Public defender questions actions in Johnson arrest case | SteamboatToday.com

Public defender questions actions in Johnson arrest case

Collin Smith

Public defender Sheryl Uhlmann said Tuesday’s arrest of a former Craig police detective raises disturbing questions about his employment as a law enforcement officer.

“Former detective Ken Johnson was allowed to continue working as a sworn peace officer, investigating and accusing others, while himself under investigation for sexual misconduct with a drug court client and for criminal activity,” Uhlmann wrote in an e-mail to the Daily Press. “These allegations, if true, are an appalling breach of public trust.”

Johnson, 42, was a nine-year Police Department veteran until his resignation Sept. 8. He was arrested Tuesday on suspicion of three felonies: attempting to influence a public servant, accessory to crime and embezzlement of public property.

Johnson was booked into Moffat County Jail and released Tuesday night after posting bond. Formal charges are pending.

Craig resident Tausha Merwin, 29, who Johnson is suspected of having a sexual relationship with, also was arrested Tuesday in connection with the case. She was arrested on suspicion of attempting to influence a public servant. Formal charges also are pending against Merwin.

Both are scheduled for their first court appearance at 8:30 a.m. Oct. 13 in Moffat County Court.

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According to arrest warrant affidavits, Johnson and Merwin began their relationship in 2007 or 2008.

Johnson, according to the affidavits, helped Merwin violate her probation after her conviction for possession of a controlled substance. The affidavits also say Johnson provided Merwin with names of confidential police informants and gave her a laptop computer and equipment owned by law enforcement.

The pending charge against Merwin is related to her suspected involvement in misleading Craig Police officials during the internal investigation of Johnson.

“By allowing these allegations to remain hidden, the Craig Police Department and District Attorney’s Office fundamentally undermine public confidence in the justice system, the very system they are supposed to protect,” wrote Uhlmann, who defends clients in the 14th Judicial District.

“The Craig Police Department should stop trying to prevent the disclosure of information relating to Mr. Johnson’s misconduct and should publicly explain why, in spite of their knowledge of serious allegations of misconduct, Mr. Johnson was allowed to continue working as a peace officer in our community,” Uhlmann said.

The police department investigated Johnson and Merwin’s suspected relationship in March, and the findings of that internal probe were inconclusive, according to court records. The District Attorney’s Office began its own inquiry in July.

Uhlmann said the Johnson investigation also could affect past and current criminal cases the detective was involved in, either as an investigator or witness.

It’s too soon to say whether her office will file appeals or request retrials, she said.

Elizabeth Oldham, 14th Judicial District Attorney, said her office is preparing to release the investigation findings to past and present defendants and defense attorneys.

“We will be willing to re-evaluate cases in light of what happened,” Oldham said. “We intend to be fair in evaluating cases.”

Oldham said she didn’t know how many cases could be affected by the evidence in Johnson’s case, how far back her office would go to find cases or how much money the added work would cost her office.

Perhaps the most notable case that may be affected is that of James Jerome Barry, who was convicted in December 2008 of kidnapping and assaulting Merwin in 2007.

Johnson assisted in the investigation that led to Barry’s arrest and testified as a rebuttal witness during his trial, according to Johnson’s arrest warrant affidavit.

The affidavit also states that Merwin told investigators her relationship with Johnson began in late spring 2008, which would mean she and Johnson were involved at the time of Barry’s trial.

Barry is currently serving a 24-year prison sentence at Buena Vista Correctional Complex, according to the Colorado Department of Corrections.

Barry’s attorney in court, Kristopher Hammond, of Steamboat Springs, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Craig Police officials said they would not comment on matters related to Johnson and Merwin’s arrests, or preceding investigations.

Police Commander Jerry DeLong said the department’s internal investigation into Johnson’s activities is a personnel matter.

DeLong also would not comment about why the department’s investigation was inconclusive, but the District Attorney’s Office found evidence that led to the arrests of Johnson and Merwin.

“The District Attorney’s Office has requested that we do not release any information,” DeLong said. “If any information is needed, then go ahead and contact them, the District Attorney’s Office.”

Oldham said she could not explain why Johnson remained a detective until September.

“We don’t employ him,” she said. “However, when we heard some of the allegations, we fully investigated it and exhausted many avenues in trying to make sure we got all the information, but we don’t employ him.”

However, Oldham also said it appeared from her office’s investigation that the Police Department received corroborating evidence from at least one person who supported Johnson and Merwin’s claims that there was no relationship between the two.

“We kept hearing the rumors and some questioning, suspicions. It didn’t go to rest. That’s why we then looked into it.”

Based on the affidavits, there were two key differences between the internal police investigation and that of the District Attorney’s Office.

The district attorney’s probe looked into suspicions by Commander Garrett Wiggins, of the All Crimes Enforcement Team drug task force. Johnson served on ACET for a time.

At some point, Wiggins came to believe Johnson tampered with evidence relating to Merwin’s arrest in mid-2008 on a charge of distribution of a controlled substance.

In addition to the Police Department and ACET, Johnson also was involved with several other agencies and local groups, including the Moffat County Drug Court.

Wiggins, who requested Johnson be removed from ACET after he submitted a formal complaint that partly prompted the police investigation, said he does not think Johnson’s alleged criminal actions will jeopardize the ACET program.

“Like every other organization, once in a while there’s going to be a bad apple, and sometimes you just have to get rid of that bad apple,” he said. “We have some good investigators working here, and I think we’re doing a lot of good work, and we’re not going to let that affect our mission.”

Michael O’Hara, chief judge of the 14th Judicial District, has been the judge assigned to Drug Court since its inception in January 2008.

“I’m sad about the allegations, if they’re true, but it’s not going to affect Drug Court going forward,” he said.

O’Hara said he does, however, expect Drug Court officials to discuss how they might change procedures so probation requirements can’t be avoided.

The arrest warrant affidavits state investigators were uncertain how Merwin, who was enrolled in Drug Court for a possession charge from 2007, was not removed from the program once she was arrested for distribution of a controlled substance in mid-2008.

O’Hara said he could not comment on why Merwin remained with the program because it seems to be related to a case filed in his district.