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Former lawman pleads guilty

Federal Court sentencing set

Johnny Zip Lawson, the former top lawman in Wells County, has entered a guilty plea in U.S. District Court in Bismarck to a charge of theft of government property. Sentencing has been set for May 11.

The indictment against Lawson, 43, a current resident of Dickinson, says the former sheriff and his wife, Christine Diana Lawson, “converted for their use $751,500 in overpayments made from the State of North Dakota’s Department of Human Services.” The maximum penalty for the charge is 10 years imprisonment, a fine of $250,000, and three years of supervised released.

Lawson was scheduled to go to trial on the charges on Tuesday of this week. The trial was canceled due to the signing of a plea agreement. In recognition of Lawson’s guilty plea the U.S. agreed to “recommend a sentence at the low end of the applicable Guideline range” and that Lawson be “ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $751,500.”

How much time Lawson will be required to serve behind bars, if any, will be determined by the judge who will hand down the sentence at 10 a.m. May 11. Title 18 of the U.S. Code requires that the court order restitution. In his plea agreement, Lawson has agreed to a “wage assignment, liquidate assets, or complete any other tasks the Court finds reasonable and appropriate” for payment of any restitution or fines.

Lawson was appointed to fill an unexpired term as sheriff of Wells County in 2013 and was elected to the post in 2014. On April 25, 2017, he resigned, citing personal reasons. Lawson was subsequently arrested and charged with conspiracy to deliver methamphetamine, bribery, false information to a law enforcement officer, neglect of duty by a public official and ingestion of methamphetamine.

On his Facebook page announcing his resignation Lawson asked for prayers “for myself and my family as we continue on to new adventures. I am so blessed to have a loving wife and 13 beautiful children. I look forward to a brighter future full of the promise and hope of tomorrow.”

During a Bureau of Criminal Investigation interview Lawson told an investigator that he had used methamphetamine. Most of the lengthy list of charges against Lawson were eventually dismissed, same for two misdemeanor counts to which he entered guilty pleas. At his sentencing on the remaining two charges, Lawson told Southeast District Court Judge Daniel Narum that he made the statement regarding meth use because the questioning session was approaching four hours and that he “just wanted to get home.”

In making his ruling at Lawson’s sentencing Narum cited Lawson’s five days in jail following his 2017 arrest and said further incarceration was not necessary. Narum sentenced Lawson to serve 25 days of home confinement and pay a fine of $500.

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