Silvia Johnson just wanted to be a "cool mom."
From September 2003 to September 2004, she held innumerable parties at her Arvada home, where she provided alcohol, marijuana and methamphetamines to kids from Arvada West High School -- the school her elder daughter attended. She also had sexual relations with at least five boys, ranging in age from fifteen to seventeen.
When one of the boys finally told his mother what was going on, the Arvada Police Department launched an investigation. Speaking with a detective late last year, Silvia readily admitted to committing the majority of the crimes of which she was accused -- including furnishing underage boys with alcohol and drugs and then having sex with them. She'd never been popular when she was in high school, she explained, and her behavior now made her feel like she was one of the gang, a "cool mom."
The press went wild. Stories about Cool Mom ran in papers from Calgary to Melbourne. Good Morning America made Silvia's confession the topic du jour in late January, and The O'Reilly Factor featured it as one day's "Most Ridiculous Item."
In a culture where Stacey's mom has got it going on and the American Pie geek gets props for banging Mrs. Stiffler, Colorado's Cool Mom was just another wet dream in the collective consciousness. The high school coach who sleeps with the fifteen-year-old mid-fielder from the girl's soccer team deserves to have his head cut off, but the 41-year-old mother doing drugs and screwing her daughter's teenage friends? Awesome!
In the end, though, Cool Mom's behavior was pretty far from cool.
The Arvada neighborhood where Silvia and Jeffrey Johnson lived with their three children is the sort of recent housing development where a strong wind can still wreak havoc on a young landscape. From the central, artificial lake, brown-and-beige suburban homes unfurl in a sea of neatly trimmed lawns and garages ornamented by fake stone. In neighborhoods like this, every cul-de-sac is its own community.
During the late '90s, as many as seventeen children under the age of fifteen lived in an eight-house stretch along the 6300 block of Holman Court. The kids rolled deep together, moving from one house to another until the sun went down and it was time to go home. Silvia Johnson often acted as den mother to the crew, organizing Easter-egg and treasure hunts, putting together the nearby elementary school's annual '50s-themed carnival and charity auction, hounding the block for donations and volunteers. She carpooled like everybody else, let her next-door neighbor store extra electrical equipment in her garage, attended and held barbecues and was generally well-liked.
"She was nice and very outgoing," one neighbor remembers. "I found her to be a bit hyper. Sometimes you would get into conversations with her that just wouldn't stop, but she did a lot for her kids and our little community here. She was a very nice person who tried very hard."
Maybe a little too hard.
As the three Johnson children grew older, Silvia and Jeffrey's relationship began to disintegrate.
"The police came over a few times," neighbor Dorrel Bowler says. "Fights between husband and wife type stuff, but for the most part, they kept it inside."
"In the later years, when the kids were older, they were having marriage problems," another neighbor agrees. "Occasionally you would see a police car over there, but nobody wanted to get involved. It wasn't our place."
The cop cars were a harbinger of things to come.
After Jeffrey moved out, eventually divorcing Silvia, the house that had once welcomed the entire neighborhood suddenly saw a new crop of people going through its doors.
"There were lots of parties," Bowler comments. "The boys were often very rude. I don't know if it was the drugs or what, but they always acted real tough and were very curt. They'd speed off in their cars at all hours of the night."
Another neighbor watched the parties from across the street. "I had a kid about the same age as Silvia's eldest daughter, so I'd be waiting up for my girl to come home," she says. "And I would see carloads of guys getting out, five, eight at a time, and going into the house without knocking or anything. This was after the divorce, too, so often Silvia's kids wouldn't even be there. It would just be her alone and these boys, partying. I wondered what the heck she was doing over there, but I wasn't going to stick my nose in it."
What the heck she was doing ultimately filled police reports with tales far more lurid than an episode of Desperate Housewives. They were more on par with Penthouse letters.
Even when there were no parties, there were always high school kids at Silvia's house. Sometimes they would be doing chores, using whatever tools Silvia had around to trim the hedges, mow the lawn. Neighbors thought it was nice of the boys to help out, but they were being rewarded with much more than Kool-Aid and silver dollars. According to a police report, one boy said he and a friend "were given McCormick's to do yard work at Silvia Johnson's residence and he proceeded to run over an apple tree with a mower because they were intoxicated. Silvia allowed X and Y to drive her Chevy Tahoe to the dump and unload the branches, despite being intoxicated. X admitted he's had sexual contact with her on three separate occasions, but all were when he was 17 years of age. He received fellatio from her twice and sexual intercourse once."
