going to talk to him tonight,” Graham texted.
“I’ll pray,” Martinez responded.
“But dead serious, if u don’t hear from me something happened,” Graham warned.
After church, the members of Faith Baptist usually go to dinner. On this night, some went to Wendy’s and others to Dairy Queen. Johnson and Graham were among the latter, arriving at the ice cream shop at about 7:15 p.m. They spent an hour there before going home. At home, Graham finally built up the courage to talk to Johnson about her feelings. An argument ensued.
Hoping to talk things out, the couple took an evening drive in Johnson’s Audi. At 9:17 p.m. they arrived at the west entrance of Glacier National Park. The sun had set shortly before they entered the park, but the evening twilight still outlined the Apgar Mountains as they drove along Lake McDonald. Twenty-three miles north, at a location called The Loop on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, they parked the car. Although Johnson drove, Graham took the keys like she always did and the couple left their phones in the car. There’s limited cellular service in the park.
It was getting dark and the couple started to walk along The Loop Trail, which connects the Sun Road with the Granite Park Chalet. Graham told Johnson that she hated it when he talked to her like a child and that she was not happy. A little ways down the path, they began walking off-trail, through the scars left by the Trapper Fire in 2003. They edged their way along the bottom of the rock wall that holds the Sun Road and stopped at a stump. They continued to argue.
As the mood intensified, Johnson grabbed Graham’s arm. She yelled at him to let go, not knowing if he was going to pull or push her. Graham then grabbed his hand and brushed it away. Then, according to her testimony, she pushed him in the back with two hands.
Johnson fell face first nearly 200 feet down the ravine, hitting a rock outcropping, where his shoe was later found, before landing in a pool of water. The impact crushed Johnson’s right eye socket and resulted in a seven-inch skull fracture. His legs were badly bruised and multiple ribs broke during the fall. His heart was also torn open.
State medical examiner Gary Dale, who performed the autopsy on Johnson, testified that Johnson died of blunt force trauma and his injuries were similar to those that someone would receive in a car crash.
On the top of the cliff, Graham turned back to the trail and headed for the car. She started up the Audi and drove toward Kalispell.
As Graham left Glacier Park, she returned into cellular service. She sent a text message to Martinez.
“Now I’m freaking not,” she typed, probably meaning to write ‘out.’
“I don’t even know what to do right now,” she wrote seconds later.
As Graham neared Columbia Falls, she called her brother at about 11:15 p.m. and said that she and Johnson had gotten into a fight. Graham wanted Michael Rutledge to come over to her house so she wasn’t alone. Her little brother agreed to meet.
Meanwhile, Martinez was pressing for more information about what had happened and where Johnson had gone. Graham offered few details.
“I talked to him and all it did was cause me to get scratched and him to leave,” she wrote Martinez. “There’s no way I’m gonna to be able to fall asleep. If I do, I won’t wake up.”
While the text messages exchanged between Graham and Martinez were frantic and worrisome, a simultaneous text conversation between Graham and Nikki Blake was markedly different. Blake, a 17-year-old junior from Glacier High School and a member of Faith Baptist, texted Graham that a couponing event at church was being rescheduled. Their conversation went from couponing to dance moves.
“Dude, you better work on those sweet moves, although you are pretty amazing already,” Graham texted Blake at 11:05 p.m.
Blake said her dance movies were already superior.
“Woah woah too far homie,” Graham responded. Later she said, “We’d kill it on the dance floor.”
Back home, Graham sat with her younger brother in the living room. She told him the couple had argued and Johnson received a message and some friends in a dark car with out-of-state plates picked him up for a joyride. That was the last she had seen of him, Graham claimed.
Graham was telling the same story to Martinez, who grew more worried as time passed. Martinez asked Graham if she wanted her to go out and look for Cody.
“I really don’t want anyone to talk to him today. It all happened so fast. It’ll just backfire on me. I’d rather wait and see if he shows up to work in the morning,” Graham wrote.
Graham’s brother eventually fell asleep on the couch and she headed over to Martinez’s house at 1:20 a.m. When she arrived, Graham was shaking. Martinez tried to calm her down and find out more, but she ended up doing most of the talking.
“She seemed more nervous than upset,” Martinez said. “But people handle things in different ways.”
On July 8, Johnson did not show up for work at Nomad. The absence shocked Fredrickson, Johnson’s supervisor and close friend, who said Johnson was never late for work. After a few hours, Fredrickson sent a text message at 8:30 a.m., asking where Johnson was and why he was late.
There was no response.
Two hours later, at 10:30 a.m., he called Johnson, but it went right to voicemail. Over lunch, Fredrickson began calling friends asking if they had heard from Johnson, but no one had. At 4:30 p.m., Graham sent a message asking if Johnson had showed up for work.
