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USING SLEDGEHAMMERS TO SWAT FLIES

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Whether the AA members should even have been at the house that evening is questionable, says Baker, who has 25 years' experience in counseling and treating alcoholics. According to Fisher, the four were attempting an informal "intervention," to force Johnson to get help for her recent drinking.

But Baker and another longtime alcohol counselor who asked that his name not be used say the intervention was botched from the outset. Such interventions, they say, should not be done on somebody's home turf, and should not occur while the person is intoxicated. That combination is a recipe for an explosive argument, which is exactly what happened.

The AA members stumbled into a bad scene, Baker and the other counselor say, and poured fuel on the fire.

"It seems to me like they were just busybodies, and they had no business being there," Baker says. "If I was Cheryl, I would try to get them charged with attempted kidnaping, because that's in essence what they did."
The cast of characters made for quite a scene when police arrived. Johnson and three of the AA members were in the driveway arguing. Decot, Ben and one AA member were inside the house. Decot, wearing only the towel he had wrapped around himself when he climbed out of the pool just minutes earlier, was himself crying and upset.

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.

@rule:
@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.

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David Pasztor