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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.

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."
@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.

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David Pasztor