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Woman pleads guilty for role in 2015 Walmart murder
Stephanie Maria Rodriguez appears in court July 13, 2016. - photo by File Photo

COVINGTON, Ga. – The final chapter in one of Newton County’s “darkest crimes” was written this morning when Stephanie Rodriguez entered a guilty plea for her role in the November 2015 robbery and murder of a Covington grandmother in a Walmart parking lot.

The 40-year-old New Mexico woman will spend the next 20 years in a Georgia prison after pleading guilty to armed robbery and aggravated assault in the death of 65-year-old Marsha Johnson two years ago.

Johnson had her purse snatched and was repeatedly run over with a stolen car by Brandon Shawn Smith in the parking lot near the store’s garden center. Rodriguez was in the passenger seat of that vehicle. Smith is serving two life sentences plus 20 years after pleading guilty to murder, aggravated assault and kidnapping in Newton County Superior Court in July 2016.

Prior to Rodriguez’s plea, Alcovy Circuit District Attorney Layla Zon recounted the details of the crime. Zon told the court Smith and Rodriguez had stolen the car used in the murder five days earlier in Virginia after asking its owner for a ride, brandishing what appeared to be a firearm and binding the owner with duct tape.

On their way to Georgia, the pair assaulted a 75-year-old woman in a Dollar General parking lot in South Carolina. Rodriguez pointed a BB gun at the victim, pulled the trigger and beat her with it while stealing her purse. The two were scene on surveillance video later the same day at a nearby Walmart making a purchase with the woman’s credit or debit card.

Zon continued, “On Monday, Nov. 16, 2015, the two defendants arrived at the Covington Walmart located on Industrial Boulevard in Newton County in the same vehicle they had stolen from Virginia. Ms. Marsha Johnson, the victim in this case, was loading the items she had just purchased at Walmart into her vehicle outside of the garden center on the far left side of the Walmart parking lot if you are facing the Walmart store. She had parked just a few spaces away from the garden center store entrance and the area was fairly well-lit. 

“Meanwhile, while the victim loaded the items into her car, surveillance video shows that the two defendants were riding around in the parking lot and as it appears they were essentially looking for a victim. The two would later confess this was the case.

“After loading the groceries into her car, Ms. Johnson was in the process of entering her vehicle when she was approached by Brandon Smith, Rodriguez’s co-defendant. Surveillance video shows that Brandon Smith pulled into a parking space just a few spaces away from where Ms. Johnson's vehicle was parked.

“Smith approached the victim with the same BB pistol that appeared to be a semi-automatic pistol. Smith grabbed Ms. Johnson's purse and pulled on the purse which was a strapped purse that was being carried, or worn, by Ms. Johnson on her arm. Mr. Smith then struck the victim with his hand and with the pistol in his hand.

“Smith drug the victim through several parking spaces to where his vehicle, the stolen vehicle out of Tennessee, was parked. Rodriguez was waiting in the passenger seat. While Smith drug the victim he continued to strike her with the pistol and he kicked her with his shoe clod feet.

“Smith eventually got the purse away from Ms. Johnson who appeared from the video to be somewhat stunned in her position in the parking lot behind the stolen vehicle that Smith got into. Smith immediately tried to back up the vehicle and this struck Ms. Johnson but she was not completely run over at this point.

“Several individuals from the parking lot who witnessed this crime occur proceeded to surround the vehicle. One person actually drove his car into the vehicle that Mr. Smith was driving in an attempt to stop the defendants from fleeing the scene. Another individual ran to his vehicle to retrieve a firearm and ran back to the vehicle occupied by the defendants.

“The co-defendant Smith backs up over Ms. Johnson with the vehicle in an attempt to flee the scene. He proceeds to drive back and forth over Ms. Johnson in an effort to leave the parking lot. She is killed there as she is run over multiple times.”

Smith and Rodriguez fled the scene westbound on Interstate 20. They ended up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where they were observed on video looking under the vehicle. Rodriguez was captured on video at a convenience store making an ATM withdrawal using the victim’s debit card. According to Zon, the pair purchased beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets at the convenience store.

They were arrested a week later in Manchester, Tennessee, after a traffic stop.

 Prior to sentencing, two members of Johnson’s family read victim impact statements.

Through tears, niece Nancy Allen called her aunt “The sweetest woman inside and out.”

Another niece, Deborah Ray, described her aunt as the most loving and caring person she’d ever known.

“I wonder how scared she must have been,” Ray said while choking back tears.

Rodriguez apologized to the family.

“I made terrible choices,” she said. “I pray for you and your family every night. I also pray for forgiveness.”

In accepting Rodriguez’s plea, Alcovy Circuit Judge Kendall Wynne called her crime “One of the darkest crimes I’ve ever seen.”

As part of her plea bargain, Rodriguez will spend the next 20 years in prison without the possibility of parole. She will be on probation for another 20 years.

Following the plea, Zon issued a statement to The Covington News.

“This was a heinous crime,” she said. “Not only has Ms. Johnson’s family suffered a tragic loss of their loved one, but our entire community has been impacted by this crime as well. 

“When crimes like this occur it robs our ordinary citizens of their peace of mind.  Everybody goes to Walmart or to one of our shopping centers.  This senseless taking of a life should remind every citizen to be aware of your surroundings, especially during this holiday season when criminals are looking for opportunities to commit thefts, muggings and robberies. 

“I commend the brave citizens in the parking lot who rushed to the aid of Ms. Johnson and attempted to thwart the escape of the defendants.”