USING SLEDGEHAMMERS TO SWAT FLIES

THE COUNTY ATTORNEY'S OFFICE VIGOROUSLY PROSECUTES FELONY CHILD ABUSE CHARGES. EVEN WHEN NO CHILDREN HAVE BEEN ABUSED.

Six months ago, Cheryl Johnson's 2-year-old son fell into a shallow fish pond in her fianc‚'s backyard. Little Benjamin was retrieved within seconds--before he swallowed any water--wet, but otherwise fine.

Johnson is now charged with two felony counts of child abuse, and is scheduled for trial in late April.

Just over a year ago, Jason Pedigo chased an 11-year-old boy, one of a group of children Pedigo believed had repeatedly set off his truck alarm as a prank. Pedigo grabbed the boy by the collar, and demanded to know where his parents were. The boy fell down, wet his pants and was bruised.

Pedigo was charged with felony child abuse. Several weeks ago, a jury swiftly acquitted him after a three-day trial.

Neither Johnson, a 36-year-old office worker, nor Pedigo, a 21-year-old fork-lift driver, had any previous history of child abuse, or any other criminal behavior.

Neither ever imagined running crossways with the law for anything more serious than traffic tickets.

Yet each has been compelled to spend thousands of dollars and months of legal preparation to avoid becoming not just a convicted felon, but a convicted child abuser.

The two, and their defense attorneys, are unable to understand the zeal with which Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley's office has pursued them.

The assistant Maricopa County attorneys prosecuting their cases declined requests to talk about them.

The charges have clearly upended the lives of Johnson, Pedigo and their families, and cost increasingly precious taxpayer dollars.

Johnson has quit her job and briefly relapsed into drinking. She lives in terror that her son--a precious gift conceived in vitro after years of expensive and unsuccessful fertility treatments--may be taken from her. (Johnson is not Cheryl's real last name. Fearful that she will be unable to find a job to support her son, she asked that her real last name not be published.)

Pedigo's fledgling marriage to his teenage sweetheart has almost buckled under the pressure of his legal troubles. With a felony charge hanging over his head, the young couple could not buy a house, and put off trying to have children because there was a chance he might go to prison.

These two cases are particularly outrageous, attorneys for Johnson and Pedigo say, given that the county's $20 million-plus budget crunch is forcing public attorneys and the courts to cut back on services and staff. Romley's office, they say, has spent more than a year in Pedigo's case, and six months in Johnson's case, to prosecute people who have done nothing beyond the realm of normal human behavior.

Even if the County Attorney's Office had all the time and money in the world, the defense attorneys argue, these felony charges should never have been brought.

"I don't think this case ever should have been filed," says Mike Kimerer, who is defending Johnson. "I guess they are trying to prove how tough they are."
@rule:
@body:Cheryl Johnson is up-front about it: She is a recovering alcoholic. From her teens into her mid-20s, she had a drinking problem. In 1986, she checked herself into a rehabilitation program for a month, and then underwent outpatient treatment for four months.

She stayed sober for about six years, attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and toeing a straight line.

And she desperately wanted to have a child.
For three years, she consulted specialists and underwent surgery and fertility treatments, spending more than $20,000. She was told there was only a one-in-1,000 chance that she would ever conceive a child.

Unsure she would ever have her own baby, Johnson underwent training and became a certified foster parent. Then one day, her first husband "just got in his truck and left," she says.

Out of options, she decided to attempt in vitro fertilization--a test-tube baby--and a man from her Alcoholics Anonymous group agreed to be the father.

The two married when Johnson was eight months pregnant, and in February 1991, brown-haired Benjamin was born. The father stayed just four months and then left her a voice-mail message saying he was leaving. Johnson has not heard from him in almost a year.

Benjamin, according to family and friends, became Johnson's life. "I think he's the only thing she's got she really cares about," says her mother, Shirley. "It's always been just Cheryl and Ben."

Jack Baker, who has known Johnson during most of the time since she dried out, says she has been a diligent and dedicated single mother. "I remember the effort she went through to get Ben," he says. "She's always been a very loving parent."

Two years ago, Johnson began dating Bob Decot, an optician who fell in love with her and her son. On their dates, Bob would sometimes down a few beers, and Johnson began to wonder if she could start drinking again, just socially.

"We'd go out dancing. I'd have a couple beers," Decot says. "Cheryl wanted to try it, to be like normal people."
It was, in retrospect, a flawed decision, Johnson now concedes.
Johnson and her fianc‚ say that she did not drink to excess, and never drank when she was caring for her son. Baker, who spoke with Johnson several times after she resumed drinking, says she was "not a falling-down drunk. She was a functioning drinker." Baker says he is satisfied that Johnson's renewed drinking never did anything to endanger her son.

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