Johnson enters not guilty plea in initial hearing in Jennings Circuit Court

Copyright, The Republic, Columbus

NORTH VERNON, Ind. — Former Columbus North High School Auditorium Director and Drama Coach John Johnson, 52, Columbus, appeared at an initial hearing in Jennings Circuit Court, entering a plea of not guilty with a judge setting his bond at $50,000.

Johnson’s trial date was set for 9 a.m. March 27 with a final attorney conference set for March 3.

On Monday, Jennings County Prosecutor Brian Belding charged Johnson, 52, with child solicitation a Level 4 felony court records show. Level 4 felonies can carry a potential jail sentence of two to 12 years. Johnson was arrested at a Walmart in North Vernon at about 3:30 p.m. Nov. 23 on initial charges of child solicitation and disseminating harmful material to a minor.

Jennings Circuit Court Judge Murielle S. Bright ordered that if Johnson posts bond and is released from jail he must continue counseling at Centerstone and was ordered that he have no contact with children in any form.

Johnson is being represented by Franklin attorney Russell Johnson.

A probable cause affidavit filed Monday in Jennings Circuit Court states that Johnson’s arrest stemmed from a Predator Catchers Indianapolis sting operation that was conducted on the gay dating app Grindr and other messaging platforms over the course of at least several weeks.

Predator Catchers Indianapolis is a civilian group inspired by Dateline NBC’s television show “To Catch a Predator” that seeks to expose online predators, according to the group’s website.

The group’s president, Eric Schmutte, notified the Jennings County Sheriff’s Department that he had set up a decoy profile on the app as a fictitious 14-year-old boy and had been communicating with an adult male who was using the alias “Joe” and had arranged to meet him at a Walmart in North Vernon, according to court documents.

“Joe,” who law enforcement officials later identified as Johnson, initiated a conversation with Schmutte’s decoy profile on Grindr, the affidavit states. When Schmutte, who was posing as a minor on the app, told Johnson that he was 14 years old, Johnson allegedly said, “age doesn’t bother me at all” and then steered the conversation toward sex, according to the probable cause affidavit, which includes copies of the messages.

Johnson also is accused of discussing sex acts that he wanted to perform, proposed meeting the teenager in person to have sex and told the decoy profile that he had previously had engaged in sexual behavior with another 14-year-old boy that he had met on Grindr. At one point in the conversation, Johnson encouraged the decoy profile to set up a Snapchat account just for “hookups” as Johnson himself claimed he had done.

The two arranged to meet in the alcohol aisle at the Walmart in North Vernon this past Wednesday afternoon to allegedly engage in sexual behavior in another location, the probable cause affidavit states. Before meeting, Johnson allegedly sent two pictures of his exposed genitals to the decoy profile and asked for a “naughty shot.”

Johnson also is accused of sending pictures of himself in his vehicle wearing what law enforcement described as a blue jacket or hoodie with a lighter-colored shirt underneath, including one picture from the parking lot of the North Vernon Walmart, according to court filings.

Inside the Walmart, Schmutte confronted Johnson, who claimed to be there to buy some cereal. “Do you want to explain yourself, man? …What are you doing meeting a 14-year-old boy?” Schmutte asked Johnson, according to a video posted on Predator Catchers Indianapolis’ Facebook page.

In the video, Johnson initially denied being there to meet a 14-year-old boy that he believed he had been chatting with online.

Schmutte, who followed him around Walmart while filming him, then showed Johnson a picture he allegedly sent to the decoy profile earlier that day in which he is wearing the same clothes that was wearing in the Walmart. “That looks like what you’re wearing,” Schmutte said.

At first, Johnson denied that the picture was of him but later conceded that “it looks like me” before eventually saying, “you’re right.” At one point in the conversation, Schmutte says, “You screwed yourself. What are you doing?” Johnson replies, “I don’t know. …I have no idea.”

“I appreciate you giving me a reality check for something that I should not be doing, and I appreciate you taking the time to do it,” Johnson told Schmutte later in the video shortly before he is arrested and taken into custody.

Johnson had previously posted $2,555 bond last week and was released from the Jennings County Jail. However, Bright granted prosecutors’ request Monday for a warrant to take Johnson back into custody after Jennings County Jail officials “erroneously” allowed the former high school drama coach to be released after posting bond.

Jennings County Prosecutor Brian Belding said it was an “oversight” by jail officials to release Johnson, as suspects who are arrested on charges of felony child solicitation in Jennings County must remain in jail pending their initial hearing.

Upon learning of the allegations against Johnson last week, the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. immediately terminated Johnson’s employment at Columbus North High School, where he was an hourly employee, BCSC officials said earlier.

For more on this story, see Saturday’s Republic.