Sharles Johnson was on the phone with his mother when the doorbell rang at his home in Bolingbrook, Illinois. It was a Tuesday afternoon, and the stay-at-home dad was tending to his four youngest kids while the other two were finishing the school day and their mother was working at Target. He went to the door and saw three cops standing on the porch. One was holding a photo that looked like a blown-up version of Sharles's Colorado driver's license.
"Are you Sharles Johnson?" the cop asked. "There's an arrest warrant out for you in Colorado."
Sharles didn't have to hear the charges — felony theft and three felony counts of forgery — to know where they'd come from in Colorado: Jefferson County. Four years earlier, his kids had been taken away by the Jefferson County Department of Human Services — and even though he'd been vindicated in that case, Jeffco Human Services was soon alleging that Sharles's family had collected $5,000 in Medicaid, food stamps and other benefits that they didn't deserve. The county had recently sent him a promissory note that laid out a payment plan: $150 a month for three years, and if he missed a payment by ten days, his bill would be sent to collections.
Jefferson County Department of Human Services
But now, on February 26, 2008 — the day after the first payment was due — police were at his door with a warrant dated three weeks earlier, alleging that Sharles Johnson had stolen that $5,000 in benefits. Sharles quickly got off the phone with his dumbfounded mother — who oversees agents for the IRS — and called his wife, Rebekiah, telling her to get home as fast as she could. Officers with the Bolingbrook Police Department knew of the Johnsons: Rebekiah had just finished their citizens' police academy, because she and Sharles wanted to teach their kids that not all cops were bad, that they could trust authority again. Sensitive to what the family had been through in Colorado, the officers waited the hour it took for Rebekiah to get home instead of calling a caseworker to the house.
Sharles spent the next ten days in the Will County Jail — without bond.
Rebekiah told eight-year-old Sheyenne and seven-year-old Shakiah that Daddy had to go back to Colorado to fight the mean people. Sheyenne sent her father a drawing of him as Superman. "I miss you," it said. "And you gotted us back from the mean people and loved us very much and I'm like you. And you are the greatest superman." Shakiah wrote his father a letter listing all of his siblings' names and ages, and asking him not to forget them.
On March 6, two Jefferson County sheriff's deputies arrived to fly Sharles back to Colorado. Humiliated, he tried to make it look like his handcuffed hands were just in his pockets as he was led through Chicago Midway Airport and onto a Frontier Airlines flight. He spent one night in the Jefferson County jail before his bond hearing the next morning. The judge saw that a $10,000 bond had been set when the case was filed, and the prosecutor argued that it should remain. But Bob Gunnett, Sharles's former neighbor, a 77-year-old retired teacher and Army veteran who'd become an advocate for the family, had brought a copy of the promissory note to court, as well as a receipt for the first payment. The judge asked Bob if he'd be willing to pay a $1,000 bond for Sharles, and Bob said he would.
"The bottom line is that he's alleged to have stolen government benefits," the prosecutor argued. "Apparently, he's agreed that he stole government benefits or there wouldn't be a note to pay them back. We extradited him from Illinois to bring him back here at taxpayer expense. Without sufficient surety, there's no assurance that he's going to appear in court. So coupling that with his felony history here, we ask the court to leave the bond as set."
But Sharles doesn't have a felony history — in Jefferson County or anywhere else, as he and Bob were quick to point out.
"Bond is $100 cash," the judge ruled. Bob paid it, and Sharles was free. For now.
Sharles Johnson grew up in Flossmoor, a Chicago suburb, across the street from Muhammad Ali's former wife Khalilah and their children, in a house with a maid and a nanny. His mom worked for the IRS; his dad owned gas stations. He was close to both, even after they divorced when he was twelve. They were one of very few black families in a white neighborhood, and Sharles's mom, Curcelia Johnson, says the only time Sharles ever got into trouble was when he stood up to someone picking on his little sister. "He's always loved kids," she says. "When I got married again, my stepson was eleven, and he would come get him and take him to work. He always loved being around kids, mentoring kids."
Sharles moved to Minnesota to attend North Central Bible College (now known as North Central University). Many of his fellow students said they'd never known a black person before, but Sharles liked meeting different people and quickly felt at home.
He studied children's education and psychology while working at New Horizon Academy, a daycare center, then spent two years as a residential-care worker with the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, counseling abused kids at Bush Memorial Children's Center while still a student. "We made an exception for him," says Tom Torkelson, Bush's group living director. "We liked what he was bringing to the table. He had a good balance of skills. He was playful but strict and had a lot of creativity."
