By Ned Newton
Stormie Markland told her sisters that her ex-boyfriend wanted to give their relationship another shot, to “be a family again.”
But her sisters, Wendy Coerver and Breezy Markland, said in interviews that they warned her against reconciling with Leland Johnson. The sisters said they became more alarmed in mid-March, when Johnson told Markland that weekend would probably be the last time their 7-year-old son would ever see him.
“I took that as a red flag,” said Coerver, 41, the older sister. “I told her not to let the little boy go.”
But that Friday, Johnson picked up his son to spend the weekend together. When Johnson brought Leland Jr. back to his mother in Natural Bridge on March 19, he told Markland to get in the car so he could take her with him to buy beer and to pay her money he owed her.
That was last time anyone saw Stormie Markland alive, her sisters said.
“When she didn’t make it home on Sunday, I knew something was wrong,” said Breezy Markland, 39. “Monday morning, we reported her missing. I know my sister. She wouldn’t have left her son, my nephew, there at the house.”
On March 22, two people out walking in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests discovered Markland’s body on the side of a hill on Hopper’s Creek Road.
Police have not yet revealed a cause of death. Virginia State Police said in a news release that Markland died “under violent circumstances.” But court records say a gun was not used in the killing.
The same day Markland’s body was discovered, police arrested Johnson, 44, of Lexington, and charged him with second-degree murder.
Johnson’s lawyer, Duane Barron, declined to comment. A preliminary hearing is set for June 26. Johnson is being held in the Rockbridge Regional Jail without bail.
If Johnson is convicted, Markland’s death would be the fourth domestic murder in Rockbridge County since 2017.
“It is a frightening trend of domestic murder,” said Jared Moon, the commonwealth’s attorney for Lexington and Rockbridge County.
Project Horizon, a nonprofit organization in Lexington that helps survivors of domestic violence, says the numbers are even worse. The group’s research found that every murder in Rockbridge County since 1990 had a connection to domestic violence. Most of the cases involved use of a gun.
“We expect strangers to hurt us, not people in our homes, which is why this takes people by surprise so much,” said Judy Casteele, executive director of Project Horizon. “But what we know in this community is that you’re more likely to be hurt by someone in your home than someone in the street.”
Johnson and Markland had been together for about 10 years. But their relationship was toxic, her sisters said. They said Johnson had beaten Markland on multiple occasions, sometimes with the butt of a gun.
“There is no way of you guys being a family the right way until he gets help,” Coerver said she told her younger sister.
But Coerver said Markland believed Johnson would change.
Leland Jr.’s aunts said the little boy asks about his mom every day.
“She never, never would have left that little boy,” Breezy Markland said. “She was excited for Easter coming up and for his yearbook to come through. She loved swimming in the pool with him, horsing around with him, chasing him around the house.”