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Former ND sheriff charged in meth, bribery case makes plea deal to drop most charges

Johnny Zip Lawson

FESSENDEN, N.D. — Johnny Zip Lawson, former sheriff of Wells County in central North Dakota, has entered a change of plea in his meth and bribery case.

The 42-year-old Lawson, who was facing two felony and three misdemeanor charges since his arrest last May 30, pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors on Thursday, Feb. 22, in the county seat of Fessenden as part of a plea agreement that calls for 30 days in jail.

A sentencing hearing is set for 11 a.m. on March 26 in Fessenden.

The agreement also included the dismissal of two felonies and one misdemeanor, leaving the former sheriff to face sentencing for only the those two remaining misdemeanors.

The two felony charges brought against Lawson were conspiracy to deliver a controlled substance-meth and bribery-official action. Both charges stemmed from Lawson's alleged involvement in illegal activities while serving as sheriff of Wells County. Additionally, Lawson was charged with three misdemeanor counts — making false reports to law enforcement or other security officials, public servant refusing to perform duty and ingesting a controlled substance.

Southeastern District Court Judge Daniel Narum rejected a plea deal in late October in which Lawson would plead guilty to a single misdemeanor in exchange for having two other misdemeanors and the more serious felony charges dropped. Lawson reversed his intention to plead guilty at that time and the case continued.

As part of the October proposed agreement Lawson would testify against Alexander Lail of New Rockford. Lail is alleged to have provided Lawson and others with meth. A Bureau of Criminal Investigation affidavit contains several references of Lawson failing to investigate multiple burglaries in Wells County, burglaries alleged to have been committed by persons known to Lawson.

"I don't believe this plea agreement serves justice," Narum told the court during the October hearing.

The plea agreement to which Narum agreed to Thursday in Fessenden called for a 30-day sentence with no requirement that Lawson testify against anyone else involved in related cases. With credit for five days served at the time of his arrest, which occurred in Bismarck, Lawson would have to serve another 25 days to fulfill his sentence.

Kathleen Murray, Wells County state's attorney, told the judge, "We do not object to this agreement." Murray added that, if necessary, a subpoena could be issued to Lawson for the purpose of receiving testimony from him in the future.

Lawson's attorney, Peter Welte of the Vogel Law Firm in Grand Forks, expressed disappointment at the consideration of any jail sentence imposed on his client. He cited concerns for Lawson's safety should he be housed with other prisoners and suggested "home monitoring".

Furthermore, Welte noted Lawson's "lifetime of service as a law enforcement officer" and called "sentencing in this case beyond remarkable." He requested that two to three hours would be needed for presentations during the sentencing phase of the case.

When Narum asked Lawson how long he had been in law enforcement, Lawson replied, "since 2007" and added, "I have no criminal history."

Narum lifted a travel restriction that allowed Lawson to travel only within North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana. Lawson had been working in the oilfield in southwest North Dakota but, according to his attorney, lost that employment when he failed a clearance test conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Lawson was facing the possibility of up to 25 years in prison time had he been convicted of the most serious felony charges against him. Each of the three misdemeanor charges carried the possibility of one year in jail.

At the end of Thursday's court hearing Lawson told Narum, "Thank you for your kindness."