On another day, Silvia had "sexual contact with Z after they 'bantered back and forth sexually with one another.' Silvia told Z she could 'make him ejaculate without touching him with her hands, mouth, or any other part,' to which Z pulled down his pants and wanted her to prove it. Silvia took her pants and underwear off and placed KY jelly near her vagina. While lying on her back, Silvia allowed Z to lie on top of her and insert his penis in between her legs by the KY jelly and move in a 'humping manner' simulating sexual intercourse. Z ejaculated in between Silvia's legs. Silvia Johnson, during the second interview, said that there 'may have been some fellatio for a little bit' prior to that, but she could not be certain because she was a little 'tipsy' that night."
(Not exactly "not touching" -- but definitely illegal.)
Another report outlines a situation in which one boy received fellatio from Silvia while another boy was having sexual intercourse with her on a bed. The confused novice said that he would not call what transpired "a threesome."
A river of Jack Daniel's, Peppermint Schnapps, Goldschlager, Southern Comfort, Bacardi tequila and beer flows through the police reports. Silvia would often make runs to the liquor store for the teenagers and then let them have at it, watching over the kids while they slammed almost entire bottles of booze, then vomited profusely. Occasionally she'd bait them into round after round of speed shots. She financed sacks of weed, pipes and bongs, and even taught high-schoolers at her house how to snort methamphetamine -- which she said she used as self-medication to help with Attention Deficit Disorder -- through a dollar bill.
In one report, Silvia moves from wannabe to full-blown leader of the pack. One boy told police that he and a friend took Silvia's car on a road trip, and Silvia went along for the ride. When the boys started smoking weed, Silvia chided them from the back seat, asking how they could smoke "that shit." She then produced meth, snorting a noseful somewhere between Las Vegas and California, and had the boys do the same.
That same boy estimated that Silvia spent approximately $5,000 on him over the course of a year, on everything from clothes and dinners to booze and pot. The blow jobs and sex were free.
But a more recent revelation takes Silvia's behavior far past another installment of American Pie. On at least one occasion, she gave her own daughter meth. She also supplied meth to that daughter's boyfriend, whom she bedded.
Arvada police first caught wind of the parties on Holman Court in September 2004. At the urging of her therapist, Silvia Johnson came in and confessed to many of the crimes later that month, before many of the victims had even been identified. Detective Robert Vander Veen, who led the investigation, found it "highly unusual," since investigators generally talk to the victims first, then track down the suspect.
On December 2, 2004, Silvia Johnson was finally taken into custody. She was charged with nine felony counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and two misdemeanor counts of sexual assault with a ten-year age differential. When she confessed, a fall sentencing date was set.
Several months later, Jeffrey allowed Silvia -- now out on bail, and despite a temporary restraining order against her -- to pick up their elder daughter at his house and take her for a haircut. He acquiesced because his daughter had expressed a desire to see her mother. Silvia returned the girl without incident, then asked Jeffrey if she could take their son to a movie. When Jeffrey told her she was going too far, Silvia lost it.
She lunged at her ex-husband, who did his best to push her away. She then flopped to the floor and tried to bite his ankles. Eventually, she managed to land several blows to his face and the side of his head, creating red and purple bruises that were noted by the officer later called to the house. After the kids began screaming for their parents to stop fighting, Silvia finally left.
Silvia called her daughter several times after that and said she was leaving the country and going to Mexico. During one conversation, she warned that if Jeffrey talked to police about the altercation, she would kill him. The daughter "told me that she did not believe her mother intended to do either," an officer commented in his report after Jeffrey finally called the cops. "Because she says crazy stuff all the time."
Silvia was again taken into custody, where she re-signed the temporary restraining order and was again released on bail.
Just two weeks later, on April 3, 2005, Silvia showed up at Jeffrey's house, bursting through the door and confronting her ex-husband. She backhanded him, grabbed a telephone and smashed it onto the floor, where it shattered into several pieces. She picked up one of the pieces and began hitting Jeffrey with it. As he protected his face from her blows, she maneuvered behind him and began biting the back of his head while stabbing him in the shoulder with her car keys. Then, suddenly, she stopped the assault, ran upstairs and locked herself in the bathroom. Several minutes later, she stole out and drove away. Jeffrey later discovered that his ex-wife had absconded with his gout medicine, Indomethican, and a prescription bottle of amoxicillin.
