Judge rejects plea in Lawson case

FESSENDEN – A Southeast District Court judge rejected a plea agreement for former Wells County Sheriff Johnny Lawson on Thursday, Oct. 26, who is accused of accepting and consuming illegal drugs and not performing his duties as a public official.

Judge Daniel Narum rejected the agreement reached between the Wells County State’s Attorney’s Office and Lawson in which Lawson would plead guilty to a Class A misdemeanor in exchange for testifying against Alexander Lail.

Narum said in considering the plea agreement, the fact that Lawson was a public official for Wells County at the time he allegedly committed the crimes and the charges directly related to his service as a public official gave him pause about accepting the agreement.

“I think the plea agreement is inappropriate and doesn’t serve justice,” he said. “At this point, I will reject the plea agreement.”

Lawson, 41, of Fessenden, is charged with conspiracy to deliver a controlled substance, methamphetamine, a Class A felony, and bribery-unlawful influence of public servants, a Class C felony. He is also charged with three Class A misdemeanors: false reports to law enforcement or other security officials, public servant refusing to perform duty and ingesting a controlled substance, methamphetamine.

Jeremy Ensrud, an attorney with the North Dakota Attorney General’s Office acting as a special attorney on behalf of Wells County State’s Attorney Kathleen Murray in this case, and Peter Welte, Lawson’s attorney, had worked out the agreement in which Lawson agreed to plead guilty to ingesting a controlled substance, methamphetamine. In exchange for the guilty plea, Ensrud was going to drop the four other charges. Lawson would also have to testify against Alexander Lail, who is facing multiple felony drug charges in a related case.

Before he resigned as Wells County sheriff on April 25, Lawson allegedly consumed methamphetamine provided by Lail, 47, of New Rockford, according to court documents. Lawson allegedly received the drug in exchange for not investigating burglaries and break-ins of residences around Wells County that may have been done by Lail or some of his associates.

The next step for Lawson will be a preliminary hearing, which has not yet been scheduled.

Prior to Narum announcing his decision on the plea agreement, he allowed four people to provide victim impact statements. Welte objected to the statements of Brian Mindt, Donna Lail and Courtney Lener being considered during the change of plea hearing as the only charge being considered was ingesting a controlled substance, methamphetamine. Welte did not object to statements Narum allowed from Lawson’s wife, Christine, and his son, Brandon. Ensrud did not object to the inclusion of any of the statements made toward the end of the hearing.

Mindt said when a theft occurred at his farm in December 2014, it took a year for Lawson to investigate the incident. He said he only found out who may have committed the theft through his own investigation.

“He (Lawson) took an oath to uphold the law, to carry out the law,” Mindt said, “and he failed to do so.”

Christine Lawson said she wanted to speak on behalf of her family and the hardships they have been through since her husband was arrested and charged. The family moved away from Wells County after they were “treated like animals.”

She said her husband received no help from the Wells County Commission when he asked for funds to hire more deputies and that the community had turned against him and their family after a murder-suicide occurred in Chaseley, N.D., in July 2015.