USING SLEDGEHAMMERS TO SWAT FLIES

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

Although her attorney and most everyone else had urged her to fight the charge, Johnson was poised to take the plea. She'd have a record, she figured, but would be able to keep Ben.

Last Thursday, however, Johnson drew her line in the sand. Thursday morning she was scheduled to enter her guilty plea in court, but she changed her mind and is now preparing to go on trial.

Sober again, and in regular treatment, she decided she could not face her son years from now and tell him she had confessed to abusing him, when she had not.

"My heart is telling me not to give in to these people," she says.
There is always a one-in-a-million chance that a jury will convict her, Johnson says, but Hearn is going to have an uphill battle to build a credible case.

The only witnesses to what happened inside the house, when Ben fell into the water, were Johnson, Decot and 2-year-old Ben. Though he was angry at his girlfriend for drinking that evening, Decot unequivocally contends that she was not negligent in caring for Ben.

Despite the weakness of the county's case, Shirley Johnson says the ordeal has beaten down her daughter, and nearly driven her to the brink.

"It's terrorized her," Shirley says. "She fights the alcohol thing every day, and she was doing all right. But then to have this thrown on her head. I don't know how much she can take."
@rule:
@body:Jason Pedigo and his wife, Shawnie, were forced to learn how much their young marriage could take after he was charged with felony child abuse, and only now--weeks after his acquittal--can they even begin to feel the weight lift from their lives.

Pedigo and his wife were engaged in March of last year, when he was living at the Rancho Santa Fe apartments in Glendale.

The 20-year-old Pedigo had a good job with the Smith's food and drug chain. He'd started in the warehouse and worked his way up to fork-lift operator. He and Shawnie were planning their wedding.

His pride and joy was a 1991 Ford Ranger pickup, in which Pedigo had installed a $3,000, kick-ass stereo system. After installing the electronics, he had an alarm system put in to protect his investment.

Trouble with the alarm started early in 1993, according to Pedigo, Shawnie and Pedigo's former roommate. It kept going off, but only when Pedigo's truck was parked outside his apartment, and only in the evening hours.

The alarm never went off anyplace else, or at any other time of day. Pedigo concluded that someone--probably a kid being a kid--was triggering it for kicks.

On the night of March 19, it was approaching 10:30. Pedigo and Shawnie were in the apartment. Through an open window, they say, they heard voices that sounded like children. Then a thump. Then the truck alarm was blaring.

Pedigo bolted from the apartment, jumped in the truck and started driving after four children he saw running from the complex parking lot.

He stopped and chased the kids on foot. The one he caught was 11-year-old Mitchell Cole, who lived nearby.

The versions of Pedigo, the boy and the other children vary dramatically from that point on, but a jury--after listening to all of them--would ultimately take just a few minutes to decide Pedigo was telling the truth.

When he caught up with Cole, Pedigo says, he grabbed him by the shirt collar. A heavyset kid who weighs almost the same amount as Pedigo, Cole fell down, wet his pants and became upset.

"I grabbed him by the back of the shirt and kind of yanked him," Pedigo says. "The kid outweighs me, so my hand kind of twisted as he fell."
When Cole was on the ground, Pedigo says, he let go of him and then gave him a good talking to.

"I told him, 'You're going to get shot for this someday,'" Pedigo says. "I told him to watch himself, control himself and stop messing with people's things. The kid was young, and my thought was to take him to his parents."
Cole, and the three other children with him that night, told very different stories. They said they did not deliberately set off the truck alarm, although one of them may have brushed the truck accidentally.

They claimed that Pedigo almost ran them over when he chased them in his truck, then caught Cole, threw him to the ground, choked him and threatened to shoot him.

Kenneth Cole, the boy's father, says the children were "absolutely terrorized" by Pedigo and feared for their lives.

Three of the children ran to a nearby house and called the police. When Pedigo learned that, he decided to stick around and complain to the cops about what he thought the kids had done to his truck.

Shortly after police arrived, so did Cole's parents, who were furious, according to police reports.

Kenneth Cole, the father, is a psychologist who does contract work for the Maricopa County Probation Department. He insisted that Pedigo be arrested, and he was, for aggravated assault.

Initially, the charges against Pedigo were dropped in a Justice of the Peace court. But Cole continued to insist that Pedigo be prosecuted, claims Mort Rivkind, Pedigo's defense attorney.

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