Silvia was again hauled in to Jefferson County District Court, where she was charged with first-degree burglary, violation of bail-bond conditions, assault in the third degree, obstruction of telephone service, and three counts of violation of a protection order. This time she bonded out for $20,000.
Silvia's antics remain legendary at Arvada West High School, where her daughter was still attending school last spring. The rumors of what had gone on at the Johnson house reverberated down hallways and off lockers, a hot topic for students between MTV updates and talk of who-was-wearing-what.
"I have a friend who banged Cool Mom," one student said proudly last week.
"No, you don't," another responded.
"Well, a friend of a friend."
Another student reported that the boys hanging out at Silvia's house were the "bad kids," notorious for partying far too much and taking advantage of girls at school. Still, none of the teachers or parents got wind of the parties, because "nobody talks to adults around here."
Even boys involved in the case initially treated it with amusement. "They think she was a cool mom," one mother told a reporter. "They wanted pot, they wanted alcohol, whatever was there."
But for Silvia's daughter, who dropped out of Arvada West when she could no longer take the verbal abuse, Cool Mom was no laughing matter.
And things only got worse.
At 1 p.m. on September 26, 2005, Silvia Ann Johnson was scheduled to appear in Jefferson County District Court for sentencing.
She never showed. Instead, Phillip Cherner, her defense attorney, provided a copy of a police report detailing a rollover accident near Castle Rock and explained that his client was in the intensive-care unit at Swedish Medical Center.
At about 5:30 p.m. the previous day, Silvia had been heading north on I-25 to Denver in a 2005 Jeep Liberty. With her in the car was her eleven-year-old son and his twelve-year-old friend, her fourteen-year-old daughter and another fourteen-year-old girl, whom Silvia allowed to drive. At milepost 174, the fourteen-year-old driver tried to change lanes and lost control of the vehicle. The car skidded off the east shoulder, then down an embankment before launching into the air for 137 feet and coming down in a field, where it rolled end over end for another 88 feet.
Silvia's son was ejected from the back seat; he suffered a ruptured spleen and a fractured back. Silvia's daughter sustained a broken pelvis and head injuries that required ten hours of reconstructive surgery. Silvia had a fractured back and a broken eye socket.
At the hospital, a Colorado State trooper found a marijuana pipe among Silvia's belongings. (Charges in the driving incident are still pending.)
Jeffrey Johnson was in Mexico at the time and had allowed Silvia to take care of the children. The fourteen-year-old driver told the trooper that Silvia had taken them to Colorado Springs because she wanted to visit her mother before going to jail.
"My heart just breaks for this family and what Silvia's decisions have done," a neighbor says. "What Jeffrey and these kids have been through, it's going to take their whole life for them to get through this. That poor little boy had his back broken in three places, and the girl had her jaw broken. I haven't talked to [the elder daughter] recently, but the last time I saw her I asked her how she was doing, and she said, 'Other than the fact that my life has been completely turned upside down, I guess I'm doing fine.'"
Silvia Johnson finally had her day in court on Monday, November 14.
Cool Mom's sentencing was big news. Cameras from every local affiliate lined the hallways of the Jefferson County Courthouse, waiting for a glimpse of Silvia Johnson. With every ding of the elevator, cameramen craned their lenses down the hallway, whispering "Is that her?" to one another.
Inside the courtroom, Jeffco inmates in gray or yellow jumpsuits politely answered Judge Peter Weir's questions, all the while looking around the room, wondering at the large pool camera in the corner, the larger-than-usual crowd of spectators. A collection of Silvia's supporters, including her elderly German mother, sat clumped in the benches behind the defense table, while the families of the victims waited behind the prosecution table.
As Silvia entered the room, looking much more together in a smart outfit and short, business-like hair than she did in the ghastly mug shots that have circled the globe, her mother breathed heavily and sipped off an inhaler. "This is going to be the death of me," she muttered to a companion.
"We still love you," another woman whispered to Silvia before being quieted by a member of the defense.
