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Trial of Johnny Wright Poses Challenge for Mo. Prosecutors; Victim Vanished in 1976, Body Never Found

No Body in Mo. Murder Trial Poses Challenge for Prosecutors
Defendant Johnny Wright, left, listens as his murder trial begins in the 1976 disappearance of Rebecca Doisy (AP Photo/The Columbia Daily Tribune, Parker Eshelman) (AP Photo/The Columbia Daily Tribune, Parker Eshelman)

COLUMBIA, Mo. (CBS/AP) In the summer of 1976, 23-year-old Rebecca Doisy, a former University of Missouri student and the granddaughter of a Nobel Prize winner, disappeared.

On Wednesday, nearly 35 years later, the murder trial began for 66-year-old Georgia man Johnny Wright, with prosecutors facing the huge challenge of proving their case, even though Doisy's body has never been found.

Wright is charged with second-degree murder in the presumed death of Doisy, then an aspiring teacher who wrote poetry and worked at a popular Columbia, Mo. diner.

"I dug up holes. We searched on horseback. This went on for years," said retired Columbia police detective Chris Egbert, the lead investigator in Doisy's disappearance. "Finally, the leads just dwindled."

Wright was first charged with murder in 1985 but not arrested until late 2009 when he sought a criminal background check for a job application in the Atlanta suburb of Lawrenceville. Columbia police and prosecutors say that Wright has been living under the assumed identity of Errol Edwards for several years in Seattle, Texas and most recently Georgia, where he raised a family.

Defense attorney Cleveland Tyson has previously said that Wright moved away from Columbia in the late 1970s because of the scrutiny of being a suspect, and was not aware of an outstanding warrant. He said Wednesday that Wright changed his name several years before the criminal charges were filed.

Several of Doisy's former friends and co-workers testified Wednesday, saying that Wright was with Doisy the day she went missing.

Posecutors must convince a jury of Wright's guilt based exclusively on indirect evidence.

"The entire scope of the state's case is going to be circumstantial," Tyson said during opening arguments.

Harry Moore, Wright's former roommate, previously told police that he had seen Doisy's body in Wright's car. Moore is expected to testify.

William Simmons, who spent time in a St. Louis methadone clinic with Wright in the years following Doisy's disappearance, testified that Wright bragged about "offing" a woman in Columbia when several other patients were boasting of their role in a St. Louis killing.

Wright's lawyer suggested that Doisy's death could have been caused by unspecified "people of questionable character" the woman socialized with in Columbia. He does not plan to ask Wright to testify in the trial, which is expected to conclude on Friday.

Doisy was the granddaughter of Edward A. Doisy, who shared the 1943 Nobel Prize in medicine with another researcher for their discovery of vitamin K.  A research building at St. Louis University, where he taught, is named after the scientist.