Riley Whitelaw, 17, was a straight-A Colorado Springs student. Her 28-year-old coworker has been charged in her killing
A scholarship fund is being planned in the name of Colorado teenager Riley Whitelaw, who was found murdered earlier this month in the break room of the Walgreens where she worked.
Her 28-year-old coworker, Joshua Taylor Johnson – about whom she’d repeatedly complained to management – has been charged with her first-degree murder.
Friends and family of Ms Whitelaw, a straight-A student at Air Academy High School in Colorado Springs, were preparing on Wednesday for her funeral the next morning as a GoFundMe in the teenager’s memory had already raised more than three times its goal.
The site was set up on 12 June, one day after the girl’s shocking murder, by a team of fundraisers including Jeremy Model, with Ms Whitelaw’s mother, Courtenay, listed as the beneficiary. Its listed goal was $10,000 but it had already surpassed $32,600 on Wednesday.
“All funds will go towards a longterm scholarship fund in Riley’s name and Genetic Research projects we think she would appreciate,” according to a GoFundMe message sent by Mr Model to The Independent.
“We feel all the love and support we have been showered with by the community and hope people will carry a little bit of Riley in their everyday routine. Though only 17, she’s a one of a kind human who knew how to be truly present for others.
“It is not just her smile that permeates you, it’s her compassion and empathy. Be kind and be present.”
According to a press release from Colorado Springs Police, Ms Whitelaw was found dead on 11 June by her manager at a Walgreens on Centennial Boulevard in the city about 60 miles south of Denver.
Her coworker, Mr Johnson, was arrested the following day after management revealed that Riley had allegedly reported being uncomfortable with his “advances” a year prior.
According to Ms Whitelaw’s obituary, which details her “short but rich life,” the teenager was known for her “empathy, patience and compassion,” along with being “dedicated, persistent and passionate about everything she endeavored to try.”
The obituary adds: “Riley was a quiet leader amongst her peers and was always willing to lend a helping hand to those around her. Her passions were artistic in nature, as she loved to draw or paint canvases as well as jam on a guitar. Her art was recognized throughout her life and won many school and local awards.
“She not only had straight A’s throughout her time at Air Academy, but was a member of AAHS Colorguard, worked part-time, and had just began volunteering at the Humane Society and found time to pet sit. Riley inspired others through her art, eclectic taste in music and shining personality.”
Police arrived at the Walgreens where Ms Whitelaw worked at around 7pm on the day of the murder after manager Justin Zunino placed a 911 call, according to an affidavit. Mr Zunino had informed the dispatchers that he’d initially suspected that something was wrong when another manager reported that Riley didn’t return from her break.
When he went to the store to investigate further, he said he “found a body in the break room” with “blood everywhere”.
Responding officers wrote in a report that “there was a large amount of blood on the floor around the head of the victim,” with a significant amount of blood stained onto the “the floor, cabinets, and counter of the break room”.
They assessed at the time that the victim had “significant trauma to her neck area”, and there was no sign of life.
Mr Zunino tipped officers off to Mr Johnson after having seen the employee on surveillance tapes before finding Riley’s body.
Mr Zunino reportedly saw Mr Johnson stacking bins in front of one of the store’s surveillance cameras, until the frame was completely covered. The window to the break room appeared taped over, with a sign that read “restroom closed”.
After viewing the tapes, the manager went into the break room and found the brutal murder scene.
The manager also pointed out that, outside of the video tapes, he had other reasons to suspect Mr Johnson of foul play. According to the affidavit, a year before the deadly incident unfolded in the break room, Riley had lodged a complaint about Mr Johnson coworker for making inappropriate “advances” towards her while they were working.
And then just recently, the teenage employee had requested that managers refrain from putting the two of them on the same schedule, because her older coworker had reportedly started to make her “feel uncomfortable”.
The teen had subsequently asked for more hours, but was told by her superiors that if she wanted those hours, she’d be working alongside the man who a year earlier she’d flagged for making inappropriate advances towards her.
Another manager at the store reportedly told police that she saw the suspected murderer when he was allegedly cleaning himself up after by the dumpsters behind the store. She claimed to have smelled “a strong odour of bleach” and said when she attempted to open the door, she heard a man shout that he was changing.
When that manager came back later, he was no longer there.
Mr Johnson was picked up the next morning by Colorado State Patrol troopers, approximately 100 miles from the Walgreens where his teenage coworker had been killed and was found with what police described as scratch marks all over his face and hands.
While being questioned by authorities, Mr Johnson reportedly admitted to having a “crush” on Riley, and said that he’d been inside the break room where she was killed but that he was only there after her death.
“[Joshua] stated he fell in the blood,” the affidavit read, also noting that the man had admitted to being the person that the manager had tried to talk to before he left the Walgreens. “He went home right after ‘that happened’ and took off all his clothes because they were all bloody.”
The suspect denied moving the bins in front of the surveillance camera, police said, even after he was confronted with the footage.
A spokesperson for Walgreens told The Independent that they are currently cooperating with authorities in the investigation and offered their “deepest condolences” to the family members and community members impacted by the teen’s murder.
“We are very saddened by this tragic incident, and extend our deepest condolences, thoughts and prayers to the family and loved ones of our team member,” the spokesperson for the company said in an emailed statement. “The safety of our customers and team members is top priority, and we are working with local authorities in their investigation. We are making counseling and other resources available to our store team members at this location.”
Ms Whitelaw’s death was followed by a harsh backlash against the store chain on social media, along with the hashtag #JusticeForRileyWhitelaw.
“Shame on you for allowing a culture of harassment, for IGNORING an employee’s mental health, for not taking a minor employee’s safety seriously, for grossly mishandling a HR situation and telling the world women are NOT safe in your store,” one user tweeted at Walgreens on Tuesday. “#JusticeForRileyWhitelaw.”
A spokesman for Walgreens, however, told The Independent the company would not be “discussing the situation any further at this time.”
Mr Johnson is next due in court on 26 August.