Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Authorities conclude Johnson lied about rape charge

Supreme Court dismisses murder conviction appeal

Express Staff Writer

Blaine County authorities have concluded that convicted Bellevue murderer Sarah M. Johnson lied about being raped or having sex with another inmate while she was awaiting trial in the county jail in Hailey.

"It was found there was not any physical evidence to support the fact that Sarah Johnson was having a sexual relationship with inmate Elvis Mahurin," Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling announced Monday.

Femling and Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Thomas said their conclusions were based on an independent investigation by the Tri-County Sheriff's Association and an impartial review by the Bannock County Prosecuting Attorney's Office.

Thomas said Bannock County Prosecutor Mark Heideman determined that the allegations "lack credibility and cannot be corroborated by evidence."

Johnson, now 19, alleged she was "subjected to rape and other sexual acts" in March and April of 2004 while awaiting trial on murder charges in the Blaine County Jail. She was convicted in 2005 of killing her parents, Alan and Diane Johnson, in Bellevue in 2003. Johnson is currently serving two life sentences in the Pocatello Women's Correction Center.

In another development, the Idaho Supreme Court last week dismissed an appeal on Johnson's murder convictions. The high court ruled Thursday that the appeal "was not timely filed."

Attorney Bob Pangburn, a member of the Johnson defense team, told the Express Tuesday that the deadline for filing was confusing because there was an amended judgment after Johnson was sentenced. Furthermore, he said Johnson told him the appeal was going to be filed by the State Appellate Public Defender Office, but he filed the appeal himself, hoping there was still time, after he found out it hadn't been done.

The announcement Monday on the Johnson rape allegations culminated an investigative process that started more than a year ago.

Femling said he first initiated an investigation in January 2005 when former inmate Justin Wagstaff alleged that Johnson had sex with Mahurin while the jail kitchen was being remodeled. Femling said his investigation uncovered no evidence of a sexual encounter and Wagstaff later admitted he lied about the incident.

A second allegation surfaced in June 2005, following Johnson's conviction, when pre-sentence investigator Patrick Dunn contacted Femling.

"The investigator had received a call from a female stating she was a friend of Sarah Johnson and that Johnson had told her that she had been raped in the Blaine County Jail," Femling said. "Once again, I started an investigation, but the reporting party refused to talk to us and did not want to get involved."

Femling said he then requested the investigation by the Tri-County Sheriff's Association, an eastern Idaho law enforcement cooperative.

A third allegation came forth in July 2005 when Mark Rader, one of Johnson's attorneys, filed a tort claim against Blaine County alleging rape and "other sexual acts" against Johnson.

Femling said the Tri-County investigators interviewed nearly 100 people, including Johnson and numerous jail inmates.

"None of the jail staff or inmates ever witnessed any sexual relations between Johnson and Mahurin, and inmates told investigators that it would be impossible to carry out without getting caught," Femling said.

"Some of the inmates told investigators that Johnson is a liar and had ulterior motives in making the accusations," he said.

Femling said the allegations and investigations have been detrimental to the sheriff's department. "It's hurt a lot of people with my office who have had to be subjected to this investigation and subject to criticism by the community," he said.

"I hope that this is the last time I have to talk about Sarah Johnson -- end of case."

Blaine County still faces the possibility of a lawsuit related to the allegations. The "notice of tort claim," filed on Johnson's behalf last summer, is a legally required prerequisite for potential lawsuits against governmental entities.

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