HEBER CITY — A judge become emotional Tuesday as she sent a bounce house operator accused of sexually abusing children to prison, noting that if the victims hadn't found the courage to speak up, others may have been harmed.
"I am shedding a tear because cases like this make me incredibly sad, sad for everyone involved," 4th District Judge Jennifer Brown said.
While Bryce Johnson, 33, admitted to some of the lesser offenses included in the law, Brown called the case a clear example of grooming, as Johnson sought to place himself as an employer and role model to boys who worked for his bounce house business.
"The fact that Mr. Johnson is convicted based upon the facts in this case is because we had a victim who was brave enough to come forward. I am convinced that, if left alone, this would have progressed," the judge said.
She went on to offer a message for the young victims in the case, assuring them that they were in no way responsible for what happened to them.
Johnson admitted in court documents to convincing two boys to perform sexual acts on each other while he watched, and to photographing a third boy in his underwear. Charging documents alleged the boys were paid for complying with Johnson's requests.
The charges had also accused Johnson of touching a fourth boy inappropriately and telling him he wanted to have sex with the boy when they were together at an ice rink.
Johnson also admitted to having two images of child pornography.
Brown ordered Johnson to serve three consecutive sentences of at least three years and up to life in prison for three counts of attempted aggravated sexual abuse of a child, a first-degree felony.
Johnson pleaded guilty to the charges in October as part of a plea deal, while a fourth count of aggravated sexual abuse of a child and one count of sexual battery, a class A misdemeanor, were dismissed. He also pleaded guilty in a second case as part of the deal, admitting to two counts of sexual exploitation of a minor, a second-degree felony, while 18 more identical charges were dismissed.
Brown ordered consecutive prison terms of at least one and up to 15 years for that case. The two sentences, however, will run concurrent.
As they left the courtroom, friends and family of the victims noted that no amount of prison time is enough for what happened, but declined further comment.
The boys in the case didn't attend Tuesday's hearing, submitting written statements to the judge instead. Prosecutor McKay King explained that they continue to struggle with the impact of the abuse and were unprepared to face Johnson in court. One boy, King noted, has been unable to sleep out of fears that Johnson would be released from jail and come find him.
A Heber City resident, Johnson is the owner and operator of Fun Stuff LLC, which runs Heber Bounce, a company offering a bounce house, waterslide and other activities catering to children.
In a brief statement to the judge Tuesday, Johnson expressed remorse for "crossing boundaries" with the boys who had looked up to him.
"I carry the shame and embarrassment of my actions," Johnson said.
He went on to add, "There is no excuse for what I have done, I take full responsibility for my actions."
Johnson also expressed appreciation for the treatment that has been available while he has been in jail, especially group therapy sessions he said have been made possible through grants and donations.
"I have begun understanding myself a lot better," Johnson said. "I will heal and I will become a better person than before."
Johnson's attorney, Tara Isaacson, asked the judge to deviate from the recommendation for prison in the case, asking instead for an additional year in jail on top of the 189 days Johnson has already served.
"He's low risk in almost every category," Isaacson said, noting that her client has no prior criminal record and has a good employment and education history.
Isaacson went on to note that Johnson pleaded guilty in order to take responsibility of his actions and spare the boys from having to testify in court. In jail, Johnson has taken advantage of every treatment option available and is positive about continuing.
But King insisted prison was warranted in the case, especially considering the lifestyle Johnson built for himself in order to be in close contact with children.
"He has structured his life so that he can be around young men and become a mentor type and counselor for these young men, so that he can then groom them and abuse them," the prosecutor said.1 comment on this story
King also alleged that Johnson wasn't truthful with evaluators, minimizing his actions and denying having child pornography, even though he pleaded guilty to it. Because of this, King claimed Johnson isn't prepared for treatment and remains a danger for society.
"The only way for justice to be done is for Mr. Johnson to spend as much time in prison as the court can possibly order," King said.
Those who have experienced sexual violence can be connected to trained advocates through Utah's statewide 24-hour Rape and Sexual Assault Crisis Line at 888-421-1100.