Jury quickly convicts drifter in Key West man’s murder

Tod Helfrich
Tod Helfrich Sheriff’s Office

It took less than one hour Friday for a Monroe County jury to convict a drifter of first-degree murder for the 2011 slashing of a retired social worker, who was found gagged and bound with duct tape inside his apartment at the Key West senior housing complex.

Tod Helfrich, 51, who has served time in Florida and Massachusetts prisons for robbery, will receive an automatic sentence of life in prison without parole for killing Carl Johanson, 66.

“It’s a long time coming and it’s justice for Carl,” said Tina Carr, her eyes wet from tears moments after the verdict came in from a jury of six men and six women.

Carr, a cousin to Johanson, joined other family members, including cousin Goody Estevez and Johanson’s brother Lenny Ingraham, in hugging prosecutors before leaving the courthouse.

Ingraham on Friday morning couldn’t bear to once again look at the bloody crime scene photos and stormed out of the courtroom during the start of closing arguments. The outburst, which only one juror said he could hear – saying it sounded like a cry – prompted Judge Wayne Miller to send the jury out of the room and admonish everyone else watching the trial to keep quiet.

“This isn’t a coffee shop, this isn’t Publix,” Miller said before resuming court.

Jurors spent six days absorbing testimony along with the defense team’s theory that another man, who has since died, killed Johanson.

While the crime-scene photos of Johanson on his bed, wearing only his underwear with his hands, ankles and mouth wrapped in duct tape, were bloody and bleak, Helfrich didn’t leave any physical evidence behind. The jury, though, heard three interviews with detectives in which Helfrich never confesses to the murder but hardly denies it.

“Did I do this?” Helfrich is heard saying on one tape. “I’m asking myself that, you know.”

Helfrich didn’t testify but he is heard in one police interview saying he is depressed and doesn’t care about his life anymore.

With no DNA or fingerprints to link Helfrich to the murder, prosecutors relied on the video and photographic trail the ex-con left as he drove out of Key West in Johanson’s red pickup and tried to use the dead man’s debit card several times without luck.

In the pickup’s back was Johanson’s television and a laundry basket filled with DVDs and CDs raided from his apartment at the senior housing building on Kennedy Drive.

Helfrich met Johanson at the 801 Bourbon Bar on Duval Street in the days before the murder, prosecutors said. With no car, phone and $600 to his name, Helfrich found a place to crash with Johanson, prosecutors said.

Johanson, who had a pet prairie dog named Chestnut, was living out his retirement from the county in a frugal way, his friends said. But he enjoyed buying lottery tickets and tipping $2 Yuengling beers at the 801, where one of his oldest friends in his native Key West tended bar.

Helfrich was arrested in Orlando the day after Johanson’s body was found Sept. 2, 2011, driving Johanson’s pickup. He had bruises on one arm. They were left by the man whose throat he slashed after leaving 13 wounds about his body, prosecutors said, depicting a murder scene in which Helfrich cut Johanson in an effort to get him to hand over his debit card PIN number.

“This was Carl Johanson’s last words, the message he left on the right forearm of his killer,” said Assistant State Attorney Colleen Dunne in her closing argument, during which at one point she appeared to stifle tears. “He was tortured.”

Miller will formally sentence Helfrich at a hearing set for July 20.

Gwen Filosa: @KeyWestGwen on Twitter