Cotney at large after Hope Hull manhunt

Published 2:12 pm Wednesday, November 22, 2023

The Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office conducted a manhunt in Hope Hull Monday, searching for a man who has been camping there for several months. Officers located but were unable to capture the man who is currently wanted for crimes in Elmore and Lowndes County.

Lowndes County Sheriff’s Lieutenant Nick Cognasi said officers executed a search Monday for Johnny Cotney, 54, in the wooded area between Dancer Road and Judge Road.

“During our operation on Monday we were in the area that expands all the way from Dancer Road to Judge Road,” Cognasi said. ”We formed a search party in the woods and were able to locate Mr. Cotney twice and then lost him twice, but while searching for Mr. Cotney we found some campsites in the woods where he had been living.”

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Lowndes County law enforcement partnered with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency’s (ALEA) aviation and drone divisions as well as the Alabama Department of Corrections’ (DOC) and Montgomery Sheriff’s Office canine units to perform the search. Lowndes K-9 deputy Agi and her handler Michael Speigner also helped with the operation.

“Because of the weather we had last week, we decided our best chance for clear weather was Monday,” Cognasi said. “We had a couple of different staging areas, one with aviation and drone programs and one with the canine division. We found additional campsites in the woods that belonged to Mr. Cotney but were unable to ultimately catch him after we searched for about three and a half hours.”

According to Cognasi, the department was alerted of Cotney’s possible presence by the Elmore County Sheriff’s Office in July. Residents in Hope Hull realized his presence and eventually reported break ins with which he was thought to be involved.

Lowndes County Sheriff Chris West said Cotney, who is not a Hope Hull native, worked for a time at Casey Feed, walking to work there. Cognasi also confirmed he was well-known by Hope Hull residents and performed odd jobs for income. At some point, Cotney began watching the family, making himself aware of their patterns and breaking in during their absence to steal necessities, like food. 

“He knows the area well, better than we do,” West said. “As part of his survival, he watches families from the woods [and knows] when they go to work, when they come home, when the kids are home. When no one is there, he forces entry into the home and takes only food, sodas, juice or things of that nature. Then he goes back into the woods and continues his lifestyle. He’s done that in several residences throughout the area.”

One local resident, who deviated from their normal pattern, came home to find Cotney in their house, Cognasi explained. They alerted officers, who began plans to execute the search.

Cotney is wanted by the Elmore County Sheriff’s Office for felony elderly exploitation. He is also wanted in Lowndes County in connection with the break ins – for second-degree burglary, theft of property fourth, criminal mischief third and tampering with utilities.

Law enforcement is still searching for Cotney, but Cognasi said there are currently no active leads.

“We believe that he could still be in the area,” Cognasi said. “We have gotten reports of him begin in other places, like Montgomery, but those reports have not been confirmed. We are still looking for Mr. Cotney.”

West said he encourages residents to be vigilant and to take precautions while Cotney remains at large.

“I would encourage people to certainly put out trail cameras or some kind of security,” West said. “If you have equipment, tractors or ATVs (all-terrain vehicles), be sure to secure them or use GPS tracking devices.

To report information regarding Cotney’s whereabouts, please contact the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office at (334) 548-2222.