Madison County deputy sentenced to prison, but mystery remains in murder of sheriff’s office critic

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- The obstruction of justice guilty plea and three-year federal prison sentence for Justin Watson, a former Madison County Sheriff’s deputy, was greeted with some relief Thursday by supporters of the victim in the case, Robert Bryant.

Jason Klonowski. whose 2013 murder remains unsolved.

Jason Klonowski. whose 2013 murder remains unsolved.

But supporters also expressed dismay about an unsolved mystery surrounding the Bryant case: Who killed Bryant’s benefactor and sheriff’s office critic Jason Klonowski?

“Jason Klonowski started this movement to help Robert Bryant and he’s no longer here,” said Denise Nunley Brown, a Bryant supporter. “That’s another issue in another case.”

Klonowski was found dead outside his home in Harvest, near Huntsville in November 2013. Sheriff’s deputies responded to the scene, but it took nearly two days for the case to be called a homicide. Klonowski had been shot multiple times in the back of the head, a few days before the body was discovered.

[WHNT News 19 news partner AL.com wrote a seven-part series looking into Klonowski's death] 

Madison County Sheriff Blake Dorning eventually called the Alabama Bureau of Investigation to handle the case. But more than three years later, it doesn’t appear the agency – now known as the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) – has any suspects.

Bryant’s Florence-based attorney, Hank Sherrod, said he hasn’t heard of progress being made in the solving Klonowski’s murder.

“As far as I know right now though they do not have any suspects or any strong leads,” he said. “In fact, Robert Bryant and I are trying to get their assistance in putting out a reward for information leading to the conviction of Mr. Klonowski’s murderer."

Bryant’s troubles with the sheriff’s office began 18 months before Klonowski was killed. He had gotten a brief bar fight with Watson in June 2012.

Watson apparently wanted revenge. The judge in Watson’s federal obstruction of justice case said the deputy stalked Bryant, wanting for him to return to the bar.

On Aug. 22 Bryant’s truck was pulled over by Watson after leaving the same Hazel Green bar. The accounts about what happened next, but Bryant was apparently choked, struck in the face, hit with a baton by Watson and tased by at least one other deputy.

He was charged with resisting arrest, though Watson appeared unharmed after the incident.

The charge against Bryant ultimately snared Watson. In his guilty plea Watson admitted lying while testifying at Bryant’s preliminary hearing when he was asked if he knew Bryant or had any previous encounter with him.

Watson denied that he knew Bryant before the traffic stop.

Klonowski backed Bryant, a handyman who lives in Tennessee, paying his legal bills and offering vocal support.  He held a small rally at his home in late September 2013, supporting Bryant and criticizing Sheriff Dorning and sheriff’s office deputies.

After Klonowski was killed, the charge against Bryant was dropped.

Bryant and Sherrod went to the FBI to tell them about the traffic stop and beating.

Bryant later sued the sheriff’s office and several deputies, including Watson, and Madison County settled with him for $625,000.

Attorney Sherrod said Bryant is still troubled by Klonowski’s death.

“Mr. Bryant has always been burdened by the death of his friend,” he said. “It’s something that probably lives with him today even heavier than what Watson and others did to him.”

Bryant said he’s concerned that Watson’s guilty plea, ended any federal investigation into Klonowski’s death. But he’s determined to find justice.

“And I’m going to be here ‘til the end, til we find out who killed my buddy.”

Updated at 7:45 a.m. to correct agency name for SBI.