County sheriff changes plea

Plea agreement entered in Southeast District Court for former Wells County Sheriff

Submitted Photo Kathleen Murray, Wells County state’s attorney, during a change of plea hearing for former sheriff Johnny Lawson in Fessenden, told the court that her office concurred with a plea agreement.

FESSENDEN – Johnny Zip Lawson, 42, former sheriff of Wells County, entered a change of plea during a telephonic appearance in Southeast District Court here Thursday afternoon.

Lawson, who was facing two felony and three misdemeanor charges since his arrest on May 30, 2017, pleaded guilty as part of a plea agreement. The agreement included the dismissal of two felonies and one misdemeanor, leaving the former sheriff to face sentencing for only the two remaining misdemeanors.

The two felony charges brought against Lawson were conspiracy to deliver a controlled substance-methamphetamine, a Class A felony, and bribery-official action, a Class C felony. Both charges stemmed from Lawson’s alleged involvement in illegal activities while serving as sheriff of Wells County. Additionally, Lawson was charged with three misdemeanor A counts – making false reports to law enforcement or other security officials, public servant refusing to perform duty and ingesting a controlled substance.

Judge Daniel Narum rejected a plea deal in late October in which Lawson would plead guilty to a single misdemeanor in exchange for having two other misdemeanors and the more serious felony charges dropped. Lawson reversed his intention to plead guilty at that time and the case continued.

As part of the October proposed agreement Lawson would testify against Alexander Lail of New Rockford. Lail is alleged to have provided Lawson and others with methamphetamine. A Bureau of Criminal Investigation affidavit contains several references of Lawson failing to investigate multiple burglaries in Wells County, burglaries alleged to have been committed by persons known to Lawson.

“I don’t believe this plea agreement serves justice,” Narum told the court during the October hearing.

The plea agreement to which Narum agreed to Thursday called for a 30-day sentence with no requirement that Lawson testify against anyone else involved in related cases. With credit for five days served at the time of his arrest, which occurred in Bismarck, Lawson would have to serve another 25 days to fulfill his sentence.

Kathleen Murray, Wells County state’s attorney, told the judge, “We do not object to this agreement.” Murray added that, if necessary, a subpoena could be issued to Lawson for the purpose of receiving testimony from him in the future.

Lawson’s attorney, Peter Welte of the Vogel Law Firm in Grand Forks, expressed disappointment at the consideration of any jail sentence imposed on his client. He cited concerns for Lawson’s safety should he be housed with other prisoners and suggested “home monitoring”.

Furthermore, Welte noted Lawson’s “lifetime of service as a law enforcement officer” and called “sentencing in this case beyond remarkable.” He requested that two to three hours would be needed for presentations during the sentencing phase of the case.

When Narum asked Lawson how long he had been in law enforcement, Lawson replied, “since 2007” and added, “I have no criminal history.”

Narum lifted a travel restriction that allowed Lawson to travel only within North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana. Lawson had been working in the oilfield in southwest North Dakota but, according to his attorney, lost that employment when he failed a clearance test conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Lawson was facing the possibility of lengthy prison time had he been convicted of the most serious charges against him. The maximum sentence for a Class A felony is 20 years imprisonment. A Class C felony is punishable by up to five years in prison. Each of the three midemeanors carry the possibility of one year in jail.

At the end of Thursday’s court hearing Lawson told Judge Narum, “Thank you for your kindness.”

Narum scheduled sentencing for Lawson at 11 a.m. March 26 in Fessenden.