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By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
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By Stephen Lemons
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Johnson became even more scared, she says, that someone would take her son away, and refused to cooperate with the police.
Finally, after calling Johnson's mother to come get Ben, the police arrested Johnson and took her to jail.
She was charged with child abuse--based on Ben's falling into the fish pond. Police also believed she had driven her son home from the baby sitter.
Ben did not require medical treatment; he was in good enough shape that the police did not even feel it necessary to call paramedics.
Johnson was released from jail the next day and has been free since, but she has yet to free herself from the charges brought that night.
@body:To Johnson and Decot, the police report on her arrest bears little resemblance to what actually happened that night. It starts off by saying that "friends arrived at the location to find a 2-year-old male face down in the fish pond. Intoxicated mother not supervising the child."
The "friends," however--the four AA members there to confront Johnson--were not in the house when Ben fell in the pond, says Lynda Fisher, one of the four. They were standing outside, trying to get Johnson to open the door.
The report also says that when Ben fell into the water, Johnson was "nowhere to be seen" and had let Ben wander out of her sight--a situation that is logically impossible given the layout of Decot's house.
Johnson was in the kitchen, which has a clear line of sight to the living room where Ben had been playing, as well as to the back door and the fish pond.
The report further states that both Johnson and Decot are recovering alcoholics, which is not true. Decot, a social drinker, has never been in any sort of alcohol treatment program, and has never needed one, he says.
Later, the report contradicts itself, saying that the four AA members arrived "just moments after" Decot pulled Ben out of the water.
The report also quotes Johnson's mother as telling police that "Cheryl often drinks to the point where she will lose consciousness and leave Benjamin unsupervised and unattended." Shirley Johnson says she never made such a statement to police, because it is not true.
The police report, however, became the basis of grand jury testimony, and by then the story got even worse. According to a transcript of the proceedings, the grand jury that investigated the case was told Johnson did drive her son home from the sitter's, and Decot found Benjamin "floating face down" in the water.
Johnson was quickly indicted on two counts of felony child abuse.
At worst, Johnson says, she drank too much and got into a series of arguments with her boyfriend, AA group members and police. Ben's fall into the fish pond was a split-second mishap that could happen anytime with a small child, and both she and Decot were close enough to quickly retrieve him from the pond. Ben was not injured, and his life was never in danger.
Several weeks after the incident, a caseworker from Child Protective Services visited the house to check out Johnson and her son and found no reason to pursue any action against her.
But she still lives in fear that she will lose custody of her son as assistant Maricopa County attorney Pam Hearn presses the case.
"This woman must not have children of her own," Johnson's mother Shirley says of Hearn. "She has no feelings whatsoever, no qualms about hanging this over somebody's head that 'I'm going to take your child away from you.'"
(Hearn referred a request for comment to Bill FitzGerald, a spokesman for the County Attorney's Office, who said the office would not comment on a pending case. Ironically, Hearn once worked for Mike Kimerer, Johnson's attorney.)
Johnson became so terrified of what might happen, she says, that she found herself unable to go to work some days. She would stand in the kitchen and stare out the window, afraid to leave the house.
Since her fianc‚ is a supposed witness against her, Johnson was technically barred from talking to him--even though they live together. A judge had to give her permission to speak with Decot.
Johnson was also technically not allowed to speak to her mother, another potential witness in the case. The judge, however, has also given the mother and daughter permission to speak, as long as they do not discuss the case itself.
Several weekends ago, Johnson snapped. She gave Ben to her mother, checked into a hotel and got drunk. It was, she acknowledges, a very stupid thing to do. When she drove to buy more booze, she was stopped and charged with drunken driving.
The next day, she called Decot, went home and then quit her job so she could enter an outpatient rehabilitation program. She has been in the program ever since.
At that time, Hearn was offering Johnson a plea bargain. If she would plead guilty to a Class 6 felony charge, she would receive probation and counseling. There was also the possibility that the charge would be reduced on her record to a misdemeanor, if she successfully completed her probation terms.