Silvia's poise was momentary. No sooner had Cherner called Dr. Frederick Miller to the stand than she began weeping, which she continued to do at various levels of intensity throughout the sentencing.
Miller, an expert in forensic psychology, said he'd met with Silvia for four hours but spent far more time studying her case. He'd concluded that she suffers from bipolar Disorder Type 2, a genetic disease that manifests itself in a variety of ways -- from difficulty concentrating and listening and pressured, rapid speech, to substance abuse and hypersexual behavior with rapidly alternating mood swings, or "flare-ups," that can have someone feeling very normal one moment, irate or severely depressed the next.
Bipolar disorder, whether type one or two, certainly affects someone's judgment, Miller testified, detailing how even after Silvia was diagnosed with the disorder, she refused to believe it, insisting that she suffered from ADD instead. This stubbornness extended to treatment, he said, recommending that Silvia receive mood-stabilizing medication and be monitored to make sure she stayed on it.
Cherner walked Miller through past manifestations of Silvia's illness, including two mental-health holds when she was kept under observation -- once after she threatened suicide around the time of her divorce. But at no time had she been determined to be a significant-enough threat to herself or others to require long-term psychiatric care.
While Silvia continued to weep, prosecutor Scott Storey presented the victims' side -- and statements from some of their parents.
"She took away my best friend," one father boomed, his hands shaking. "My hunting buddy, my fishing buddy. They're trying to paint her as some half-crazed but good woman, but what does that do for me? My son is gone because of her."
Other parents referred to her as "perverted" and "narcissistic."
Thomas Vander Veen, brother of lead investigator Robert Vander Veen and an Arvada police officer who works at Arvada West High School, took the stand to discuss the devastating effect that Silvia's egregious behavior had on the community, particularly the Arvada West community, where several students involved in the scandal have dropped out. Robert Vander Veen then pointed to certain troubling statements that Silvia had made throughout the case, including her admission that she had tried several affairs but was hoping to rekindle her marriage with Jeffrey, and so preferred sleeping with underage boys at her house because she didn't have to get emotionally attached.
"She is not the first to do this, and she certainly won't be the last," he said, then added that a stern sentence -- and coverage of that sentence -- might serve as a deterrent for crimes like this in the future.
Cherner asked the detective if he thought that all the media attention given to this case should affect the judgment. No, Vander Veen responded; the nature of the crime should determine the outcome. "She is not 15," he said. "She's 41."
Silvia's mother spoke tearfully in broken English about what a good girl Silvia had been all her life; a friend talked about what great care Silvia had given him when he was seriously ill, and how much he could see that she was ready and willing to change.
Storey asked that Silvia Johnson be sentenced to a significant stretch with the Department of Corrections. Although he said he was sympathetic to any mental-health problem, her illness did not excuse what she had done, nor explain why she had shown no remorse throughout the proceedings. "It does not make her any less of a danger," he concluded.
"Her disease has no on-and-off switch," Cherner responded. "It's a hereditary diseasethe clouds don't part just because she wants them to." The combination of the collapse of her marriage, the suicide of a neighbor that led to Silvia's own suicide threat, the death of her father in 2003 and severe bipolar disorder had all caused the walls to cave in on Silvia Johnson's world.
Silvia followed her attorney's remarks with a brief, half-audible statement, barely discernable through her sobs."I have learned my lesson," she said. "I know I have hurt my family, my community. I know I have a serious medical condition. I know I have to take the medicine; I just haven't had the opportunity. I'm sorry."
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And then it was Judge Weir's turn. Calling the case both "devastating" and "tragic," he noted that "a crime is like dropping a rock in a still pond; the ripples reach out and affect so many people in the community." Alternately calling Silvia "the epitome of selfishness" and "irresponsible," he remarked that she had shown no concern for law or community. And he scolded her for the destructive climate of "sex, alcohol and methamphetamines" that she so recklessly allowed to exist, drawing particular attention to the destructive effects of methamphetamines that he sees in his court on a daily basis.
"For a mother to encourage her daughter to do methamphetamines is incomprehensible," Weir said. "It is a crime of the highest order."
"A cool mom provides a safe environment for her children and their friends," he told Silvia. "You provided drugs. A cool mom provides advice and guidance. You provided beer and hard liquor. A cool mom provides love. You provided sex."
And then he sentenced her to thirty years in prison.