Vero Beach man ordered to prison in 2017 death of woman found in burned out car (2024)

ST. LUCIE COUNTY – A jury that voted in April to convict a Vero Beach man of manslaughter and other felonies never learned how 25-year-old Brandaris "Brandi" Johnson ended up dead in the back of a burned-out rental car on Oct. 26, 2017.

But jurors seated for his four-day trial became convinced that Pierre Lamarr Mcewen, 34, was the man responsible for Johnson’s death, who was found burned beyond recognition inside a 2016 White Hyundai Sonata near Blind Creek Beach, on Hutchinson Island.

“I told the jury I will not be able to answer all of the questions. I can't answer where she (Johnson) died or how she died,” Assistant State Attorney Brandon White recalled Friday. “I can just tell you that he killed her, somehow. Then he tried to hide the evidence by burning her body, burning the car.”

On Wednesday, Mcewen was ordered to serve life in prison plus 49 years for numerous convictions related to Johnson’s homicide prosecuted in Indian River and St. Lucie counties, including manslaughter; first-degree arson of a structure; tampering with evidence; and grand theft of a motor vehicle, court records show.

And that’s on top of a 30-year term imposed in Indian River County related to being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Vero Beach man ordered to prison in 2017 death of woman found in burned out car (1)

A few weeks after Mcewen’s arrest, his landlord was clearing out his unit and found a hand gun inside a bag of cat food that turned out to belong to Johnson, White said.

“That gun was the victim’s gun,” White said. “The victim’s DNA was on the gun, as well as the defendant’s DNA was on the gun.”

How did investigators tie Mcewen to Johnson's death?

The investigation began just past midnight on Oct. 26, 2017, after a report of smoke near Blind Creek Beach on South Ocean Drive led officials to a Hyundai engulfed in flames north of the St. Lucie Nuclear Plant.

When the fire was extinguished, investigators found the burned body of Brandaris Johnson in the back seat.

Because of the body's condition, the 19th Judicial Circuit Medical Examiner used medical records to confirm Johnson’s identification. A medical examiner determined her death was a homicide, White said, after ruling out any other medical causes.

An autopsy showed Johnson likely was dead before the fire was set. She had no fatal diseases that could explain her death at her age, nor did tests show drugs or alcohol in her system.

“Based on ruling everything out, as well as the circ*mstances of how she went missing - how her body was found, the totality of circ*mstances - led us to conclude this was a homicide,” White said. “We could never say how she actually got killed.”

St. Lucie County sheriff’s investigators were able to identify Johnson and tracked her cell phone to Mcewen’s residence, White said.

“There were phone calls and messaging back and forth between the two,” he said. “We have those records.”

Vero Beach man ordered to prison in 2017 death of woman found in burned out car (2)

The same day the Huyndai was found burned, Johnson’s mother reported her missing to Indian River County sheriff’s officials.

The car, which belonged to the rental car company Enterprise, had been rented to Jessica Wright, who told deputies she had “leased” it to Johnson.

The investigation into the case was complex, involving scrutiny of cell phone records and information, alleged internet escort ads, interviews and surveillance footage from several locations.

Investigators determined the car was intentionally burned, with gasoline found on Johnson’s body and “ignitable liquids” elsewhere.

Johnson also used three phone numbers, two of which were used in online escort advertisem*nts, records stated

The last outgoing call made by any of her numbers was about 3:57 a.m. Oct. 25, 2017, to a number traced to Mcewen. Investigators said he texted Johnson’s number more than 30 times in the days before her body was found.

Investigators spoke to a woman who said that the night of Oct. 25, 2017, Mcewen asked her to pick him up in the area of Seaway Drive in Fort Pierce, which is north of where the burned car was found. She said Mcewen texted and said he was walking and to pick him up on State Road A1A. She said his phone died and she couldn’t find him.

Deputies reported Mcewen’s web history showed visits to online escort ads for Johnson, and also to the same make and model of handgun Johnson was known to carry.

Deputies reported Mcewen bought a gas can, gasoline and a lighter about an hour before the car was reported burning. Minutes before the fire report, Mcewen’s cell site data and other indicators showed a location consistent with traveling to the area of Blind Creek Beach.

Investigators spoke to Mcewen several times. He denied knowing Johnson or communicating with her.

“That’s not me, I wouldn’t hurt her, I’m not a murderer,” Mcewen told investigators.

A detective asked Mcewen whether another person hurt Johnson with Mcewen disposing of the body. Mcewen said he didn’t want to talk about it.

White said Mcewen's life prison term means he will die behind bars.

“That's exactly where he needs to be, is prison. This guy, I think is a very dangerous individual,” White said. “And we have to warehouse him in prison to save future victims from his wrath.”

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Melissa E. Holsman is the legal affairs reporter for TCPalm and Treasure Coast Newspapers and is writer and co-host of "Uncertain Terms,"a true-crime podcast. Reach her at melissa.holsman@tcpalm.com. If you are a subscriber, thank you. If not,become a subscriber to get the latest local news on the Treasure Coast.

Vero Beach man ordered to prison in 2017 death of woman found in burned out car (2024)
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