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Charge: Plymouth parents let son suffer without medical attention before his death


Bruised and underdeveloped, Plymouth 7-year-old never got medical care, charges say. 

By Paul Walsh Star Tribune

A father and mother have been charged with neglect in the death of their 7-year-old son, who received no professional medical attention for his many bruises, wounds and emotional difficulties before he died on a vomit-stained mattress in their Plymouth home.

Timothy D. Johnson, 39, and Sarah N. Johnson, 38, were charged in Hennepin County District Court last week by summons with gross misdemeanor child neglect in connection with the March 30, 2015, death of son Seth Johnson. The criminal complaints detail the extensive trauma that Seth endured until his death from an inflamed pancreas and possible infections in various wounds.

For the final weekend of Seth's life, the ailing boy was left in the care of his 16-year-old brother while the Johnsons were out of town for a wedding, the complaint noted.

Both have court appearances scheduled for Jan. 31. Telephone messages were left Tuesday with both seeking reaction to the allegations.

In a statement, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said his office—which did not know about or receive the case until nine months later in December 2015—initially approached the case as a homicide. Despite the physical and emotional trauma Seth endured, the Johnsons "refused to do what most parents would have done and take him to a doctor," Freeman said, a decision he "cannot comprehend."

However, Freeman said, despite a yearlong review of evidence and consultations with a child abuse pediatrician, Seth's illness and death could not be linked to the actions or inactions of the Johnsons. As a result, the Johnsons were charged with the most serious crime the law allows. He said that his office will seek the strongest penalty allowed if the Johnsons are convicted.

Seth, who first joined the Johnson family through foster care and was later adopted, was severely underdeveloped physically and had numerous scrapes and bruises on his body at the time of his death.

'Issues' with doctors

The parents had "issues with going to doctors" and chose not to seek medical attention for his many physical difficulties, the charging document read.

In a Facebook posting soon after Seth's death, the Johnsons wrote about how religious faith got them through their overwhelming grief.

"We couldn't walk, we didn't know how to get out of bed. ... And you came," the posting read. "You stood by us, you took us by the hand, you fed us, watched over our children, loved them, cleaned our home, prayed for us & over us. you came together as the body of Christ and provided for us spiritually, emotionally, physically & financially."

The Johnsons took to the internet and started a fundraising page that featured a photo of Seth, their " very quiet and hurting little boy."

They wrote that their "bright and beautiful boy died unexpectedly." The Johnsons listed six surviving siblings while seeking $7,000 for funeral expenses and to help the family while Tim Johnson took a leave from work. Donations topped the goal by several hundred dollars.

Tim Johnson, from western Minnesota, and Sarah Barrett, from Yakima, Wash., met while studying for the ministry at Bethany Global University, a Bible college in Bloomington, said Mark Barrett, Sarah's father.

Afterward, Sarah chose to "stay at home and take care of the kids 24/7," and Tim took up mechanical engineering with a particular interest in aeronautics, Barrett said.

Barrett said he would see the family, Seth included, roughly every six months and didn't notice anything seriously wrong with the boy, except "I would witness the quietness, where he would go play by himself. But I never witness[ed] an episode" as spelled out by the prosecution.

Behavior worsened

According to the complaints against the Johnsons:

Police arrived at the home in the 6100 block of Vicksburg Lane N. about 7:40 a.m. and found Seth on the bathroom floor, with Timothy Johnson trying to resuscitate the boy. Emergency medical responders declared the child dead at the scene.

Seth's body had bruises on his face, arms, chest, buttocks and lower torso, as well as "breaks on his skin on the majority of his body," the complaints read.

At age 3, while a foster child in the home, Seth was seen by a doctor for a routine exam and was found to be a "thriving, conversant preschooler," according to the complaints. The Johnsons adopted Seth at age 4 and home-schooled him. Another routine medical exam at age 5 raised no concerns.

In the weeks leading up to Seth's death, however, the boy's behavior took a turn for the worse, according to the parents.

He stopped sleeping, would shake on occasion and developed blisters and other marks on his legs, along with lesions on his heels, which suggest a lack of mobility.

Neither parent offered law enforcement an explanation other than to say the boy was always hurting himself. They said he would throw himself down stairs and was hitting his head.

Despite Seth's mounting difficulties, they never sought medical attention for him. "They had 'issues with going to doctors,' " the charging documents quoted the Johnsons as conveying.

They said they didn't want Seth on any medication and relied on their own research. They concluded Seth was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and from a traumatic brain injury. The Johnsons said Seth was a victim of fetal alcohol syndrome, but authorities found no record of such a diagnosis.

Barrett said Tuesday that his daughter and son-in-law attributed the boy's troubles, and their reluctance to having the boy seen by a doctor, to "being a drug baby," a term used for a newborn with maladies associated with having a drug-addicted birth mother.

"They were pretty convinced of that," Barrett said. "That makes a difference in how [parents] are going to approach things. When you read up on all this stuff, he's going to just have fits."

As Seth's behavior worsened, the prosecution spelled out in the complaints, the Johnsons increased his vitamin intake and treated his wounds with antibiotic skin ointment Neosporin and "medical honey," the complaints continued.

On the weekend before Seth's death, the boy was being watched by his 16-year-old brother while Sarah and Tim Johnson left town for a wedding.

The teen called the parents on March 29, a Sunday, and said Seth wasn't eating or interacting. While under the teen's care that weekend, Seth stopped talking and couldn't get out of bed.

The Johnsons were about to leave the wedding early on that Sunday but stayed once they learned Seth had eaten some Cheerios.

When the couple arrived home that Sunday night, Seth was on the floor and unresponsive. "They prayed for his health," at that moment, the complaint read. The boy did not react.

The parents picked up Seth, sat him at the dinner table and put two small bites of pizza in his mouth. They bathed him, put him on a mattress for the night with no blanket or pillow.

They said they contemplated seeking medical care for Seth but decided to wait until morning to decide.

The next morning, Tim Johnson found Seth unresponsive on the mattress and covered in vomit. They cleaned him off and began CPR. Then they called 911.

Paul Walsh is a general assignment reporter at the Star Tribune. He wants your news tips, especially in and near Minnesota.

paul.walsh@startribune.com 612-673-4482 walshpj

2017 Jan 4