In 1997, Sharles studied in Sweden for a semester and traveled with other students to minister to children in Lithuania. "His approach and communication with children was a role model for us," fellow students Christian and Lotta Strajnic would later write in a letter to the court. "Children loved to listen, play, talk and learn from him."
Back in Minnesota, Sharles graduated with a degree in children's ministry in 1998. He was thinking about moving to Sweden when he met Rebekiah at a prayer meeting. They married in September 1999, and by October the newlyweds were on their way to Colorado so that Rebekiah could attend Colorado Christian University.
In 2001, after their second child was born, Rebekiah stopped going to school. She and Sharles split child-care duties while she worked in sales for MCI and Sharles worked nights as a security guard and at Blockbuster. In 2003, they switched shifts when Sharles found a job he loved counseling young men with addiction problems at Lost and Found Inc., a Christian ministry. He would work from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. most days, and then Rebekiah would work until 10 p.m.
They were anxiously awaiting a fourth child when Rebekiah had a miscarriage. A few months later, Sharles's dad died as the result of a mugging in Chicago. He left behind a twelve-year-old son, Brandon, and Sharles got custody of his half-brother. But Brandon didn't want to live in Colorado and was constantly calling the police and showing up at neighbors' houses to say that Sharles was beating him.
Rebekiah and Sharles were having problems, too. When a friend in Maryland asked Sharles if he wanted to help pastor a church he was starting there, they thought a change might do them good. In March 2004, Sharles took their three kids on a road trip to check out the area.
Rebekiah resented being left to watch over her half-brother-in-law. "Brandon was very hard to be around, and he didn't listen to anything," she remembers. "He did his own thing. After school, he wouldn't come home. He'd go to a friend's house and I'd have to go find him. Or he'd stay after school and I wouldn't know."
Sharles surprised her by coming home from Maryland earlier than he'd originally planned, but Rebekiah was still furious. The two were barely speaking.
On April 8, two days later, Rebekiah got up early so that she could get to CCU and enroll in some classes. Unable to start her car, she took the family van and left a note saying where she'd gone. Sharles woke up to find Brandon still at home. He needed to put all the kids in the van in order to take Brandon to school, so he got Rebekiah's car going and headed toward CCU to switch vehicles with her. On the way, he spotted the van pulling into a McDonald's; there was a man with Rebekiah. Sharles started honking and pulled up close — so close that he hit the van, giving Rebekiah's car a flat tire.
When Sharles got out to change the tire, the two men started arguing. Sharles didn't like the way the guy, a friend Rebekiah was giving a ride to work, touched his wife, and he was brandishing a jack handle while he yelled. The police arrived, and Sharles was charged with menacing, while Rebekiah told officers some things she now wishes she hadn't — like that she was thinking about leaving her husband. By the time authorities relayed information about the incident to Jeffco's human-services department, it was described as a domestic-violence case in which Sharles had stalked Rebekiah.
When Rebekiah returned home from the Lakewood police station, she found police officers and a social-services caseworker waiting for her. A truancy officer had called, and when Brandon answered the phone, he'd said he was babysitting. An officer had been dispatched to the house; Brandon had told him that his half-brother hit him. The officer was also concerned that Brandon, who, according to his school, was developmentally delayed, had been left alone with the kids, and about the condition of the house, "which was in general disarray, although the family had ample food," a subsequent court filing read. "The kitchen table and counters were cluttered with various items and the floor appeared dirty. The caseworkers were unable to enter the younger children's bedroom due to the amount of clutter."
Rebekiah tried to explain that she was packing for a move and had taken everything into the kids' room while they were out of town, not knowing they'd be coming home a week early.
Human-services officials took Brandon into protective custody. They told Rebekiah that she could keep her kids only if she agreed to a no-contact order against her husband, which would keep Sharles away from her and the kids. The next day, Jeffco's human-services department filed a dependency-and-neglect complaint against both parents. A Guardian ad Litem (GAL) was appointed to conduct an independent investigation and represent the children; both parents were appointed their own attorneys.
Before a court hearing that day, Rebekiah says, her lawyer, Laurie Cohen-Ringler, told her she should do whatever the GAL said, because that is who the judge listens to. In the hallway, she encountered Gina Bishofs, the GAL. "Gina kept saying that if I didn't file a no-contact order, they would take my kids," Rebekiah remembers. "If I let my husband anywhere near them, they would take my kids."
