The Killer and Mrs. Johnson

A gruesome crime. A bizarre defense. Can a crusading author reopen her best friend's case?

"Never having been involved in a criminal investigation, I didn't know how these things worked," she says. "I just did what they told me: talk to Jacob about the emotional and physical abuse. Then they wanted me to talk to him about sexual abuse--and I have a high-school diploma. I wasn't qualified to do any of this."

Johnson says that half the profits from her book, which has almost sold out a modest first printing of 3,000 copies, are being placed in a Justice for Jacob fund. But the book is only one component of her crusade. She visits Ind twice a month at CSP and has worked closely with him to retain Dennis Sladek, a Colorado Springs lawyer who is seeking a hearing asking for a new trial, based on "new evidence" stemming from Johnson's own research into the case.

Two weeks ago Sladek filed a civil lawsuit on Ind's behalf, suing nine employees of the Woodland Park School District--teachers, counselors and administrators who Ind contends knew something about the abuse he suffered from his parents but failed to report it to the proper authorities. Ind claims to have been "damaged" as a result of their negligence, arguing that a vigorous child-abuse investigation could have prevented the murders--and spared him a life sentence.

School-district officials did not respond to Westword's requests for comment on the unusual lawsuit, but it's doubtful that the action has won Mary Ellen Johnson any new friends in Woodland Park. That doesn't seem to bother her, though. Her efforts have already drawn fire from various individuals connected with the case, who have questioned her objectivity, her motives and her ability to sort out fact from fiction.

"I have no warm feelings toward Mary Ellen Johnson," says Shaun Kaufman, the lead defense attorney in the Ind trial and the target of some of the harshest criticism in Johnson's book. Kaufman contends that Johnson "lost perspective" on the case and that her charges of an inadequate defense are "a crock of shit." "We gave the jury what we could have the jury hear without crossing the line of fabrication," he says.

Kaufman isn't the author's only detractor. "On talk shows, [the criticism] has pretty much run the gamut," Johnson says, "from 'You're making a million dollars' to 'You're in a midlife crisis, you're nuts, and you're having a sexual relationship with this kid.' But I know what my motivations are, and my family and friends have stuck by me."

Still, Johnson admits, there are days when she wishes she'd never heard of Jacob Ind.

"This is the first crazy thing I've done in my life," she says. "I want it to end so badly, I can't tell you. As much as I love Jacob, and as much as I'd never back out of this thing, I wish it was over. But I wish it would have a happy ending."

Mary Ellen Johnson's sunny home sits at the end of a cul-de-sac in a hilltop subdivision west of Woodland Park. The living room is decorated with family pictures--Johnson and her husband, Mark, a business manager for the electrical workers' union in Colorado Springs, two sons and a daughter. Reproductions of medieval artwork line the walls; castles adorn floor tiles. The Doors' greatest hits play softly on the stereo. Upstairs is a poster of that mystical troubador, Jim Morrison, and a blown-up reproduction of the cover of The Lion and the Leopard, Johnson's 1985 novel of Plantagenet England--which, despite its bodice-ripper artwork, Johnson insists is not a romance.

"All I ever wanted to be was a writer," Johnson says. "Now I'm not sure I care anymore. I may want to write a book about the Department of Corrections, but I don't have the proper mindset now. I'm just angry."

As Johnson tells it, Jacob Ind introduced her to a world far more strange and deadly than fourteenth-century England. Her daughter had been a classmate of Ind's; after the murders hit the newspapers, she decided to write to him in jail. She wasn't aiming to write a book at that point, she says, but to offer what consolation she could.

"I had to weigh it carefully," she says. "Did I really want to get involved? I had just come out of a deep depression over my dad's death from colon cancer, a situation where I should have questioned the doctors more closely, and I guess I was looking for something. I knew I couldn't just come into Jacob's life and leave, but I also told myself that if I ever got involved in something again, I would not leave it up to the professionals."

She shakes her head ruefully. "It's been a massive undertaking," she says. "I had no idea. I was so naive."

She wrote the letter, and Ind wrote back. Soon he invited her to visit him. Johnson, who'd never known anyone in trouble with the law before, began to make regular trips to the county jail. At first they talked mostly about music, but as the weeks rolled by, Ind began to recount incidents he hadn't told even his own lawyers, whom he saw far less frequently than he did Johnson.

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