Nightmare over; now she lives with the ripple effect

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 12, 2011 - 10:54 AM

Courtney Lee Johnson is innocent.

That's the first thing she wants everyone to know. In an age when potential friends and employers can find information, often without context, on the Internet, Johnson knows it's important that any search engine inquiry about her should start with the ending: She didn't do it.

It has been nearly 16 months since Johnson, 20, was arrested by sheriff's deputies, put in cuffs and thrown in the Washington County jail for three days. During those months she has worried. Worried that a routine traffic stop or license plate check would show she had an arrest warrant from South Dakota on accusations she had forged checks from a church.

Would police believe it was a case of stolen identity, and that she had no knowledge of the church, and, in fact, had never been to South Dakota?

Doubtful.

Instead, she feared she would be back in jail in some pretty unpleasant company, then towed into court to explain it all again. For months, she carried a folder containing all her legal documents in case she was stopped.

Her nightmare is apparently ending; Sioux Falls authorities said they are finally dropping the charges.

"She called me crying when she heard the news," said Scott Martin, Johnson's attorney.

Understandable.

Johnson was a college student, working her summer job on a St. Croix river cruise, when the boat was called back to the pier and deputies arrested her in June 2010.

"There's a joke [in Stillwater] that they sent two deputies to arrest Denny Hecker, but they sent three to arrest Courtney," said her mother, Meredith Lomen.

Johnson had been accused of cashing three checks, each for $2,064.92, under the signature of a church employee. After spending three days in jail, Johnson was released but was charged in Minnesota for being a fugitive from another state, a felony.

So at 19, Johnson was introduced to jail for the first time. "It was devastating," she said. "I didn't eat, I didn't sleep and no one would listen to me."

They even tried to extradite her to South Dakota.

The problem, Johnson tried to explain, is that she had lost her driver's license (and applied for a new one) and someone must have taken it to South Dakota, where they forged the checks in collusion with another woman. Johnson had been in the hospital the day before the checks were cashed, and spent the day the crime was committed recovering in her mother's home.

Law enforcement agents in Sioux Falls said they tried without luck to find Johnson before the warrant was issued.

Lomen finds that hard to believe: They've lived in the same house for 20 years, and their address was on the complaint.

"No one ever called," said Lomen. "Not once. This wouldn't have happened if someone was doing their job."

"I would have been happy to talk to them," said Johnson, "but the only contact I had with anyone was when I was arrested. To them this may have been a small case they could put aside, but it was my life."

Sam Clemens, spokesman for the Sioux Falls Police Department, was reluctant to say too much. "The best I can say is there has been some new information."

Crystal Johnson, a deputy county attorney in Minnehaha County, S.D., inherited the case when another attorney left the job.

"After looking at the file, it was kind of an in-the-interest-of-justice dismissal," said Johnson, who offered in defense that photos of the woman who cashed the checks did look "significantly" like Courtney Johnson.

I asked Lomen what the worst part of the ordeal has been.

"I think the hardest part was seeing my baby in handcuffs and shackles behind a glass partition in the courtroom," Lomen said. "Poor thing. She's such a sweetie."

Martin now will try to expunge Johnson's record. But he's worried the allegation could linger, especially with future employers who find it on the Internet.

"What you don't know is, do they just toss her résumé out of the pile?" he said.

"I'm so glad this part is over," said Johnson. "Now I have to get it expunged and get my reputation back."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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