New details on murder of Jesse Farris emerge in first days of Janelle Johnson trial

More than two years after Jesse Farris was fatally shot at his Bemidji home on Dec. 25, 2020, a jury trial for Janelle Johnson is underway in Beltrami County to determine if she will be convicted of second-degree murder.


BEMIDJI — More than two years after Jesse Farris was fatally shot at his Bemidji home on Dec. 25, 2020, a jury trial for Janelle Johnson is underway in Beltrami County to determine if she will be convicted for second-degree murder.

After a two-day jury selection process, State of Minnesota v. Janelle Lorraine Johnson officially began on Wednesday with opening statements from the prosecution and defense. Janelle is represented by Jill Brisbois with Daniel Vlieger prosecuting on behalf of the state of Minnesota.

“I shot Jesse Farris today, my name is Janelle Johnson,” Vlieger said in opening, repeating a phrase from the 911 call Johnson made to Beltrami County dispatcher Amanda Pederson following the Christmas Day incident. “That’s the call (Pederson) received and that’s the call she will testify to.”

Brisbois also made an opening statement during the trial, alleging that Janelle wasn’t the one who fired the shots at Jesse that night.

“Janelle Johnson did not shoot Jesse Farris,” Brisbois said, noting that during the trial the jury will hear about the lack of forensic evidence connecting Janelle to the shooting, her inability to recall information on the specific details of the incident, as well as her level of intoxication during the event which could have affected her ability to aim at Jesse and shoot him three times.


“On Christmas 2020, Janelle Johnson was a sister, Janelle Johnson was a wife, Janelle Johnson was a mother,” Brisbois said, noting that someone’s dedication to those roles can cause them to make certain judgment calls, “including confessing to a crime they did not commit.”

Brisbois also touched on the allegations of domestic abuse in the case, and the role those allegations played in the events that occurred that night.

“(Janelle) was listening to her sister’s disclosures, she was helping her get away, she was sheltering her,” Brisbois said. “Janelle pleaded for (Jesse) to do the right thing — leave her sister alone.”

According to the initial report of the incident, Beltrami County dispatch received a call from a woman — later identified as 36-year-old Janelle Johnson of Bemidji — at approximately 12:11 a.m. on Dec. 26, 2020.

She reported that about an hour earlier, she and her husband, Austin Johnson, also of Bemidji, had traveled to their brother-in-law, 48-year-old Jesse Farris' residence on Lavinia Road NE in Northern Township to confront him over alleged domestic abuse between him and Janelle’s sister, Justina Farris.

A verbal argument ensued, which soon turned physical, the report said. It is then alleged that Janelle brandished a firearm Austin had brought with him to the residence and fatally shot Farris.

Janelle was initially held at the Beltrami County Jail under a charge of second-degree murder and Austin was held with a charge of aiding an offender.

The results of a preliminary autopsy on Jesse completed by the Midwest Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed that the cause of death was multiple gunshot wounds and determined to be a homicide.


The events of Dec. 25, 2020

During witness testimony on Wednesday and Thursday, additional details about what took place on Dec. 25, 2020, were revealed.

That day, Justina and her children went over to Janelle’s house for an afternoon family dinner, but Jesse was not invited to the event due to his strained relationship with his sister-in-law Janelle.

One of Jesse and Justina’s sons, Indi Farris, testified that the relationship between Jesse and Janelle was “uneasy,” and he knew his father wasn’t allowed at the Johnsons' home.

“I wouldn’t say hostile,” Indi testified about the relationship between Jesse and Janelle, “but it was an unwelcoming relationship.”

Justina left Janelle’s house sometime in the evening and testified that when she arrived back home, she and Jesse got into a verbal argument and Jesse tried to take her phone. Justina then drove back to the Johnsons' house where Janelle, Austin and a few other family members were still hanging out.

Justina testified that she told her family members there was a verbal argument between her and Jesse, but said she just wanted to go to bed and did not want to discuss the incident further. She indicated during her testimony that she had previously shared details about Jesse’s abusive behavior, including physical abuse, with Janelle and other family members.