In court, Sharles was described as an abusive father and husband.
At her lawyer's insistence, Rebekiah didn't say a word. The no-contact order was filed.
Sharles moved out of the house. That night was the first one he'd ever spent away from his children, ages four, three and one.
The next time Sharles and Rebekiah appeared in court, Magistrate Babette Norton removed the protective order between the parents — which meant that Sharles and Rebekiah could see each other — but said she wanted to wait for more evaluation before removing the no-contact order between Sharles and the kids.
Sharles was still living away from his family on May 11 when he and Rebekiah got in an argument on the 16th Street Mall. Sharles threw change at Rebekiah and told her to take the bus; then he relented and dropped her off at the house. Rebekiah was so mad, though, that she stormed off and called police to report the incident. Officers arrived to find Sharles alone with the kids, in violation of the no-contact order; he was also charged with a domestic-violence assault.
Though that charge was subsequently dropped, human-services employees showed up three weeks later, on June 4, to take the kids from the Johnsons' home and place them in foster care.
The Johnsons' neighbor, Bob Gunnett, watched the awful scene as the crying kids were taken away by police. Bob and his wife, Evelyn, had never really talked to Sharles and Rebekiah — but the next day, the Johnsons showed up on their doorstep. "We sat down, the four of us, and they just kind of poured their hearts out," Bob recalls. "They were very down, very depressed. They were in a lot of pain. Their kids had been taken. We related as parents. We really sort of became their foster parents."
They went with Sharles and Rebekiah to their June 8 court hearing before Magistrate Marianne Tims. Before that hearing, the Johnsons and their lawyers met with the county attorney and the caseworker. Sharles and Rebekiah say the Jeffco officials promised them that if they admitted guilt on the D&N charge and agreed to a treatment plan, they would get their kids back in two weeks; if Sharles continued to insist on a trial, it couldn't be scheduled for months, and the kids would have to wait in foster care. It seemed to the Johnsons that they had no choice if they wanted their children. So in court, they agreed to the "department maintaining temporary legal custody of the children for now," according to the transcript, and admitted that "the children's environment was injurious to their welfare on the date of intake" and agreed "to address all issues in treatment that were raised in the original petition."
The treatment plan had an official target date of July 2005 for returning the kids home — more than a year from the hearing date — and called for the parents to undergo domestic-violence evaluation and therapy. In the meantime, they were allowed supervised visits with their kids. At the first one, Sheyenne looked at her parents like she'd seen a ghost, while Shakiah drew a picture with the caption "Daddy's dead. Daddy's gone."
"It was the most heartbreaking thing I had ever seen," Bob says. "Sheyenne was starting to get tall and gangly, and when she saw her daddy, she just wrapped around him. It looked like he couldn't pry her loose, and she had the saddest face I've ever seen a child have. It was as if there had been a death. They were in deep, deep grief."
Two weeks came and went, and Sharles and Rebekiah did not get their children back — contrary to what they say they were promised. They no longer trusted anyone who'd been appointed to their case and went looking for an independent therapist. In July, they found Cherri Sabo, a licensed professional counselor at Rocky Mountain Counseling Associates. When Sabo got permission to observe one of the family's supervised visits, she says it seemed that the parents could do no right in the department's eyes.
"The children, as I observed it, ran to greet the parents and were very responsive, but the caseworker noted that the kids were physically violent to Mom, without her correcting them," Sabo remembers. "But what I got from our sessions is they understood the fear and anger. 'They don't trust us to rescue them,' they said. So they would rightfully, in that situation, use refocusing when the kids were angry."
Shakiah's hair had been braided so tightly that his scalp was stretched. As Rebekiah took the braids out, he cried and fussed; the caseworker, Cheryl Hyink, observed that Rebekiah was hurting him.
"There were two different realities, I guess," Sabo says. "It was like watching two people tell two different stories, and the only thing that was the same were the actors."
Their kids had been gone more than three months when Sharles and Rebekiah finally had their next hearing, on September 20. At Sharles's insistence, they were back in front of Magistrate Norton. Bob and Cherri were there to vouch for them, and the kids had been appointed a new GAL, Kurt Metzger, who had spent hours observing visits and talking to the parents, caseworker and therapist.
