CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — A cold case, left unsolved for nearly 26 years, is one step closer to its conclusion, after a jury found John Howard guilty Friday of the 1996 murder of Linda Lunsford in Chesterfield County.
Howard, 62, was arrested in May of 2021 and charged with first-degree murder after detectives presented the facts of the case to a grand jury in Chesterfield County and obtained an indictment for Lunsford’s former Walmart coworker and on-and-off boyfriend. He was originally questioned by authorities around the time of Lunsford’s Dec. 1996 disappearance, but was not named as a suspect at the time.
“He was the last one to see her,” a loved one said of Howard, speaking with 8News back in 1996, in the days after Lunsford’s disappearance.
The mother of five was last seen the day after Christmas of that year, having worked an overnight shift with Howard at the Walmart off Midlothian Turnpike. Although her remains were never found, Lunsford was presumed dead, and the case was considered a no-body homicide.
Howard was scheduled for a two-week jury trial Aug. 22 through Sept. 2. However, on Friday, Aug. 26, the jury found Howard guilty.
Matt Barlow, who said he worked with both Howard and Lunsford at Walmart while in between semesters as a college student, hoped the conviction would bring closure to their loves ones.
“I’m a dad, so the emotions of a mom working to provide for her kids, she disappears. What are their lives like?” he said. “I know that would’ve had to be very traumatic and sad. Just the though of, what happened? Things run through your head.”
Barlow said he never met Lunsford’s children, but that she spoke about them often.
“You could tell she really loved her kids,” he said. “I’m just truly sorry that that happened.”
Barlow described Lunsford as kind and outgoing, while he said that Howard was quiet and no-nonsense.
“I remember when we came back to work and they said that Linda had disappeared, or was missing, and that John was a potential person of interest,” Barlow said. “We were all shocked — just more shocked at the fact that one of our coworkers disappeared — and, honestly, it felt scary. Even to this day, when I go into that store, there’s not a time I don’t think about her.”
Barlow said that there were rumors swirling when he worked at Walmart about what had happened to Lunsford, and whether Howard was involved. He told 8News on Thursday that he never recalled hearing about another person of interest.
During the trial, prosecutors played video from an initial interview with a Chesterfield County Police Department (CCPD) detective and Howard, during which Howard attested that his relationship with Lunsford was intense. At the time, he admitted to seeing her the day after Christmas, but said that she left his house alone, and he never saw her again.
As of Thursday, as sentencing date has not been set for Howard. A first-degree murder conviction in Virginia carries a maximum penalty of life behind bars.