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Pa. prison chaplain pleads in sex case

December 08, 1999|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Judge John D. Kuhn quoted John 8:11 Wednesday when he sentenced former Franklin County Prison chaplain W. Larry Johnson to two years on probation for sexually assaulting female inmates.

"Go, and sin no more," the visiting judge from Adams County, Pa., told Johnson.

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Johnson, 48, formerly of 647 Hollywell Ave., waived mandatory arraignment Wednesday and pleaded guilty to institutional sexual assault, a first-degree misdemeanor, and two third-degree misdemeanors: Solicitation of a prostitute and bringing contraband into the prison. The charges carried a maximum of seven years in prison.

"At one point we were homeless and we had to move and we're totally broke, so I've lost everything," Johnson said.

Since the Pennsylvania State Police filed the charges against him on Oct. 26, Johnson has resigned from the Chambersburg Borough Council seat he held for nearly eight years and has been replaced as prison chaplain and pastor of the St. James A.M.E. Church, a position he held for 11 years.

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Johnson also lost positions with several community organizations, including Building Our Pride in Chambersburg, a program for at-risk children, and the Third Ward Community Task Force, both of which he founded.

Johnson said he and his wife of 24 years have moved to the Philadelphia area. Asked if he had secured a job, he said, "We're hopeful."

"I wholly regret any pain I have caused to anyone involved in the prison and most especially to my family, my friends, my congregation and this community," he said. Johnson choked up and paused to wipe tears from his eyes during his statement.

"I never intended to hurt anyone," Johnson said.

He said he had been involved with so many organizations that he had been sleeping only three hours a night. "I think at this point in my life I was vulnerable," he said.

"He has suffered tremendously as a result of his conduct," Johnson's attorney, David S. Keller, said. Franklin County District Attorney John F. Nelson asked that Johnson be required to continue mental health counseling as part of the sentence.

"He violated me physically and mentally ... to get what he wanted for his own selfish sexual pleasures," said one of the victims in the institutional sexual assault case, a 23-year-old Mont Alto, Pa., woman.

The woman had been in the county prison twice this year, once for violating probation on a 1998 retail theft conviction and again for violating parole on the same charge.

The woman said Johnson promised to help get her out of jail. She said he was "like a jackal that preys on smaller prey."

The police charged Johnson with having sexual contact with at least three female inmates between Feb. 24 and Aug. 11. Nelson described it as mostly fondling the women while he was at the prison for counseling sessions.

Police records said that on several occasions he gave inmates money, which is considered contraband and is in violation of state law.

Johnson was charged with soliciting a prostitute by offering cocaine, marijuana and $100 to a woman at a Greencastle, Pa., motel on Sept. 16, according to police records.

"Are you pleading guilty to these offenses because what was alleged here this morning actually happened?" Kuhn asked.

Johnson nodded his head, but his reply was inaudible.

Johnson was given two years probation for the sexual assault charge and one year each on the contraband and prostitution charges, with all the sentences running concurrently. Kuhn fined Johnson $500.

Because he was convicted of a sexual offense, Johnson was ordered to submit a DNA sample to police.

Keller and Nelson both said the sentence was within the standard range in state sentencing guidelines.

The county's three judges recused themselves because Johnson had frequently appeared in court on behalf of inmates, Nelson said.

As for the speedy handling of his case Wednesday, Nelson said anyone facing charges can waive arraignment and plead guilty.

"We reached an agreement early on and there was no reason to put it off," Nelson said.

"Obviously he violated the trust the county and the prison had put in him ... I think he's paid a very substantial price for it," he said.

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