Longform

USING SLEDGEHAMMERS TO SWAT FLIES

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"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.

But by allowing the demon back into her life, Johnson unknowingly set the stage for the evening of July 20, 1993, when a chaotic--and heated--showdown with members of her Alcoholics Anonymous group resulted in her arrest.

@rule:
@body:It was a pressure-filled July for Johnson last year. Decot had asked her to marry him and move into his house with her son. With two failed marriages behind her already, she was scared. She had a good job in the human resources department of a local company, and was unsure whether taking a third plunge was the right thing to do.

She started drinking just a little bit more.
On July 20, Johnson says, she drank about four beers before going to pick her son up at the baby sitter's. The sitter, concerned about Johnson's condition, wanted to drive mother and son to Decot's house, and Johnson agreed.

A few houses down the street from her fianc's house, Johnson and the sitter changed places, so Johnson could drive her car into the driveway. She and Decot had already had several arguments over her recent drinking, and she didn't want him to know that she had been driven home.

"I didn't want Bob to know I had been drinking," Johnson admits.
In the backyard of Decot's home are a swimming pool and a small goldfish pond. Decot did not notice Johnson driving up, because he was in the pool--underwater, in fact--cleaning it.

But she had trouble unlocking the door, which had a broken deadbolt, and when Decot finally surfaced, he heard her pounding. He let her in and encountered Johnson in a very foul mood.

"She started bitching at me," Decot says. "Immediately, from her attitude, I knew she'd been drinking."
The two began arguing. Johnson was standing in the kitchen, and Decot went to a back room of the house to get her a spare set of keys.

The bizarre sequence of events that ensued in the next few minutes escalated a domestic squabble into Johnson's felony arrest.

Four members of Johnson's AA group, concerned about the recent drinking, had tracked her to Decot's house, intending to confront her about what they perceived as an unacceptable lapse from sobriety.

"We just went over there to talk to her," says Lynda Fisher, the only one of the group who would discuss what happened that night, and then only briefly. "We care about her, but we were concerned about that little boy."
The four knocked on Decot's door just as he was headed for the back room to get the spare keys. Johnson, already upset and combative, opened the door, saw who it was and slammed it. "I didn't want to talk to them," she says.

Decot, walking down the hallway back to the kitchen, heard the ruckus. Then he heard a splash. Apparently, Decot says, he had left the sliding glass door to the backyard open when he came inside to let Johnson into the house.

Ben had walked outside and fallen into the fish pond. Decot was no more than 25 feet from the pond when he heard the splash, he says, and he ran over and pulled Ben out of the foot-deep water.

The boy could not have been in the water for more than a matter of seconds, if that, Decot says. He did not require resuscitation, but did start crying after he was pulled from the water.

The AA members, meanwhile, were still trying to get Johnson to open the door. Decot finally did, and all hell broke loose.

Johnson was yelling at everyone. Decot was crying and yelling at Johnson. The AA members made Johnson come outside the house with them, where she, admittedly, belligerently told them to go away.

Johnson says she was terrified, convinced that the AA members were going to take Ben away, and there was no way she was going to let them do that. Ultimately, they locked Johnson out of the house and would not let her go back inside to see her son. Johnson went to a neighbor's house to call the police, while one of the AA members called them from inside Decot's home.

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David Pasztor