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The News Tribune
By KYLE HOPKINS, email@example.com
Published: 08/17/1111:59 pm | Updated: 08/17/1111:59 pm
An Anchorage woman faced charges of first-degree murder Wednesday after she admitted suffocating her 3-week-old daughter with a plastic bag, prosecutors say.
Police arrested Sarah Bentley Johnson, 33, late Tuesday night after she told her husband about the Aug. 5 killing in a recorded conversation, prosecutors say. Johnson told family members that she had been feeling overwhelmed since the birth of her daughter.
Johnson made her initial court appearance Wednesday in Anchorage. The slight woman spoke softly, saying she hadn’t been working and had no savings. District Court Judge Brian Clark appointed a public defender. A magistrate had earlier set her bail at $500,000 with a third-party custodian required, said Assistant District Attorney Brittany Dunlop.
Johnson’s husband, Ben, sat in the back row of the jailhouse courtroom with friends, who shielded him as they walked out. He would have no public comment, one of the friends said.
The investigation began with a phone call Aug. 5, when charges say Johnson dialed 911.
She told police her daughter, Pepper, was dead in her crib.
Over the phone, medics tried to talk Johnson through efforts to resuscitate the infant, prosecutors say. Police arrived at Johnson’s Anchorage home to find the mother kneeling over the baby, according to a police department spokeswoman.
Rescuers were unable to revive the girl, and Anchorage firefighters took Pepper to a local hospital emergency room, authorities say.
Police soon followed and interviewed Sarah Johnson and her husband, the charges say. Police learned Ben went to the hospital from work and wasn’t home at the time of the death, according to prosecutors.
Sarah Johnson told police that she had fed Pepper 4 ounces of formula before placing the girl face down in her crib for a nap, the charges say. Johnson then took a nap on the couch, she told police.
Johnson told police she woke up about an hour later. When she checked on her daughter, Pepper was blue and cold to the touch, she told police, according charges filed Wednesday in court.
In those early conversations with police, Johnson blamed herself for not swaddling the infant and for placing the girl on her stomach, the charges say.
The Medical Examiner’s Office conducted an autopsy and issued a report Aug. 11. The manner of death was inconclusive, the charges say.
The next day, the story changed.
A friend of Sarah Johnson, Amber Michael, contacted Anchorage police on Aug. 12 saying she had important information about Pepper’s death, the charges say. Johnson had confessed to killing her daughter, Michael said, according to the charges.
Detectives formally interviewed Michael on Monday. The friend told police that she had been caring for Sarah Johnson, who had become suicidal, and had been talking with Sarah’s sister, the charges say.
The sister, Michelle Karnes of Idaho, told Sarah’s friend that Sarah had confessed over the phone to killing Pepper, the charges say.
Johnson placed a plastic bag over the baby’s head and let her suffocate for about 30 minutes, she told her sister, who in turn told Michael, according to the charges.
Michelle Karnes told police that her sister had been talking about second thoughts about having Pepper ever since the child’s birth, the charges say. Johnson had stopped taking Prozac medication during the pregnancy, according to the charges.
Karnes told police that her sister had more recently resumed taking the medication, but it didn’t seem to be working. Johnson’s mother had come to Alaska to help with the baby but left two days before Pepper’s death, the charges say.
While Johnson talked about being suicidal, she also told her family that she didn’t plan to hurt herself or the baby, the charges say.
Prosecutors point to Facebook posts they say were written by Johnson in early August as evidence of Johnson’s struggles with motherhood.
Johnson posted frequently throughout her pregnancy and also wrote about her birth experience on her Facebook page, which remains open to the public.
After the baby was born she responded to a string of congratulatory posts from friends with a thank-you note.
On Aug. 4, a day before police say Johnson killed her daughter, Johnson posted a note or comment to her sister about being a mother, the charges say.
“Almost every moment of everyday, I wish I had made a different choice,” she wrote, according to the charges.
Prosecutors say Karnes had asked her sister about her options, such as adoption. “I have no options,” Johnson replied, according to the charges.
On Aug. 6, Johnson sent Karnes a text message, prosecutors say.
Pepper had died, she wrote, according to the charges. She didn’t want to talk about it right now, Johnson texted.
On the same day she posted on Facebook:
“Our baby girl was found this evening dead in her crib. We don’t know why, but the medical team did “all they could”. Please don’t respond, as we know your thoughts are with us. Will be taking a Facebook hiatus for a while. Love to all.”
Johnson called her sister two or three days later and confessed to the killing, according to prosecutors.
On Tuesday, police in Idaho photographed the text messages between Johnson and her sister, with Karnes’ permission. In the messages, Johnson admits hurting the baby, the charges say.
In one of the texts, sent Tuesday morning, Karnes asked Johnson if she would admit to the killing if it was obvious police had “serious evidence,” the charges say.
Johnson texted back.
“I wont fess,” she wrote, according to the charges. “I will never allow ben to know what I did. I prob wont tell psy either. I need you and me and mom to take this secret to the grave.”
