He ‘had to die’: Murder conviction comes 25 years after Johnston man went missing

A Johnston County jury convicted a Clayton man this week of murdering a man whose decomposed body was found in Wake County woods some 25 years ago.

Jonathan Lynn Jenkins, 51, was found guilty of murder Monday in the killing of Elton Whitfield of Beulaville, a town in Duplin County.

After Whitfield’s family reported him missing in March 1999, Clayton police searched for him for weeks, according to a news release from the Johnston County District Attorney’s Office. At the time, the family told law enforcement they had not seen or heard from him since Jan. 17, 1999.

But on April 22, 1999, someone discovered a badly decomposed body in a wooded area off Lake Myra Road in Wake County. A day later, the body was identified as Whitfield, but police were unable to make an arrest at that time.

Mask at the scene leads to arrest, 2nd murder

The path to this week’s conviction came after Jenkins served time for another murder and was charged with other, unrelated crimes.

Years later, Whitfield’s murder remained unsolved, but Jenkins pleaded guilty in April 2006 to an unrelated murder. He was convicted of the October 1998 murder of Richard Vestal in Clayton, after DNA evidence connected him to a mask left at the scene, the news release stated.

After Jenkins was released after serving eight years in prison, the Johnston County Sheriff’s Office named him as a suspect in a human trafficking case. In January 2016, Lt. Donald Pate charged him with human trafficking, sexual servitude, and possession of firearm by felon, according to the release.

“Jenkins immediately made requests to speak to Pate about the human trafficking charges and offered to give him information about a ‘body,” the release stated. “The next day Jenkins confessed to murdering Whitfield by strangling him and then dumping his body in the woods.”

Jenkins told Pate and Clayton Detective Jason Linder that Whitfield was also involved in the Vestal murder and “had to die” because he was about to confess to police and implicate Jenkins in March of 1999.

On August 4, 2021, Jenkins was convicted of sex trafficking in federal court and sentenced to three consecutive life sentences. He appealed those convictions. Johnston County Assistant District Attorneys Jason Waller and Morgan Bridgers, meanwhile, pursued the murder charge to help “provide justice” to Whitfield’s family, a news release said.

He was charged in January 2016 in Whitfield’s death, The News & Observer previously reported.

Life without the possibility of parole

This month, after two weeks of trial, Jenkins was convicted of the first-degree murder of Whitfield. Superior Court Judge Keith Gregory sentenced him to the mandatory prison term of life without the possibility of parole.

“The Johnston County District Attorney’s Office is grateful to the Clayton Police Department and Detective Jason Linder for their unwavering commitment to solving this 25-year-old homicide case,” Waller said in the release.

”We also appreciate Johnston County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Don Pate’s investigation into the human trafficking case which ultimately led to Jenkins’ confession to the Elton Whitfield murder,” he continued. “The jurors took their job very seriously, and their verdict will finally put an end to the cycle of violence that Jenkins inflicted upon multiple victims in Johnston County since 1999.”