SALT LAKE CITY — Chelsey_girl@live.com and wyominggirl1.@live.com weren't girls at all.
Those email addresses belonged to 34-year-old Ryan Gregory Johnson who pretended to be a 15-year-old girl for two years. During that time, he coerced at least 10 teenage boys, and some as young as 12, to send him sexually explicit photos of themselves over the Internet.
"He studied the kids. He knew what to say to them to get what he wanted. And he got it," the mother of one victim told a federal judge Thursday. "He did some pretty sick things."
How Johnson groomed and later threatened and blackmailed his victims is a cautionary tale for parents and young people. It begs for both to be more vigilant about finding out whom they're communicating with online, even if the chats start out innocently.
It's a story about how a boy who, according to court documents, grew up in a loving, upper-middle class family in Utah County became a sexual predator after being abused himself, and later lost his father of cancer.
The fallout from Johnson's crimes devastated not only his victims and their families, but his own family as well, though his wife and mother continue to stand by him.
"He has left a wake of destruction and guilt and damaged a lot of people," said federal prosecutor Carol Dain.
Authorities began investigating when they learned Johnson had befriended a 12-year-old boy who used his mother's cellphone to email and instant message "Chelsey" on Facebook and Yahoo. She promised him sex and sent him instructions on how to pose for pictures he would eventually send her.
Investigators found 30 folders in Johnson's email accounts with sexually explicit photos of children he had collected for two years and shared with others.
Johnson stood before U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart on Thursday to be sentenced for pleading guilty to production of child pornography. Federal sentencing guidelines called for a 27- to 30-year prison term. Johnson is already serving up to five years on a state conviction for sexually abusing a young relative.
Stewart imposed a 25-year sentence followed by 10 years of probation.
Five parents of his victims told the judge Johnson robbed their sons of their innocence, that he's dangerous and should be put away for a long time to protect the most vulnerable members of society.
One mother who knows the Johnsons well said she feels sorry for them.
"But this is about the kids. It's not about the family," she said.
"Ryan, I don't know why you chose to live like this. You ruined many lives. Prison is where you ought to be."
Johnson, his wife, his mother and his attorney all asked for lesser sentence.
Johnson said he's sorry for what he's done. He said he made "mistakes" and that everyone deserves a second chance. He told the judge there should be "some other way to rehabilitate than being locked up for 20 years."
"I'm not a monster. They can call me anything they want. But I'm not a monster," he said.
Johnson's mother, Ali Johnson, told the judge her son could do more good outside prison helping others overcome their addictions.
"If this can take down a strong family man like Ryan, it seems to have power to take many others down," she said, adding her family is dedicated to find solutions to the "torrential downfall" of sexually related problems.
"Those who suffer emotional pain, mental illness, confusion or sexual disabilities, how will they get help in or out of prison? … Please help our nation. Please help our families find a better way for what lies ahead of us."
Johnson's psychosexual evaluations raise serious questions about his ability to change, the judge said. Also, he said, Johnson has not fully acknowledged his crimes.
Defense attorney Susanne Gustin argued for a reduced sentence because of some traumatic experiences in Johnson's life.
His "security was shattered" at age 9 when a 17-year-old male relative sexually molested him for a year, she wrote in court documents. He withdrew and lost his self-esteem.
"Although he was physically large, he was bullied by both boys and girls," court documents say.
Johnson hit rock bottom in 2007 when his father died of a rare eye cancer. As the oldest sibling, his family turned to him for support and to fill the void left by their father.
"On the outside, Ryan fulfilled this role beautifully. However, on the inside, he was coming apart at the seams. Ryan was never allowed to 'fall apart' as his mother told his probation officer. He had to stay strong for his family," according to court documents.
Instead receiving counseling to deal with his father's death, Johnson began "acting out," including sexually abusing a young relative. He also had lewdness and voyeurism charges.
Johnson's wife described him as a "good husband" and an "unbelievable" father. His family intends to move near the federal prison where he will be incarcerated.
"I love this man now more than ever," JaeAnn Johnson said. "I will do anything and everything to help save his soul."
Dain said Johnson has undergone several rounds of counseling without success. The federal prosecutor said she didn't want to minimize his being sexually abused as a child, but he made choices beyond those events to put him where he is today.
"I believe Mr. Johnson is even deceiving himself and he certainly is deceiving his family," she said. "This is not who the defendant wants to be, but this is who he is."
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