He said Johnson had not been at work and then Graham told Fredrickson a version of the story she had been telling others, that the couple had gotten into a fight and then he left with “car buddies” from Washington. The story made little sense to Fredrickson and was even more confusing when he heard another version of it from someone else, one in which Graham had actually followed the mysterious car to Hungry Horse before losing track of it.
“The contradicting stories made me think Jordan had something to do with it,” Fredrickson said.
Suspicious of what happened to his friend, Fredrickson went to Johnson and Graham’s house on Tuesday, July 9. No one was home and the back door was unlocked. He walked in and started looking around, seeking anything that might lend a clue to what happened to Johnson. Nothing turned up.
Fredrickson contacted the Kalispell Police Department and the Montana Highway Patrol. He also called every hospital from Kalispell to Spokane, asking if Johnson had been involved in an accident.
Meanwhile, Graham and her friends drove around the Flathead searching, including a trip to the Hungry Horse Dam. Amy Hess was with Graham at the time and said the wife’s behavior didn’t seem to match the situation.
“She was giggling and texting,” Hess said. “She didn’t seem that interested in looking or helping.”
Driving back to Kalispell, Graham received a call from Kalispell police Sgt. Chad Zimmerman, requesting that she come into the police station for an interview. Shortly after 7 p.m., Graham walked into the police department. Zimmerman brought Graham back into the interview room. He asked when she last saw Johnson.
“Whenever his friends are in town he likes to take them up to Glacier National Park, the Hungry Horse Dam, Plains or sometimes Libby,” she said on a recording.
Graham told Zimmerman that Johnson had left when she was out picking up a phone charger at the home where she was babysitting earlier in the day. The story didn’t match what Zimmerman had heard from others.
“I’m getting some inconsistencies in what you’re telling me,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for a long time and I can pick up things about people … I feel like you’re not being honest with me.”
After 30 minutes Zimmerman walked Graham to the front door and they parted ways.
Early the following morning, on July 10, someone at Graham’s parents’ house logged on to an email account, firstname.lastname@example.org, and sent Graham a message. It read:
My name is Tony. There is no bother looking for Cody anymore. He is gone. I saw your post on Twitter and thought I would email you. He had come with some buddies and met up with me on Sunday night in Columbia Falls. He was saying he needed to be with his buddies for a bit and take them for a joy ride. 3 of the guys came back saying that they had gone for a ride in the woods somewhere and Cody got out of the car and went for a little hike and they are positive he fell and he is dead Jordan. I don’t know who the guys were, but they took off. So call off the missing persons report. Cody is gone for sure.
Graham and her mother, Lindy Rutledge, went to the Kalispell Police Department with the email. When they got there they met with Detective Cory Clark, who took them back into one of the interview rooms. Graham handed her phone to Clark with the email.
“Seems kind of sketchy,” he said as he read the email on the iPhone.
Clark asked Graham if she knew a “Tony S.” and she said she did not. He then asked why Graham was so calm. She said she did not like to show emotion in front of other people and Rutledge said her daughter was hysterical earlier when they were driving to the police station.
Clark left the room for a few minutes and Graham slumped down in her chair.
“I just want to go home,” Graham said.
“You’re just overwhelmed, aren’t you?” Rutledge said, patting her daughter on the back.
A few minutes before noon, Detective Melissa Smith walked into the interview room. She had been talking to Clark about the inconsistencies of Graham’s story. She slid a sheet of paper across the desk about Miranda rights. Smith told Graham that she was not under arrest, but that she did have the right to remain silent and anything she said could be used against her in a court of law. Graham signed the piece of paper and continued to talk to Smith.
Graham told the police a version of the same story she had been telling everyone. They asked to see her phone and any text messages from Johnson but Graham said that she and her husband always erase their messages at the end of the day. When asked why, she said one of the children she babysits likes to mess with her phone. Smith asked if they could borrow and inspect Graham’s phone.
Afterward, the Kalispell Police Department sent a subpoena to Google for any information regarding the “Tony S.” email address. Later, they discovered that the account was created at an IP address linked to Graham’s parents’ computer and that it was created on July 10.
Late that afternoon, Graham and her friends and family headed for Glacier Park. That evening they stopped at the Loop. Graham got out of the car and wandered the parking lot before walking to the wall that she and Johnson had passed a few days earlier. Graham said she wanted to go down to the bottom of the wall, but her brother said it was too dark and dangerous.
The following afternoon the group again returned to Glacier, this time stopping along the way to hang missing posters. That afternoon they went back to the Loop and Graham returned to the same spot on the wall. She climbed down and around the bottom of the wall and looked down the deep ravine. Her family and friends asked why she was so interested in the spot.
“I just have a feeling,” she said.
After a few minutes of looking from different angles, Graham stopped and said she spotted something. Her brother Michael quickly joined her and looked into the ravine. Nearly 200 feet below, Johnson’s body was lying facedown in the water.
Michael collapsed and began to cry. Graham calmly walked away from the ledge.