Sharles and Rebekiah were asking not only to get their kids back, but to be allowed to move the whole family to Maryland. Both of their attorneys argued that there was no reason the children wouldn't be safe with them, and Metzger emphatically agreed. He said the charge that had started the case was the "direct result of lack of communication between a married couple" and that he didn't agree with past reports that "father is controlling, mother is a victim of domestic violence and has not been able to assert herself in accepting that she's a victim."
"I'm viewing [this case] very differently from the department," Metzger said. "I do not believe that there are protective issues. I believe these children should be home at this point. I believe that neither mother nor father are going to endanger these children.... My conclusion, from my investigation, is that they are not going to be harmed, that there's no reason for all these people to be involved in their lives, that they should be able to move on with their lives and, basically, we should all get out of their lives."
County Attorney Lawrence Bowling disagreed; he said the department was recommending the children stay in foster care. He reminded the court of Brandon's accusations, of the change-throwing incident, and said that human services "continues to have a concern that Mr. Johnson uses inappropriate physical abuse at home to discipline these children."
Both Bowling and caseworker Cheryl Hyink mentioned how Sharles had allegedly head-butted his son during a supervised visit — even though the county's own investigator had deemed the allegation unfounded after the kids explained that Shakiah had run into a wall at the foster home.
"Am I correct that there have never been marks on these children?" the magistrate finally noted.
She then asked Bowling to explain the department's position. Were they recommending that parental rights be terminated?
Bowling said no, but they didn't think Sharles Johnson was yet at the point where the children would be safe with him. Hyink said that they should wait another three months to reassess, and then either move to terminate parental rights or return the kids home.
"If nothing changes in terms of what Mr. Johnson has done, will you file a motion to terminate both parents' rights?" the magistrate asked Bowling.
"Honestly, Your Honor, from a legal perspective, I don't know that that's a motion we can prevail on," Bowling replied.
"Then what in the world are we doing?" Norton asked. "That's my question.... If we don't think we can prevail in terms of termination of parental rights, then we've just kept the kids out of the home and done nothing except maybe irritate the situation even more."
Sabo, the Johnsons and Bob Gunnett all agree that at this point, the magistrate went off the record. She told Sharles and Rebekiah that they had been "done an injustice." Before the hearing, she'd been given a stack of e-mails Sharles had written the department. This case was not about the children, she said now; the county was just mad at the father.
Back on the record, Norton talked about race and religion and the difference between discipline and abuse. "Somewhere along the line, this case went really nuts," she said. "When I read these papers, I can see the amount of pain that's here, and the struggle around 'I will do anything, say anything, do anything to get my kids back.' That makes these people different from a lot of our clients...
"Are you angry? Oh, yeah," she continued. "Do I think as a result of this process you're very clear that you don't ever want to come into contact with the Department of Human Services again in your life? Yeah, I'm really clear about that. But do I think that what we've been doing for the last five months is actually giving you the tools that you wanted? I don't think we did that. I think we failed in that because we got busy in this other thing."
Norton then ordered that the kids be returned home and said the family was free to move to Maryland. Once they settled there, she said, she'd like Sharles and Rebekiah to go to a parenting class, "because that's what we didn't get done, and we didn't get it done because we were fighting. Part of that is my fault, because I didn't grab hold of this case at the very beginning.... I just didn't take the time, because I brought you in on one of those let's-see-everybody-in-the-world days, so I didn't spend the time to talk."
Bowling and Hyink asked if the department could have 24 hours to "transition" the kids home.
No, the magistrate said, she didn't see any reason why the kids shouldn't go home that day.
At 6:30 p.m. on September 20, the kids were returned to their parents in the human-services parking lot, in front of an audience of lingering employees.
Three days later, a woman with the department's fraud-investigation unit left a card on the Johnsons' door.
At a meeting with department officials a week later, Rebekiah and Sharles learned that the county wanted them to pay $4,300 in foster-care fees. The Johnsons said it would be difficult because they'd both lost their jobs while fighting to get their children and were collecting unemployment. As they stood to leave, Sharles apologized for his dirty hands, explaining that he worked on cars.
The fraud-investigation unit soon contacted them again, saying they'd received an anonymous tip that Sharles was employed as a mechanic. They didn't seem interested that Sharles had just been working on the couple's own cars.
