The Riverbank man accused of sexually molesting three youngsters over the past 18 years was described Thursday as a "gentle giant" who was fond of giving candy to children.
Jerry Franklin Johnson, 56, made his first appearance in Stanislaus County Superior Court, where he was arraigned on four felony counts of lewd and lascivious acts with children. A judge entered a not guilty plea for him.
All the victims were members of an Oakdale church at which Johnson was a member, and some were Johnson's family members, according to Stanislaus County sheriff's detectives.
Johnson was arrested during a traffic stop in Riverbank on Tuesday after sheriff's detectives gathered enough information to issue an arrest warrant. Authorities say the arrest followed reports by eight people who said they were abused as children by Johnson and that the abuse might have gone back 27 years.
Never miss a local story.
Prosecutors could bring charges related to only three of the eight reports because of the statute of limitations, Deputy District Attorney Nate Baker said. The four felony counts involved what he called "substantial sexual conduct" that allowed prosecutors to press charges despite their not being reported to police previously.
Also "the fact that there are multiple victims is a factor," Baker said. "This is a case we are going to treat with our full attention."
The allegations came to light April 15 when a 7-year-old girl reported being abused to Oakdale police, said deputy Royjindar Singh, spokesman for the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department.
During the investigation, a man and six women came forward and said they, too, had been molested by Johnson. All had attended the Church of Christ in Oakdale where Johnson had been a member, Singh said.
"This is so shocking to us," said Matt Trent, evangelist for the church. "This is not what we're about. It's been devastating to everyone involved."
Church started in 1986
Trent, called an evangelist or preacher rather than a pastor in the Church of Christ tradition, said he has worked "on and off with the church for the last 10 years." The church began in 1986 with about 30 people meeting at the Oakdale grange building.
In 1989, the church moved to Third Street. In 2005, it moved to its present location on Sierra Avenue and church members worship in a building once used as a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall and a restaurant. About 120 to 150 members attend services, held Sunday mornings and Sunday and Wednesday evenings.
Trent said the church didn't know about any allegations and took action quickly after hearing about the recent charges by the 7-year-old girl.
"We found out about it on Monday, the 31st of March," he said. "The next evening, we had a meeting of leaders. (Johnson) wouldn't meet with us, so on April 2, we withdrew fellowship from him. It's like excommunication. It's the official action of discipline of putting someone out of the church."
Trent said Johnson was not a leader in the church, nor was he in a volunteer role, such as a Sunday school teacher.
"He was kind of considered a gentle giant," Trent said. "I'm not sure how he went about doing what (he's accused of). He was just an extremely friendly person. He gave children candy and stuff like that, but it wasn't in the way that raised any suspicions.
"We're so ill-equipped to deal with this," Trent added. "We're sheep; we were taken advantage of by a wolf. We all trust each other and love each other."
No one told the church
Explaining why the alleged long-term abuse against youngsters in the church wasn't exposed earlier, Trent said no one reported it to church officials.
"We know now in retrospect that individuals had heard things about individual cases, but it was kept in families," he said. "The real serious offenses were all within his family."
As the father of children ages 5 and 3, Trent said he "of course" had thought about their vulnerability, along with other youngsters in the church.
"We have probably 50 kids under the age of 16 in the congregation," he said. "A very small number of them were (alleged) victims of the abuse."
Although the church has withdrawn fellowship from Johnson, it has not extended the action to Johnson's wife or his two adult sons, both in their 30s.
"We don't hold his family responsible," Trent said. "Our hope is that he will repent. The discipline is for the purpose of protecting the church and with the hope that he will change his life."
Nor is the church ignoring the victims, many of whom are adults and speaking up for the first time.
"We've done our best to comfort the victims and encourage them to seek help," Trent said.
According to property records, Johnson lives in a home near the edge of a small cul-de-sac in Riverbank with his wife, Dixie June Johnson.
A neighbor, who declined to give his name, said most of the neighbors moved into the cul-de-sac in 1994, and he remembered the Johnson moving in about 10 years ago.
According to the neighbor, Johnson worked as a mechanic and his wife operated a day care at the home for the past several years. The neighbor said he would often see the kids from the day care play in the front yard.
He said the children usually would come outside to play on a warm day, but Johnson's house appeared vacant Thursday afternoon. No one answered the front door when a reporter knocked. Attempts to reach Johnson's family by phone were unsuccessful.
The home's front yard was strewn with multicolored silly string, while a small, opened box of colored chalk sat on a chair near the front door.
A box of Huggies diapers sat near the front door on top of chalk writing on the home's walkway. It appeared to be the scribbles of a child.
Arrest shocks neighbors
The neighbor said news of Johnson's arrest left the neighbors in disbelief. He said he questioned his children, ages 4 to 12, but they told him nothing happened to them.
"He's really a nice guy," said the neighbor. "It's shocking to all of us here. We just hope he is innocent until proven guilty."
The charges brought Thursday accused Johnson of molesting the 7-year-old girl in March, but Baker, the prosecutor, wouldn't say where the alleged acts took place.
The acts against the other two victims occurred when they were 8 or 9 years old. Both are now in their 20s, Baker said.
Johnson is accused of molesting a then-8-year-old girl in a van from Jan. 22, 1994, to Jan. 21, 1995, according to the criminal complaint filed in Stanislaus County Superior Court. The charges suggest another count involving the girl took place in the defendant's bedroom.
Johnson is accused of a fourth count against a third victim, a then 8- or 9-year-old boy. That also occurred in the defendant's bedroom, according to the complaint. That abuse is alleged to have happened from May 30, 1990, to May 29, 1992.
The charges include an enhancement for multiple victims, making Johnson eligible for a life sentence if convicted of all counts, Baker said.
Given the potential for a life sentence, Baker asked court Commissioner Ann Ameral to increase Johnson's bail from $125,000 to $250,000. Ameral set his bail at $350,000. Johnson is being held at the Stanislaus County Jail.
No victims or supporters of Johnson appeared to be in the audience during his brief arraignment. He wore an orange-and-white-striped jumpsuit and did not have an attorney.
Ameral appointed the public defender's office to represent Johnson and entered a not guilty plea on his behalf.
The Sheriff's Department asks anyone with information about this case to call Detectives James Walsh or Mark Copeland of Riverbank Police Services at 869-7162. Callers can leave an anonymous tip by calling CrimeStoppers at 521-4636 and may be eligible for a cash reward.
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2012. Bee staff writer Inga Miller can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2324. Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2394.