The Twisted Murder Trial Of Arne Cheyenne Johnson, Who Claimed To Be Possessed By Demons
On February 16, 1981, Arne Cheyenne Johnson fatally stabbed his landlord Alan Bono — and then he said the Devil made him do it.
At first, the 1981 murder of Alan Bono appeared to be an open-and-shut case in Brookfield, Connecticut. To the police, it was clear that the 40-year-old landlord had been killed by his tenant Arne Cheyenne Johnson during a violent argument.
But after his arrest, Johnson made an incredible claim: The Devil made him do it. Aided by two paranormal investigators, the 19-year-old’s attorneys presented their client’s claim of demonic possession as a potential defense for his murder of Bono.
Bettmann/Getty ImagesParanormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren at Danbury Superior Court. March 19, 1981.
“The courts have dealt with the existence of God,” said Johnson’s attorney Martin Minnella. “Now they’re going to have to deal with the existence of the Devil.”
It was the first time in history that a defense like this one was used in an American courtroom. Nearly 40 years later, Johnson’s case is still shrouded in controversy and unsettling speculation. It is also the inspiration for the soon-to-be released film The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It.
What Happened To Arne Cheyenne Johnson?
On Feb. 16, 1981, Arne Cheyenne Johnson stabbed his landlord Alan Bono to death with a five-inch pocket knife, committing the first murder ever recorded in the 193-year history of Brookfield. Before the murder, Johnson was by all accounts a regular teenager with no criminal record.
Wikimedia CommonsThe murder of Alan Bono was the first ever recorded in Brookfield’s 193-year history.
But the strange occurrences that ended in the murder allegedly began months earlier. In Johnson’s courtroom defense, he claimed that the source of all this suffering started with the 11-year-old brother of his fiancée, Debbie Glatzel.
In the summer of 1980, Debbie’s brother David claimed that he’d repeatedly encountered an old man who would taunt him. At first, Johnson and Glatzel thought David was just trying to get out of doing chores, and dismissed the story entirely. Nonetheless, the encounters continued, growing both more frequent and more violent.
David would wake up crying hysterically, describing visions of a “man with big black eyes, a thin face with animal features and jagged teeth, pointed ears, horns and hoofs.” Before long, the family asked a priest from a church nearby to bless their home — to no avail.
So they hoped that paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren could lend a hand.
An interview with Ed and Lorraine Warren about David Glatzel.
He would kick, bite, spit, swear — terrible words,” David’s family members said of his possession. “He experienced strangling attempts by invisible hands, which he tried to pull from his neck, and powerful forces would flop him rapidly head-to-toe like a rag doll.”
Johnson stayed with the family to help however he could. But disturbingly, the child’s nightly terrors began to seep into the daytime as well. David described seeing “an old man with a white beard, dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans.” And as the child’s visions continued, suspicious noises began emanating from the attic.
Meanwhile, David started hissing, having seizures, and speaking in strange voices, quoting John Milton’s Paradise Lost and the Bible.
Reviewing the case, the Warrens concluded that this was clearly a case of demonic possession. However, psychiatrists who investigated the case after the fact claimed that David merely had a learning disability.
Warner Bros. PicturesPatrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as Ed and Lorraine Warren in The Conjuring series.
The Warrens claimed that over the course of three subsequent exorcisms — oversaw by priests — David levitated, cursed, and even stopped breathing. Perhaps even more astonishingly, David allegedly predicted the murder that Arne Cheyenne Johnson would eventually commit.
By October 1980, Johnson started taunting the demonic presence, telling it to stop bothering his fiancée’s brother. “Take me on, leave my little buddy alone,” he cried.
Arne Cheyenne Johnson, The Killer?
As a source of income, Johnson worked for a tree surgeon. Meanwhile, Bono managed a kennel. The two were purportedly friendly and often met up near the kennel — with Johnson sometimes even calling in sick to work in order to do so.
