The Riverbank man suspected of molesting children from his Oakdale church was arraigned today in Stanislaus County Superior Court on four felony counts of lewd and lascivious acts with children.
Jerry Franklin Johnson, 56, was arrested during a traffic stop in Riverbank Tuesday. Authorities say the arrest followed reports by eight people who said they were abused by Johnson and that the abuse might have extended back 27 years.
Prosecutors could only bring charges related to three of the suspected victims because of the statute of limitations, said Deputy District Attorney Nate Baker. The four counts against the three victims involved what he called "substantial sexual conduct" that allowed prosecutors to press charges even though they had not previously been reported to police.
"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 abuse to Oakdale police, according to 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. Singh said Johnson and the victims had all attended the same church, now called the Sierra Avenue Church of Christ.
"This is so shocking to us," said Evangelist Matt Trent. "This is not what we’re about. It’s been devastating to everyone involved."
Trent, called an evangelist or preacher rather than a pastor in the Church of Christ tradition, said thechurch began in 1986 at the Oakdale Grange building. In 1989, the church moved to Third Street. In 2005, they moved to the present location on Sierra Avenue. About 120-150 members attend services.
Trent said Johnson, known as Jeff to church members, was not a leader or volunteer in the congregation.
The charges accuse Johnson of molesting the 7-year-old in March and acts against the other two victims when they were 8 or 9 years old. Both are now in their 20s, Baker said.
In the case of the second victim, Johnson is accused of sometime between Jan. 22, 1994, and Jan. 21, 1995, molesting an 8-year-old girl in a van. The charges suggest another count against the girl in the defendant’s bedroom. Johnson is accused of a fourth count against a third victim, an 8- or 9-year-old boy in the defendant’s bedroom. That allegedly happened between May 30, 1990 and May 29, 1992.
Baker wouldn’t say where the acts took place against the most recent victim.
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, he asked court Commissioner Ann Ameral to increase Johnson’s bail to $250,000 from $125,000. She instead set the sum at $350,000 based, she said, on the multiple charges. 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 appeared wearing an orange-and-white-striped jumpsuit, and did not have an attorney.
Ameral appointed the public defender’s office to represent him and entered a not guilty plea on his behalf. He is next scheduled to be in court May 7.