There were periods of time when the couple wasn’t living together and they had discussed getting a divorce throughout the year leading up to Jesse’s death.

Indi also testified that the relationship between Jesse and Justina was “rocky.” He noted that while he had witnessed verbal arguments between the two in the past, he never saw the arguments become physical.


Although Justina testified that Jesse had not been physically abusive on the night of Dec. 25 and she had returned to the Johnsons' house so she could go to bed, Janelle and Austin decided that they were going to drive to the Farris' home and confront Jesse.

Before leaving, testimony from Justina indicated that Janelle instructed Austin to get something out of a drawer in the bedroom. Justina didn’t see the item, but had reason to believe it was a weapon.

When Janelle and Austin later returned home, Justina testified that she remembered hearing the pair say that shots were fired. Justina then exclaimed, “You b*****s shot my husband?” before leaving the home shortly after.

Janelle and Justina’s other sister, Jeanine Wiley, who was also at Janelle’s house during that time, testified that Janelle “said that she shot Jesse,” when she returned home.

Janelle then told Wiley she was going to go for a walk and call law enforcement.

Beltrami County dispatcher Amanda Peterson received Janelle’s 911 call at 12:11 a.m. on Dec. 26 as she and Austin walked along Paul Miller Lane near their home.

According to an audio recording of the 911 call played during trial, Janelle began the call by telling Pederson, “I got some s*** I got to share. I shot Jesse Farris today, my name is Janelle Johnson.”

When Pederson asked if Janelle knew whether or not Farris was injured, Janelle responded, “Not quite sure, but I think so. He pushed on me and my husband … I was confronting him about his abuse … We were just going to talk to him and he pushed us and it just escalated.”


Law enforcement testimony

Beltrami County deputy Allison Critchfield was dispatched to the area of Paul Miller Lane following Janelle’s 911 call.

Body camera footage played at the trial showed that, upon arriving at the scene with Beltrami County Sergeant Tony Petrie, Critchfield took Janelle aside to question her about the incident.

In the footage, Janelle described her and her husband's confrontation with Jesse that night.

“I’m sick of him beating my sister,” Janelle said to Critchfield in the footage. “(Austin) had (the gun) in his pocket and when (Jesse) pushed us, I grabbed it.”

Janelle then told Critchfield she believed she shot Jesse three times, and she and Austin had brought the gun, a .357 Magnum revolver, back to their home after the incident.

Janelle also told Critchfield that she was drinking that night and had more drinks than usual due to the Christmas holiday. Critchfield testified that she remembered Janelle being intoxicated during their interaction, saying she could smell alcohol on Janelle’s breath and that she was slightly slurring her speech.

Forensic testimony

Bureau of Criminal Apprehension forensic scientists Sarah Pfeiffer and Jessica Hunt were part of the crime scene team that helped process evidence in the case.

Testimony revealed that partial fingerprints lifted from the revolver used to shoot Jesse were not suitable for comparison and therefore couldn’t be definitively attributed to Janelle or Austin.


Trace amounts of blood were discovered via luminol testing in the truck Janelle and Austin drove to Jesse’s house, but it couldn’t be determined how old the blood was or if it was human blood.

Partial shoe prints discovered in the snow at the crime scene were unable to be definitively attributed to either Janelle or Austin.

Other witnesses who testified on Wednesday and Thursday included Beltrami County deputy Tony Hanson, BCA homicide agent Jakob Hodapp, Dr. Rebecca Asch-Kendrick with the Midwest Medical Examiner’s Office, and Michelle Pearlson with the BCA biology section.

The trial continued on Friday and is expected to extend into next week.

Madelyn Haasken is the multimedia editor at the Bemidji Pioneer. She is a 2020 graduate of Bemidji State University with a degree in Mass Communication, with minors in writing and design. In her free time, she likes watching hockey, doing crossword puzzles and being outside.
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