Kerri Johnson, the wife of former Aspen Skiing Co. executive Derek Johnson — who last month was sentenced to six years in the Department of Corrections — cried into her hands as District Judge Chris Seldin sentenced her to 90 days in the Pitkin County Jail, the maximum amount allowed under her probationary plea agreement.
In December, Johnson, 49, pleaded guilty to class 4 felony theft in exchange for the probationary sentence. That sentence will include 300 hours of community service.
When addressing the court, Johnson expressed remorse for the part she played in her and her husband’s illicit eBay business, on which they sold more than 10,000 pairs of stolen skis and snowboards from the SkiCo over a more than 12-year period.
“It hurts my heart every day to know that this has happened. I too am hurt, embarrassed and overwhelmed by all of this,” she said through tears. “Looking back, there were indications that something was off. But I made a choice to trust Derek and not to ask questions. This was my decision, and it was the wrong decision.”
During Johnson’s sentencing hearing Tuesday, like her husband’s before hers, SkiCo associate general counsel David Clark made a statement at the start of the prosecution’s case that asked for a much harsher sentence than that of the local probation department’s recommendation.
“We know Mrs. Johnson’s guilty plea was on condition of probation, but 90 days in jail for a $6 million theft?” Clark posed rhetorically, alluding to SkiCo’s valuation of the stolen winter gear. “Derek received roughly one year in prison for each of the one million he and Kerri stole. Kerri should receive at least one month for each million.”
In total, per Clark’s statement, SkiCo requested that Seldin sentence Johnson to six months in jail, 500 hours of community service and 10 years of supervised probation, double the five years recommended by probation and not allowed by statute, Seldin pointed out during his ultimate sentencing decision.
Deputy District Attorney Don Nottingham, when presenting his case to the judge, veered from that request — though he noted that he, too, found it implausible that Johnson was unaware that the eBay business she managed with product supplied by her husband was an illegal one.
“The deposition that’s been reached in the two cases are significantly different,” he said, noting Derek Johnson’s state prison sentence. “Things that are not different, however, really is the involvement in the scheme. It was Ms. Johnson who removed SkiCo’s stickers, packaged, took pictures, listed on eBay, took payment for stolen skis and shipped those skis out to consumers. It was Ms. Johnson that … really ran the eBay business completely.”
But in making her case that her client should not receive any jail time, Denver-based Dru Nielsen maintained that while Johnson showed lapses in judgment, it was really her blind faith in her husband that created the criminal circumstances.
“As the court knows, Ms. Johnson is going to turn 50 years old this year. For nearly the past 20 years, her life has been devoted to caring for and raising her three children,” Nielsen said. “Ms. Johnson, unlike her husband, did not seek out selling skis on eBay. It was presented to her as a no-brainer. It was presented to her by her husband as a way for her to leave her teller job, to work from home and take care of her newborn baby.”
While SkiCo leadership acknowledges the Johnsons’ assertions that the online sales operation began as an above-board endeavor with the company’s knowledge, that was only true for the first few years — and it was Derek Johnson himself that ended it, claiming it no longer made business sense. From then on, Johnson siphoned high-performance skis and snowboards off the company’s retired demo rack and even intentionally over-inflated SkiCo purchasing orders on premier gear to sell as new and nearly new through his and his wife’s illegal eBay business.
“Mr. Johnson changed that relationship on his own; that wasn’t Ms. Johnson,” Nielsen said. “Her relationship to this case was through one person, and that person was her husband: a person who she trusted and loved. And yes, she did the monotonous job of cleaning the skis, shipping the skis. She did it without passion. She did it simply because it allowed her to have the flexibility to spend time with her children.”
Nielsen depicted her client not as a business mastermind, but as someone who didn’t ask enough questions about a lucrative stay-at-home job too good to be true.
“It’s been suggested that Ms. Johnson is the bookkeeper of the business. Ms. Johnson does not have a college degree,” she said. “But Ms. Johnson did see some signs along the way — her husband told her not to be talking about her business with people among the community — signs that Ms. Johnson recognized, ‘This may not totally be on the up and up.’ And that’s where she messed up. She did appreciate that she was making money, and she did very much appreciate the ability to be home with her children. And so this is the situation of the proverbial ostrich who buried her head in the sand.”
Through an executed search warrant, Aspen police found meticulously kept spreadsheets detailing cost of goods, shipping supplies — which the Johnsons billed to SkiCo, to the tune of nearly $42,000 between November 2014 and August 2018 — and more than $101,000 in credit card and almost $300,000 in “other” debt, according to an arrest affidavit. Among those spreadsheets was one titled “Six Bit Reporting Sales,” which depicted a timeline of aggressive business growth (SixBit is an e-commerce software platform). In 2010, the spreadsheet reported about $1,438 in sales. By 2013, that number grew to almost $295,000 with a peak year in 2017, at more than $440,000. All told, “that totals $2,146,180.46 in sales. This does not include what they charged in shipping above the cost of the skis.”
Behind Johnson in the courtroom sat one of her three children, his grandmother’s arm draped around him in comfort. Johnson confirmed when Seldin asked about alternative child care arrangements that her mother was available “for as long as needed.”
Seldin thanked Johnson’s mother for stepping into that role in a difficult situation.
“I want to thank you for making yourself available to the children, to care for them while their parents are incarcerated,” he said. “It is a tragic thing for the children to have to see this, and I’m sure they will never forget this. But I’m very relieved to know there is family there to care for them while the parents are not there to do that.”
The Johnsons’ children became a focal point during all parties’ comments, whether from the prosecution, defense, Johnson or Seldin himself.
Nottingham, when asking that the court follow the local probation department’s recommended 90 days of jail in its sentencing decision, contended that a lighter sentence would send the wrong message to the community, in spite of and perhaps even because of the children involved.
“Without doubt … [there’s] nothing but sympathy for the Johnson children. Having a father go to prison and having a mother who is a felon who faces potential jail time is not something that should happen to children, and that’s what the Johnsons did to their children,” he said. “Teaching people that it’s OK to commit crimes if you have kids is certainly not the message that needs to be sent.”
Seldin agreed with the prosecution and pre-sentencing investigation, or PSI, report, citing the breadth, scope and longevity of the theft. Indeed, the probation department recommended 140 hours of useful community service in its PSI; Seldin more than doubled that number.
“I do believe that Ms. Johnson is genuinely remorseful; I also believe that an effective way for her to make that remorse concrete is to engage in lengthier community service, to pay back the community for the harm that’s been caused,” Seldin said.
Johnson will report to the Pitkin County Jail by 7 p.m. Friday to begin her sentence.