BCSC fires Johnson after arrest

NORTH VERNON — Columbus North High School’s auditorium director and drama coach has been fired after his arrest in Jennings County on felony charges accusing him of child solicitation.

John Johnson, 52, was booked into the Jennings County Jail at 4:51 p.m. Wednesday on two preliminary charges, Level 4 felony child solicitation and Level 6 felony providing harmful material to minors.

He later posted a $2,555 bond and was released from jail, jail officials said.

“The event from which these charges stem did not involve any students at Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.,” according to a written statement issued Friday by BCSC officials. “At this time, administrators have not received any report of misconduct involving our students. We will continue to investigate and fully cooperate with law enforcement.”

The school corporation also said, “Student safety is our priority at BCSC and policies concerning employee conduct are strictly enforced,” according to the school corporation’s written statement. “Support will be made available for students and staff impacted by this news through our school counselors and mental health partners.”

While Johnson also served as a drama coach and BCSC facility rental manager, he is not a licensed teacher and was considered an hourly employee, BCSC officials said. Prior to being hired at North, Johnson worked as a preschool teacher with the Columbus Parks and Recreation Department.

A 1988 graduate of Columbus North and 1992 graduate of Depauw University, Johnson has worked for the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. since taking over the drama program from retired North drama director and teacher Joe Tower in 1995.

Jennings County deputies said they received information Wednesday that Johnson had been having inappropriate communications with a 14-year-old male. He is accused of arranging to meet with the juvenile for the purpose of having a sexual relationship, deputies said.

A video of Johnson’s arrest was posted at 8:32 a.m. Thursday on the Facebook page for PCI: Predator Catchers Indianapolis. Founded by Indianapolis welder Eric Schmutte, PCI is an online civilian group with a mission to identify, expose and publicly shame people seeking to have sexual encounters with children.

Groups like PCI usually create fake “decoy” dating or social media profiles and, once connected with someone, share a decoy age. The conversation either ends or continues and eventually becomes sexual, according to the group’s website.

It’s at that point that the decoy arranges a meeting in a public, where members of the civilian group reveal their true identities and confront the person – often while streaming on Facebook Live. PCI’s social media page stated the video of Johnson being questioned by a civilian, as well as his arrest, was also streamed live.

The video was posted Thursday morning on the PCI Facebook site by Brown County nurse Mackenzie Heeb, along with remarks regarding Johnson’s arrest. The video shows Johnson being questioned by a man believed to be Schmutte about whether he was in the Walmart off State Road 3 in North Vernon for a sexual encounter with a minor.

In a written statement, Heeb stated PCI had a decoy pose as a 14-year-old boy on a messaging app in interactions with Johnson. Heeb said she believes Johnson was at the Walmart to meet with the decoy teen for a sexual encounter.

PCI conducted a similar operation that led to the arrest of Lebanon High School band director Brian Boyer, who was accused in January 2021, of engaging in inappropriate conversations with what he believed was an underage female. Last spring, Boyer received a suspended four-year prison term.

Details about the case against Johnson are pending completion of a probable cause affidavit that will be submitted to Jennings County Prosecutor Brian Belding. It is the prosecutor’s decision whether to pursue formal charges based on evidence in the probable cause affidavit provided from investigators.

While groups like PCI may have noble goals of wanting to help catch child predators, Victor Vieth of the National Child Protection Training Center said in a 2021 interview these “catch-a-predator” groups are “playing with fire.”

The Indiana Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (ICAC) – a national network of 61 coordinated task forces representing more than 5,400 federal, state and local law enforcement – has operational and investigative standards stating that they will not approve, condone, encourage or promote cyber-vigilantism by private citizens.

In Muncie, a teacher’s aide was confronted last October in a public restaurant by PCI volunteers. The suspect, a retired educator, was originally accused of trying to arrange a sexual encounter with a 14-year-old boy.

However, Delaware County Prosecutor Eric M. Hoffman declined to file charges against the 63-year old man, and later issued a press release to explain his decision.

PCI personnel have no specialized education or training in conducting criminal investigations, and are not sworn law enforcement officers, Hoffman wrote. That increases the chance a criminal will be set free because the evidence is declared inadmissible because it was not handled through proper channels.

Hoffman also said there are several instances where civilian predator catchers have unknowingly thwarted legitimate ongoing criminal investigations, resulting in the inability to prosecute the suspect.