"I've never seen anything that looked so much like a vendetta," Sabo remembers. "I told them, 'If I were you, I'd leave town now. We'll send your stuff later.'" Sabo also warned them that their kids would need time to adjust to being back with their parents.
She was right. "Sheyenne was so depressed," Rebekiah says. "If Sharles went outside, she would freak out, be bawling, 'Where's Daddy?' Shaque had total separation anxiety. He used to be Mama's boy, but it was like he didn't want to be bothered with us. We still see him deal with that. He secludes himself, will go off and play by himself and not want to play with anybody. Shakiah was very, very angry. He would flip out at the littlest things. If he got mad, he would start hitting."
After Sabo sat down and talked with the kids, she was so disturbed that she wrote a letter to the judge asking that the foster home and human services be investigated. She was certain that the county's actions had done more harm than good. "That's the biggest thing that bothers me," she says. "In the cases where they don't know all the facts, that child is the one who suffers the trauma. I can't even tell you if that damage can be undone. This is like legalized kidnapping."
And not only the kids had been damaged. "You're going to be angry," Sabo told Sharles. "This could turn into bitter, hateful, spiteful, or this could be for good."
The Johnson family moved to Maryland in October 2004 and slowly settled into a new life. Rebekiah gave birth to a baby girl. Life was better, but Sabo was right: Sharles was angry.
When he wasn't spending time with his kids — Sheyenne was frightened she'd be snatched away from kindergarten — he researched child-welfare and foster-care practices and policies. He talked to administrators in other departments, read everything he could find and requested documents. He wrote numerous complaints about his case and sent letters to county, state and federal officials. He talked to other people who'd had trouble with social services and ultimately created a website, Voice for Our Children, as a way to organize all the information he'd been gathering.
"He swore that no one would ever go through this again without the knowledge he learned," Rebekiah says. "It had been something that had been in the back of his mind while we were involved in it, really just to help other people out there in that situation where government has so much power to do whatever it wants, it doesn't care about the truth anymore. It was wanting to be able to help people that are trying to tell the truth, but they've got a whole system against them."
The website — which is harshly critical of Jefferson County Human Services and names several officials — says that VFOC's mission is to prevent the abuse of families by educating them on how to deal with social services. "We seek to promote the welfare of all parents and their children in the foster care system," it reads. "We will educate the family on the dangers of being uninformed in dealing with many aspects of social services. We will confront foster care when it's not needed and used as a tool to manipulate innocent families."
Though the contents of the website are mostly impassioned ranting, it also includes Johnson's e-mail and phone number in Illinois, where he and Rebekiah and their growing family moved last year to be closer to Sharles's mother, who was ill. Sharles has gotten numerous calls from people mired in social-services cases, and he's volunteered his time to help them.
So far, that's been about nine families — five of them in Colorado.
Although Danielle Castaneda appreciates Sharles's work to try to change the system, she says his involvement in her Jefferson County case backfired. "I think he kind of hurt my case because they already knew his name and were already prejudiced against him," she says. "We had the same therapist [Sabo, by coincidence], and they were saying my therapist sticks up for bad people. They mentioned Mr. Johnson, saying I hang out with people who are aggressive and violent against social services."
Castaneda ultimately lost her parental rights. Like Sharles, she now wants to help other families — but she gives very different advice than Sharles would. "Whatever [social services] tells you to do," she notes, "just bend over backwards and do it, because that's the only hope for getting your kids back."
Bernie Mrugala says he found VFOC too late. His adult son has an addiction and was the respondent in a D&N case. Mrugala wanted his granddaughter to be with him, in Illinois, instead of in foster care. He claims Jefferson County officials led him to believe he should wait until after his son's parental rights were terminated before he tried to gain custody, but by then it was legally too late. "I was stupid in trusting the county," Mrugala says, "and what has happened is they railroaded me, as they did [Sharles], and he was just a little more astute and had a little more time and understood the laws better."
In a Denver case, however, Sharles thinks he was able to help a single mom get her kids back. She'd gone to social services voluntarily for parenting help, only to have her children taken away. Laura Coale, a Denver Human Services public information officer, confirms that Sharles participated in a Team Decision Meeting for a D&N case and talked to a couple of administrators last year. "Denver has had its problems," Sharles says, "but as far as administration, they have been very respectful and very honest."
Sharles would like to work with as many agencies as possible to improve practices and weed out "rogue caseworkers." But it seemed that Jeffco would rather weed him out.
