Pitco admin building

The Pitkin County administrative building is shown in April after a threatening email sent to county officials — that led two county commissioners to stay in hotels for safety concerns — resulted in the building’s closure. The author of the email, Andrew Johnston, was sentenced to six years in prison on Monday, not because of the misdemeanor harassment charge that resulted from the April incident, but because of felony strangulation and stalking charges against a former partner. 

A 27-year-old Colorado Springs man was sentenced Monday to six years in the Department of Corrections, the sum of consecutive three-year prison terms.

It was the maximum amount of time permitted within the confines of a plea agreement, but only represented the midpoint of the presumptive penalties allowed by Colorado statute, Pitkin County District Judge Chris Seldin acknowledged when making his sentencing decision, calling the time requested by the prosecution “reasonable.”

Still, it wasn’t an easy decision.

When asked during his sentencing hearing if he had anything to say, Andrew Johnston — who in December pleaded guilty to felony stalking charges as well as misdemeanor harassment for when he sent an email to Pitkin County officials threatening to “shoot that place up” — said, “On behalf of God, I just want to tell [the victim] she can f--- herself, and that’s pretty much it.”

Johnston’s mental health has been a point of conversation — and concern — pertaining to all three of his criminal cases. In addition to the stalking and harassment, Johnston had in August 2020 been charged with felony assault by strangulation, for which he also pleaded guilty, against the same victim whom he later stalked, about a month later.

In September 2020, someone who worked at an area hospital recognized Johnston when he was a patient, allegedly under the influence of methamphetamine and heroin. At that time, he claimed that he was Clarence Thomas — the U.S. Supreme Court associate justice — before amending his identity to Jesus Christ. The victim worked at the hospital.

But my sense is that maybe the substance use was a form of self medication for some of the mental health issues that have been raised along the course of the case,” Seldin recalled of Johnston’s cases. Johnston, represented by public defenders, underwent two competency evaluations to ensure he was of sound mind to stand trial. Both evaluations determined that he was.

And it was an assessment that public defender Scott Troxell agreed with Monday. He described Johnston as “an intelligent, relatively young man.” That said, he continued, “I do not want to for a moment diminish the impact that this has had on [the victim], on her family. There are obviously real issues for them. At the same time, I don’t think there has been, unfortunately, a bit of a failure in the system for Mr. Johnston. I don’t think prison is going to be the answer.”

Deputy District Attorney Don Nottingham said Monday that perhaps the most concerning aspect of Johnston’s behavior was very recent — before the plea deal had been offered.

“[The victim] says she is afraid for her safety — she is right to be afraid for her safety because Mr. Johnston has shown time and time again that he is a dangerous human being,” Nottingham said, adding that he doesn’t make such assertions lightly.

 

As recently as Monday morning, Nottingham said the victim informed his office that just over the weekend, Johnston had attempted to make contact with her — though not directly. Rather, a Garfield County Jail inmate had used a phone in his cell to call her.

“Next door to Mr. Hansell is … Mr. Johnston,” Nottingham said, adding that he did not know until learning of the incident that some Garfield County Jail cells are equipped with telephones. “It remains very concerning to the people that Mr. Johnston will not abide by court orders. He will not make the sorts of decisions that would leave someone like [the victim] feeling anything except terrified.”

Troxell noted that Johnston will also be on parole for three years after leaving prison.

“I hope that Mr. Johnston can move forward; I hope that [the victim] and her family can move forward. I do think at some point that the issue lies in trying to find people like Mr. Johnston appropriate help.”

That was a sentiment with which Seldin agreed, though he acknowledged the limitations of his sentencing options.

“When it comes time to issue a sentence in a case like Mr. Johnston’s, the court often feels disappointed with the options that are available to me as a sentencing judge,” he said.

It was at that juncture that Johnston, on mute during his virtual appearance from the jail, began making lewd gestures and comments that went unheard.

“So Mr. Johnston is flipping off the court,” Seldin said for the record. “I can’t hear you, Mr. Johnston. At this point I’m not sure Mr. Troxell would want me to hear you. Suffice it to say, it does seem to the court that there are mental health issues at play.”

Megan Tackett is the editor for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at megan@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @MeganTackett10.