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Family members honor child murder victim Johnnie Lee Bell at memorial service

By NICOLE PITT

UTICA, N.Y. (WKTV) - It was the first case of its kind in Utica. Thirty-two years ago, a child was kidnapped and murdered. On Monday night, family members of Johnnie Lee Bell held a vigil on his birthday.

Nine-year-old Johnnie Lee Bell was last seen in November 1981, roller skating down Eagle Street. "He was the neighborhood kid," said Justin Bell, Johnnie's younger brother. "He used to ride around in skates. Very loving kid he was well known throughout the community."

Around midnight on that November night, when Johnnie still wasn't home, his family knew something was wrong.

"I remember Utica being in an uproar and everybody was looking and looking and looking only to find out that the worst had really happened," said Pastor James Jackson.

A couple months after his disappearance, a woman living on Howard Avenue started complaining about a strange smell coming from the building next door. Johnnie's body was found in the basement of the building that sat at the corner of Howard Avenue and Eagle Street on Jan. 6, 1982.

"He basically was molested and shot in the head," said Jeffery Miller, Johnnie's best friend. "I came home and there were detectives at my house talking to my gram. They were worried because of what happened to Johnnie. My friend Wayne (Legett), he was found hung shortly afterwards. They didn't know if it was connected or what was going on but in fear for my life my family moved me out of here and I came back as a teenager." Miller says Legett was 10 years old at the time. Legett's death was ruled a suicide.

Even though more than 30 years have passed, the emotions are still raw.

Some family members are too young to have actual memories of Johnnie but are doing what they can to learn about the boy who always had a smile on his face. "As I was growing up, I heard stories about him," said Audrianna Rodgers, Johnnie's niece. "I actually started doing my own research on the Internet, reading the news clips, finding out what I could find out."

This memorial is bringing the family together in honor of Johnnie on what would have been his 41st birthday.

"It's a blessing, you know," said Justin Bell. "It's bringing us all together for the years that have passed. It's a little dramatic, you know, but it's keeping us all together."

"It's very touching and it really hurts because people say it can't happen to you, but you never know," said Audrianna Rodgers. "As I was growing up, it didn't affect me but now that I'm older I feel like I was robbed of my uncle."

"As the generations keep growing, we got more of a keen eye on them, you know," said Justin Bell.

"I actually named my son after him," said Miller. "My first son was named after me. My second son was named after him."

Monday night a memorial service and candlelight vigil was at the corner of Howard Avenue and Eagle Street. The building where Johnnie's body was found has since been demolished.

Pastor James Jackson led the service. After a rendition of "Amazing Grace," the group bowed their heads in prayer. Several family members spoke about Johnnie and wished him happy birthday. At the end of the service there was another prayer and the youngest members of the family released balloons into the air. At that point the crowd started to sing "Happy Birthday."

Police charged Terry Ball in Johnnie's case. In 1988, he admitted to kidnapping the boy. Ball was sentenced to 15 years to life on kidnapping charges. Ball is being held in Oneida County. He is up for parole in 2015.

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