While Sharles was researching social-services policies across the country, he was still talking with Jeffco's fraud-investigation unit about his family's finances. At one point, he filed a motion arguing that he shouldn't have to pay for trauma, injustice and abuse done to his children — and a judge had waived the outstanding $4,300 foster-care bill. But the county was also claiming that his family had received Medicaid and food-stamp benefits for which it was not eligible. The amount kept changing, Sharles says. He was told he owed Jeffco $2,000, then $3,000, then $5,100, then $5,500. He didn't think the county actually knew what had been paid — much less overpaid — and assumed it was just more errors on Jeffco's part.
For example, the county claimed he needed to repay Jeffco for services administered a year after the family moved away from Colorado. Sharles pointed out that they hadn't received any assistance from the county after they left the state — a fact state Medicaid officials have since confirmed. "I asked for years to resolve this and get the corrected amounts," he says.
In 2006, Sharles was notified that he was being investigated by Jeffco for not reporting income. He tried to get Colorado Legal Services' help to work out some kind of settlement. A lawyer contacted the county, then called Sharles to say she couldn't help him because it was not a civil matter: He was being investigated criminally.
Finally, in late 2007, Sharles spoke to an accounting clerk with the department, Kirk Kross. Sharles told him he didn't think he owed the money but wanted to pay it in order to be done and move on. Kross then e-mailed Sharles a promissory note breaking down the total to a $150 monthly payment for three years. "This is to pay Jefferson County Division of Human Services the sum of $5,527.61 from the [AFDC/Colorado Works ($662), Medicaid ($2,205.61), and Food Stamps ($2,660)]...money to which I was not entitled at that time," it read.
Sharles was okay with the payment schedule, but he wasn't sure if he should sign the note. He sent it to Bob, who'd gone to purchasing and contracting school while in the Army. Bob said it didn't look like any promissory note he'd ever seen and told Sharles not to sign it. "I'm not a lawyer," he said, "but if you sign that, it's a confession, it's not a promissory note. It's a confession masquerading as a promissory note."
Sharles told Kross he would pay Jeffco the money but that he would not sign the note.
Nineteen days before the first payment was due, the Jefferson County District Attorney's Office filed an arrest warrant for Sharles Johnson, claiming he "knowingly submitted falsely completed written instruments" that permitted him to unlawfully obtain benefits in the amount of $5,184.61 from January 2003 to September 2005. Twenty days later, Sharles was arrested.
The district attorney's office would not comment on the pending case, but did explain that an arrest warrant — and not a summons to appear — was issued for Johnson because a felony summons cannot be issued for someone who lives out of state. According to the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department, it's not unusual for deputies to fly to another jurisdiction to bring a fugitive back, and that contracting a company to transport Johnson by bus would not have saved taxpayers much of the $1,244 extradition tab.
Jefferson County Human Services public information officer Lynnae Flora says the district attorney's office has asked that the department not speak about Johnson's criminal or D&N cases while the former is still pending. "It's fairer to everyone involved," she says. "It would be impossible to talk about [the child welfare case alone], because it's all sort of intertwined."
In general, says Janet Sullivan, who supervises fraud investigations for the county department, investigations are initiated by complaints, which may come from a variety of sources, including the general public, other agencies and eligibility workers. In 2007, the unit pursued 138 fraud investigations, resulting in 13 cases referred criminally and 50 pursued administratively. The total amount recovered was $260,330.16. "For administrative cases, clients are given the option of signing a waiver admitting they committed an intentional program violation or they can choose to go to a hearing and a hearing officer decides," she explains in an e-mail. "For criminal cases, we usually refer to the DA's office and the DA makes the determination as to whether criminal charges will be filed."
According to the arrest affidavit, Sharles Johnson was scheduled to have "a civil appeal hearing by telephone," but he did not appear. Sharles claims he was not notified and says he thought the financial terms laid out in the promissory note sent by Kross would clear up the matter — as long as he made payments on time.
In fact, he'd asked for his account number and how to submit payments to the county so that Bob could drop off the checks in person. Now, while Sharles sat in jail, Bob — wanting to prove that Sharles had held up his end of the deal —went down to the human-services building to deliver the first check. The payment would have been late, but still within the grace period. Bob did just as Sharles had been instructed, stopping at the information desk and asking for Patty Harms in the finance department. He was told to have a seat and wait, but instead of Harms coming down to greet him, he was met by two police officers, who asked if he would follow them. In a meeting room, a detective told Bob that he needed to interview him because of a "threatening e-mail" Sharles had sent.
