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Former ND sheriff officially charged with meth, bribery offenses

Wells County Interim Acting Sheriff Randi Suckut, a Wells County Board of Commission member, listens as Wells County State's Attorney Kathleen Murray answers a question about the case against former Wells County Sheriff Johnny Lawson and another suspect on Wedneday in Fessenden, N.D.. Chris Olson / Forum News Service

FESSENDEN, N.D. -- A former North Dakota  sheriff was officially charged with conspiracy to deliver methamphetamine and bribery Tuesday, May 30, in Southeast District Court in Fessenden.

Johnny Zip Lawson, 41, Harvey, was charged with conspiracy to deliver a controlled substance, methamphetamine, a Class A felony, and bribery-unlawful influence of public servants, a Class C felony. He was also charged with three Class A misdemeanors: providing false information to a law enforcement officer, neglect of duty and ingesting a controlled substance, methamphetamine.

He is free on a $25,000 bond on his personal recognizance. He was released from jail without having to pay any money, and he could be charged up to $25,000 by the judge if he violates any terms of his probation.

Before resigning as Wells County sheriff on April 25, Lawson is accused of consuming methamphetamine provided by Alexander Blake Lail, 47, New Rockford, according to court documents. Lawson received the illegal drug in exchange for not investigating burglaries and break-ins of residences around Wells County that may have been committed by Lail or some of his associates, court documents said.

The county is about 90 miles northwest of Jamestown.

Wells County State’s Attorney Kathleen Murray said at a news conference Wednesday, May 31,  that Lail is being held in Heart of America Correctional and Treatment Center near Rugby on charges related to the incidents involving Lawson.

Lail was charged Wednesday with six felonies, including two Class A felonies: delivery of a controlled substance, methamphetamine, and conspiracy to deliver a controlled substance, methamphetamine. The four other felony charges were Class C felonies: maintaining a dwelling for using a controlled substance, bribery, possession of a controlled substance and aggravated assault-domestic violence. He was also charged with ingesting a controlled substance, methamphetamine, a Class A misdemeanor.

Lail was charged May 10 with two counts of attempted murder, a Class AA felony, after being accused of burning the inside leg of Jason Thomas, 55, rural Harvey, with an ice auger. Court documents state that Thomas suffered permanent loss or impairment of a function or a bodily member or organ and was in hospice at risk to die after suffering a cardiac arrest. He died at his home on April 28.

Peter Welte, Lawson’s attorney, said Wednesday he questioned the need for Murray to hold a press conference about the charges filed against his client.

“This is indicative of the complete lack of objectivity and questionable tactics of the (Wells County) state’s attorney office and law enforcement in this matter,” Welte said. “We will try this matter in court as opposed to the way the (Wells County) state’s attorney office and law enforcement has been proceeding. I believe their actions speak for themselves.”

Lawson was arrested in Bismarck on Friday, May 26, on a complaint sworn out by the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation. Lawson was seen in Bismarck by a BCI agent who followed Lawson until the BCI was able to provide a copy of the arrest warrant for Lawson to the Bismarck Police Department. A detective with the Bismarck Police Department arrested Lawson about 8:45 p.m. Friday.

Murray said Wednesday afternoon that the case against Lawson is still open and anyone who might have seen or heard anything related to the case should call the Wells County Sheriff’s Office at (701) 547-3211 or the BCI at (701) 328-5500.

Murray said the Wells County Commission is continuing its efforts to hire a replacement for Lawson. The commission appointed Commissioner Randi Suckut as the interim acting county sheriff. Suckut said he has no powers to arrest anyone, but has helped with office work at the sheriff’s office.

Since the election for a new sheriff is over a year away, the County Commission must either appoint a new sheriff or the county’s electors could petition the county to hold a special election. Suckut said Lawson was hired by the county on Jan. 7, 2014, and he was elected to the office in June 2014.

Chris Olson

Hometown: Traverse City, MI College: Northwestern Michigan College and Michigan State University

(701) 952-8454