In interviews with police on Tuesday, Johnson stuck to her story. She continued to tell police that Pepper died naturally when placed on her stomach to sleep, prosecutors say.
But after she was released from custody, detectives recorded a conversation between Johnson and her husband — with Ben Johnson’s knowledge — in which Sarah Johnson again admitted the killing, charges say.
Johnson told her husband that nothing specific provoked the killing, the charges say. The baby was not crying or fussing. She did it because she felt overwhelmed, the charges say.
Johnson admitted telling her mother and sister the truth about her daughter’s death and talked about wanting to kill herself, the charges say.
After the recorded conversation, police arrested Johnson at her Anchorage home.
She has no prior criminal record, prosecutors say.
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Jury:Anchorage mother guilty of 1st-degree murder in killing of infant daughter
Alaska mother who placed plastic bag over infant daughter’s head faces up to 99 years in prison
Johnson used a plastic bag to suffocate her 3-week-old daughter, Pepper, in 2011.
She now faces 20 to 99 years in prison, with sentencing is scheduled for April 20.
Check back for more on this developing story.
A jury is deliberating the fate of Sarah Bentley Johnson, an Anchorage mom on trial for infanticide.
Lawyers for opposing sides in the first-degree murder case gave closing arguments on Wednesday, with prosecutors saying Johnson intended to kill her 3-week-old daughter, Pepper, and the defense arguing she suffered from postpartum psychosis. At most, defense attorneys say, she should be convicted of manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide.
The Anchorage mother was arrested in on Aug. 16, 2011, after police found incriminating Facebook and text messages from Johnson and, later, secretly recorded Johnson confessing the crime to her husband, Ben.
Assistant District Attorney Brittany Dunlop replayed that recording in court today.
“I put a bag over her head and I suffocated her,” Johnson says on tape.
Ben Johnson asks several times – why?
“Help me understand,” he says.
“I didn’t want to do it anymore,” Johnson says, referring to raising her daughter.
Johnson says she felt overwhelmed and ill with postpartum depression.
“I’ve been crazy since her birth.”
Her husband asks why she waited 20 minutes to call 911.
“I knew what I had done … I thought I wanted to not be responsible for it,” Johnson says.
Her defense teams says Johnson experienced postpartum psychosis, a rare illness where a woman becomes psychotic as a result of pregnancy and childbirth. The defense says Johnson suffered a long history of depression, bulimia, anorexia, and suicidal ideation which may have contributed to mental illness after giving birth.
Johnson shouldn’t be convicted of murder because her mental condition prevented her from forming the intent to kill her daughter, according to Johnson’s defense team.
Dunlop said depression is not an excuse for murder.
Lead defense attorney DinaMarie Cale noted Johnson underwent a late-term abortion in March 2010, a year prior to Pepper’s birth. After an ultrasound found the fetus with a fatal form of dwarfism, Johnson flew to Seattle to undergo a two-hour procedure to end the pregnancy. The couple gave the child a name, Charlotte.
“Sarah was extremely depressed after the death of Charlotte,” Cale said. “We don’t know if the late-term abortion kicked in other mood disorders.”
People who saw Johnson in the days leading up to Pepper’s death expressed concern about her. Her mother flew to Anchorage after Johnson delivered Pepper in July 2011. Johnson’s mother left town on Aug. 2, four days before Johnson suffocated the baby, and feared for the infant’s well-being, according to Cale.
“Barbara wanted to take Pepper with her,” said Cale, referring to Johnson’s mother.
Employees at Midnight Sun Brewery, where Ben worked, also expressed worry about Johnson’ mental state and how she was coping with caring for a newborn.
Employee Jessica Rockhill said Johnson had a “desperate quality” about her and she expressed hope that things would “get better” for the new mother, Cale said.
The prosecution built its case on evidence collected from Johnson’s Facebook postings, text messages to her sister, expert witnesses, detectives, and the recorded confession to her husband, among other things.
Detectives interviewed Johnson’s sister, Michelle Karnes, in Idaho who confirmed that Johnson had confessed to her about killing Pepper by placing a plastic bag over the baby’s head and letting her suffocate for about 30 minutes. Karnes said her mother and aunt, as well as one of Johnson’s friends in Anchorage, Amber Michael, also knew what happened.
After giving birth, Johnson had told Karnes she had second thoughts about having had Pepper. She had stopped taking antidepressants during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.
But in the initial aftermath of the killing, Johnson lied to her sister and tried to cover up the crime, Dunlop argued.
She showed the jury a Facebook message from Johnson to Karnes, written on Aug. 6, the same day she killed the baby.
“Pepper has died. I put her down for a nap and went to check on her and she was blue. I called paramedics and we went to the hospital. They couldn’t bring her back. Ben and I are grieving,” she wrote. “Her little face is haunting me. Please tell mom.”
Ten days later, when Karnes texted and asked if she would be willing to admit to the killing if the police had “serious evidence.” Johnson said no.
“I need you me and mom to take this secret to the grave,” Johnson wrote.
If convicted of first-degree murder, she faces 20 to 99 years in prison.
Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Reporters Lisa Demer and Julia O’Malley contributed to this story.