"Since Columbine, everybody's a little nervous," the officer said.
"I've received all the e-mails, because I'm copied on them, and I don't recall any threats," Bob says he told the officer. "I'm here to make a payment because it's been demanded by the county."
The officer left, then returned to say that Harms was not going to accept the payment. "What do you mean?" Bob asked. "The county demanded the payment; they can't reject it. This was demanded in writing, so I want it refused in writing."
The officer left again, only to return and say that Bob wasn't going to get a written refusal. Bob said he would wait as long as it took for Harms to come talk to him. She never did. He waited for hours until the building closed, then went home and fired off a harsh e-mail to Harms and the Jeffco commissioners. The next morning, Harms called to apologize. She told Bob it was all a big mistake and that Bob could bring in the payment, which he did — just in time to show the judge his receipt at Sharles's bond hearing.
Since being released on bond in March, Sharles says he's been offered plea deals in which he would only have to serve probation. But that would require his moving back to Colorado, something he refuses to do. Nor is he willing to ever again admit to a crime he didn't commit, he says, as he and Rebekiah did with the initial D&N charge. Kathryn Bradley, his lawyer on that case, had withdrawn at Sharles's request. She now says the Johnsons may have misunderstood the discussion about what they were admitting to and what was being promised in return. She doesn't recall any talk of the kids being returned in two weeks, and says that would have been highly unusual. "Parents often make an admission that children are dependent and neglected and are sorry afterwards that they didn't take the matter to trial," she notes.
Against the advice of his public defender, Jeff Gillio, Sharles has demanded a jury trial; he definitely wants his day in court. But he's starting to wonder if that day will ever come. Although the trial had been scheduled for December 9, on Monday it was continued.
Gillio had filed a motion for more time based on 1,500 pages of new discovery that the DA's office had sent him in October.
Sharles had told his lawyer that he didn't want to waive his right to a speedy trial, and on December 1, he again asked Judge Tamara Russell for a new lawyer. He'd made the same request, but was denied, at the start of a hearing back in July. At the end of that hearing, when the prosecutor raised the issue of "threatening e-mails" Sharles had been sending the county — without producing any of those actual threats — Russell had ordered that Sharles no longer contact the county.
"I was offended," says Bob, who was there. "Sharles, I have to admit, has burdened the county with a bunch of e-mails. Some of them have just been silly. At the same time, some of them have been, 'I have requested this record. When am I going to get it?' This deals with transcripts and other records that should be available to citizens."
The only threat Sharles has ever made, Bob says, is to get national attention: "He went to the Office for Civil Rights and he started a website, but the county makes it sound like he's going to machine-gun everybody."
Sharles wasn't always like this — obsessive about his case and paranoid, staying up nights to scour documents and write e-mail after e-mail about every minute detail as if it were a smoking gun, imagining that everyone in Jefferson County is conspiring against him. He knows he sometimes comes off as crazy. He knows that no one believes that before April 8, 2004, the day the Jefferson County Department of Human Services got involved with his family, he was a mellow, laid-back guy — shy, even. When this is all over, he says, he hopes he might get some of that old Sharles back.
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Bob believes that Sharles's behavior is in direct response to the way his family was treated by the system. Bob's experienced some of it himself. "I don't have any personal stake in this except that Sharles and Rebekiah and the children are my friends now, and I just despise what's happened to them," he says. "I am really offended that my county, where I have lived for 35 years, has behaved in the way it behaves, because I think this whole thing has been one injustice after another. I've heard county attorneys say things that were untrue, and Sharles lose his rights without defense. My county did that.
"He beat the county in a D&N action, and it looks to me as if instead of somebody saying we were wrong and we probably shouldn't have done that...instead of that, they were bad losers."
Sabo doesn't want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, either, but she says she doesn't see how the ongoing case against Sharles could be anything but retaliatory. "At some point," she remembers, "I told Sharles, 'This has become personal. You guys are cleared. The judge said you'd been done an injustice. You should be done.' Something really personalized this. Is it just that they couldn't stand that this man stood up to them, had his facts straight, had records — that they'd never had to deal with an intelligent parent who was like that, who wasn't so scared that they wouldn't fight back?
"Maybe I'm jumping to conclusions, but geez, what is going on here?"