Coming to No Good End

Undertaker Jay Herman shot his lover, Edwina Prosen, to death in 1991. That's the only thing he and her family have agreed on since.

Earlier this year, that case came to trial in Houston, and so did all the facts about the insurance policies and Johnson's eagerness to cash in on them. And the Prosen family, represented by attorneys Perry Zivley and Dean Barth, had assembled the kinds of experts who sharply challenged the earlier forensic findings on the accident.

"We knew it was going to be a completely different trial," Zivley said. "The suppression of the evidence in the criminal trial just flat-out didn't apply in the civil case.

"There was nothing about it that sounded credible," Zivley said. "His whole story is unbelievable -- everything he did up to and after the shooting."

Johnson testified for two days. His videotaped deposition was played for jurors.

"In my opinion, there could have been no other witness in our case but Johnson, and they would have found that he intentionally did the killing," Zivley said. "It was not just what he said, but his demeanor." In extensive questioning about his causing the death of the "love of his life," he never cried, Zivley said.

"Think about it. If you caused an accident like that, you'd want to crawl inside a hole and never come out again," Zivley said. "He was cold, hard. He was his own worst witness."

Attorney Barth said the impact on the jury was noticeable. "His attitude was it was almost that 'it wasn't that I didn't like her -- it was just business, only business.'

"The jury was on our side after that," Barth said. "I think they had no choice but to settle at that point."

Johnson received $10,000 -- fees for his attorneys -- and gave up all rights to the insurance payoff, which had climbed to $900,000 with the interest since 1991.

The Prosens agreed to drop their wrongful death suit. It could have resulted in millions of dollars in damages against him, although it is doubtful that Johnson would ever have the assets to pay any of it. As Barth points out, it was worth something to Johnson to get the dismissal because he could have been hounded for the rest of his life with depositions and other legal actions in the collection effort.

Barth recalled his first meeting with client Robert Prosen, who described Johnson's lack of feeling. "I didn't believe Bob. I didn't believe such a person [as Johnson] could exist," Barth said. "I do now."

Johnson, to the surprise of no one in the case, reacted without emotion to the settlement.

In January Johnson left his small island of the past several years, the apartment near Hermann Park and the museums and the library and the tree-lined streets where he bicycled.

Johnson, who declined a request through his probate attorney for an interview, is reported to have moved in with his son, James, in the Katy area.

Jeff Prosen closed his motorcycle shop on the North Loop. He relocated to San Antonio and is a construction worker who continues to serve out the terms of his probation for taking Johnson hostage.

Back in Sweeny, Chief Murphy makes rounds that take him almost daily past a sight that would be easily overlooked by others. Thick tangles of vines and brush have pushed upward from the earth in a vain attempt cover the sign: Sweeny Funeral Home.

"It is hard to put this case aside when you have to drive by that eyesore on a frequent basis and see what's left of the place," Murphy said. "In all the time it took to bring this to a conclusion, you can say I lost more than a little faith in the system."

He shook his head and scooped up another helping of Redman chewing tobacco. "All the twists and turns and rabbit trails. And the end didn't really prove -- or disprove -- that a murder occurred in that place."

No more answers are to be found at
this funeral home. Wind whips through shattered windows, banging kitchen cabinet doors and yanking away tar-paper roofing. Bright red spray paint, the work of vandals, warns visitors, "I am alone -- Leave!"

In the back, a battered hearse sinks deeper into the soggy soil, weary from an effort to flee the rising weeds.

Only at the end of the drive does the desolation disappear. A small section of the city right-of-way is neatly mowed. Despite the sunshine, the rose granite bench there is cool to the touch. Empty and isolated, it exposes its etched message:

"The past is gone.
The present is lost as it arrives.
There is only tomorrow
And tomorrow waits for no one.

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