Ara Denise Johnson

Ara, circa 1986; David Elliot Penton, circa 2007

  • Missing Since 04/02/1986
  • Missing From Big Sandy, Texas
  • Classification Non-Family Abduction
  • Sex Female
  • Race Black
  • Date of Birth 03/26/1981 (39)
  • Age 5 years old
  • Height and Weight 3'0, 39 pounds
  • Clothing/Jewelry Description Orange panties.
  • Distinguishing Characteristics African-American female. Black hair, brown eyes. Two of Ara's lower front teeth were missing at the time of her disappearance. She has a silver filling in her back right molar. Ara's nickname is Neecee (sometimes spelled "Nicee" or "Niecie"). Her middle name may be spelled "Denice."

Details of Disappearance

Ara was last seen in her bedroom in her family's mobile home in the 300 block of Boulder Street in Big Sandy, Texas on April 2, 1986. Her father stated he last checked on her between 1:00 and 2:30 a.m.

When Ara's parents woke up between 6:30 and 6:45, she was gone. The back door to the residence was open, and the dark orange bedspread under which Ara was sleeping disappeared with her. Her bedroom was otherwise undisturbed, there was no sign of forced entry to the home, and no one heard anything unusual that night. Tracker dogs found no indication of Ara's scent near her home.

Ara's mother, father and another man all took polygraphs In 2007, authorities announced they considered David Elliot Penton a person of interest in Ara's disappearance and in the disappearances and murders of several other young girls, including Amber Crum and Angelica Gandara.

A photograph of Penton is posted with this case summary. He is has been incarcerated in an Ohio prison since 1987. He also signed a plea agreement admitting to the murders of three girls in Texas. The Texas victims disappeared over a period of 18 months in the Dallas area, and ranged in age from 4 to 9 years old. Penton was also convicted of manslaughter in the child abuse death of his own infant son in 1984.

He fled while free on bond pending the outcome of his appeal, and remained at large until 1987, when he was charged with the murder of a friend's 9-year-old niece in Ohio. He was later convicted of this crime. Penton's cellmates went to investigators and claimed he had implicated himself in the disappearances of Ara, Amber and Angelica. He has not been charged in connection with any of these disappearances, however.

Foul play is suspected in Ara's case. Authorities believe she was kidnapped by someone who knew her family's habits. She is the second child her parents lost; their six-year-old son accidentally drowned nine months before Ara's abduction. Her case remains unsolved.

Updated 5 times since October 12, 2004. Last updated April 8, 2020; details of disappearance updated.