Graham got in the car with Cecilia Lewellen, one of the bridesmaids in her wedding just a few days earlier, and headed down to Lake McDonald Lodge. Lewellen said Graham rambled on the drive down to the lodge.
“Now that we found him we can call the detective and he can get out of my business,” Graham said, much to Lewellen’s surprise.
A few minutes later, they walked into the general store at Lake McDonald and talked to Donna Adams, the location manager. Adams called park dispatch and reported that a body had been discovered. She later said Graham was surprisingly “calm.”
At 8:30 p.m., park ranger Steve Powers received a call from dispatch to head up to Lake McDonald to meet with Graham. When he got there he talked with Graham for a few minutes and then had her fill out a statement. Again, Graham’s demeanor was raising red flags.
“I thought it was odd she knew where to find the body,” Powers said. “When I asked about it, she said it was a place that (Johnson) wanted to see before he died.”
While Johnson’s body was being discovered in the park, Kalispell police detective Clark, who interviewed Graham the morning prior, was walking his dog. Clark happens to live in Graham’s neighborhood and as he passed her house, he noticed something odd in the trashcan that was sitting out front. Inside were love letters, teddy bears, valentines and part of a wedding dress. Clark dragged the can back to his house and dumped everything on the garage floor. He took photos of the contents and then packed it all back up and dragged it back to her door. A little later, he got a call that Johnson’s body was found in the park.
Clark headed for Glacier Park. As he arrived, Graham and her friends were returning home after spending a few hours speaking with authorities at park headquarters in West Glacier. They had taken Johnson’s Audi to the park that day and Hannah Sherrill was behind the wheel as they returned to Kalispell. Sherrill was shaken by the day’s events and was unknowingly going over the speed limit.
“Don’t speed, this isn’t my car,” Graham said. “But now it is.”
The next morning, July 12, members of the Kalispell Police Department, Flathead County Sheriff’s Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation hiked down the ravine to Johnson’s body. Downstream, investigators found one of his shoes in the water and a piece of black cloth, which prosecutors later speculated could have been used as a blindfold.
One of the officials found a wallet and positively identified the body as Cody Lee Johnson. After photos were taken and investigators recorded the scene, Johnson’s body was put in a bag and airlifted out of the ravine.
A few days later, a service was held for Johnson. During the memorial and potluck dinner that followed, some of Johnson’s friends noticed Graham spent more time on her phone than mourning.
Because of the suspicious circumstances surrounding Johnson’s death, the FBI opened a full investigation. As part of their research they reviewed security cameras from Glacier National Park’s west entrance. The footage revealed that at 9:17 p.m. on July 7, Graham and Johnson entered the park.
A printout of that frame was overturned on a conference table on July 16 when Graham walked into the Kalispell Police Department for the third time in a week. Graham thought she was meeting with the same detectives she spoke with before, but when she arrived, she met FBI agent Stacey Smiedala. He asked Graham to tell her version of the events on July 7. She told him about the dark car with Washington plates and the “car buddies” who wanted to go for a joyride.
After awhile Smiedala stopped her. He said that he knew she was lying and that he knew she was in Glacier Park the night Johnson died.
Graham’s eyes welled up with tears as Smiedala turned the security camera photo over.
In October, Graham pleaded not guilty to charges of first-degree murder, second-degree murder and making false statements to authorities. A trial date was set for Dec. 9 and on that day, Graham walked into federal court with her attorneys, Andy Nelson and Michael Donahoe.
Over the next two-and-a-half days, federal prosecutors, led by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Kris McLean and Zeno Baucus, presented evidence that Graham purposely murdered her new husband. More than 30 witnesses took the stand, including Johnson’s mother, who broke down as she remembered her son’s wedding day.
“He said it was the best day of his life and that he was going to start a family,” she said as she started to weep. “I always wanted to be a grandmother.”
On Dec. 12, the government rested its case and handed the floor over to the defense, which tried to paint a picture of Graham as a “child-like” person who wasn’t ready for the responsibility of marriage. The defense attorneys said what happened on the night of July 7 was a tragic accident and that Graham lied about Johnson’s death because she thought no one would believe her side of the story.
After a few hours of testimony, the defense rested its case and the court took an hour recess before closing arguments. But just after 12:15 p.m. on Dec. 12, Graham shocked the court by pleading guilty to second-degree murder. Judge Molloy was obviously surprised.
“Do you think you understand what you are doing here?” he said. “In the next 15 minutes you may be committing yourself to prison for the balance of your life.”
Molloy asked Graham to tell him what really happened on the night of July 7. As she told her story, the stunned courtroom sat in silence. Graham’s mother put her head on Steve Rutledge’s shoulder and silently wept. Graham’s voice cracked as she formally changed her plea.
“Guilty,” she said softly, “guilty.”
This story was published in the Flathead Beacon in December 2013.