But on Feb. 16, 1981, a vicious argument broke out between them. At around 6:30 p.m., Johnson suddenly drew out a pocket knife and aimed it at Bono.
Bettmann/Getty ImagesArne Cheyenne Johnson entering the courthouse in Danbury, Connecticut. March 19, 1981.
Bono was stabbed multiple times in the chest and stomach, and then was left to bleed to death. Police arrested Johnson an hour later, and they said that the two men had simply been fighting over Johnson’s fiancée, Debbie. But the Warrens insisted there was more to the story.
At some point prior to the murder, Johnson had allegedly investigated a well in the same area where his fiancée’s brother claimed to experience his first encounter with the malicious presence wreaking havoc on their lives.
The Warrens warned Johnson not to go near the same well, but he did anyway, perhaps to see if the demons truly took over his body after he had taunted them. Johnson later claimed that he saw a demon hiding within the well, who possessed him until after the murder.
Though authorities investigated the Warrens’ claims of a haunting, they stuck with the story that Bono was simply killed during an altercation with Johnson over his fiancée.
The Trial Of Arne Cheyenne Johnson
Johnson’s attorney Martin Minnella tried his best to enter a plea of “not guilty by reason of demonic possession.” He even planned to subpoena the priests who allegedly attended the exorcisms, urging them to break tradition by speaking about their controversial rites.
Over the course of the trial, Minnella and the Warrens were routinely mocked by their peers, who saw them as profiteers of tragedy.
“They have an excellent vaudeville act, a good road show,” said mentalist George Kresge. “It’s just that this case more involves clinical psychologists than it does them.”
Bettmann/Getty ImagesArne Cheyenne Johnson exiting a police van after arriving at court. His case would later inspire The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It. March 19, 1981.
Judge Robert Callahan ultimately rejected Minnella’s plea. Judge Callahan argued such a defense would be impossible to prove, and that any testimony on the matter was unscientific and thus irrelevant.
The collaboration of four priests during the three exorcisms was never confirmed, but the Diocese of Bridgeport acknowledged that priests worked on helping David Glatzel during a difficult time. The priests in question, meanwhile, were ordered not to speak on the matter publicly.
“No one from the church has said one way or the other what was involved,” said Rev. Nicholas V. Grieco, a diocese spokesman. “And we decline to say.”
But Johnson’s lawyers were permitted to examine Bono’s clothing. The lack of any blood, rips, or tears, they argued, could help support the claim of demonic involvement. However, no one in the court was convinced.
UVA School of Law ArchivesA courtroom sketch of Arne Cheyenne Johnson, whose trial inspired The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It.
So Johnson’s legal team opted for a self-defense plea. Ultimately, Johnson was convicted of first-degree manslaughter on Nov. 24, 1981 and sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison. He only served about five.
Inspiring The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It
As Johnson languished behind bars, Gerald Brittle’s book about the incident, The Devil in Connecticut, was published with help from Lorraine Warren. On top of that, the trial also inspired the production of a television movie called The Demon Murder Case.
David Glatzel’s brother Carl was not amused. He ended up suing Brittle and Warren for the book, alleging that it violated his right to privacy. He also said that it was an “intentional affliction of emotional distress.” Further, he claimed the narrative was a hoax created by the Warrens, who took advantage of his brother’s mental health for money.
After serving about five years in prison, Johnson was released in 1986. He married his fiancée while he was still behind bars, and as of 2014, they were still together.
As for Debbie, she maintains an interest in the supernatural, and claims that Arne’s biggest mistake was challenging “the beast” that possessed her younger brother.
“You never take that step,” she said. “You never challenge the Devil. Arne started showing the same signs my brother did when he was under possession.”
Most recently, Arne’s incident has spurred a work of fiction — The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It — which aims to spin this harrowing yarn of the 1980s into a paranormal horror film. But the real-life story might even be more disturbing.