Mother faces murder charge in death of 3-week-old girl

'OVERWHELMED': Prosecutors cite confessions to her family.

August 17, 2011 

An Anchorage woman faced charges of first-degree murder Wednesday after she admitted suffocating her 3-week-old daughter with a plastic bag, prosecutors say.

Police arrested Sarah Bentley Johnson, 33, late Tuesday night after she told her husband about the Aug. 5 killing in a recorded conversation, prosecutors say. Johnson told family members that she had been feeling overwhelmed since the birth of her daughter.

Johnson made her initial court appearance Wednesday in Anchorage. The slight woman spoke softly, saying she hadn't been working and had no savings. District Court Judge Brian Clark appointed a public defender. A magistrate had earlier set her bail at $500,000 with a third-party custodian required, said Assistant District Attorney Brittany Dunlop.

Johnson's husband, Ben, sat in the back row of the jailhouse courtroom with friends, who shielded him as they walked out. He would have no public comment, one of the friends said.

The investigation began with a phone call Aug. 5, when charges say Johnson dialed 911.

She told police her daughter, Pepper, was dead in her crib.

CRIB DEATH?

Over the phone, medics tried to talk Johnson through efforts to resuscitate the infant, prosecutors say. Police arrived at Johnson's Anchorage home to find the mother kneeling over the baby, according to a police department spokeswoman.

Rescuers were unable to revive the girl, and Anchorage firefighters took Pepper to a local hospital emergency room, authorities say.

Police soon followed and interviewed Sarah Johnson and her husband, the charges say. Police learned Ben went to the hospital from work and wasn't home at the time of the death, according to prosecutors.

Sarah Johnson told police that she had fed Pepper 4 ounces of formula before placing the girl face down in her crib for a nap, the charges say. Johnson then took a nap on the couch, she told police.

Johnson told police she woke up about an hour later. When she checked on her daughter, Pepper was blue and cold to the touch, she told police, according charges filed Wednesday in court.

In those early conversations with police, Johnson blamed herself for not swaddling the infant and for placing the girl on her stomach, the charges say.

The Medical Examiner's Office conducted an autopsy and issued a report Aug. 11. The manner of death was inconclusive, the charges say.

The next day, the story changed.

AN ADMISSION

A friend of Sarah Johnson, Amber Michael, contacted Anchorage police on Aug. 12 saying she had important information about Pepper's death, the charges say. Johnson had confessed to killing her daughter, Michael said, according to the charges.

Detectives formally interviewed Michael on Monday. The friend told police that she had been caring for Sarah Johnson, who had become suicidal, and had been talking with Sarah's sister, the charges say.

The sister, Michelle Karnes of Idaho, told Sarah's friend that Sarah had confessed over the phone to killing Pepper, the charges say.

Johnson placed a plastic bag over the baby's head and let her suffocate for about 30 minutes, she told her sister, who in turn told Michael, according to the charges.

Michelle Karnes told police that her sister had been talking about second thoughts about having Pepper ever since the child's birth, the charges say. Johnson had stopped taking Prozac medication during the pregnancy, according to the charges.

Karnes told police that her sister had more recently resumed taking the medication, but it didn't seem to be working. Johnson's mother had come to Alaska to help with the baby but left two days before Pepper's death, the charges say.

While Johnson talked about being suicidal, she also told her family that she didn't plan to hurt herself or the baby, the charges say.

THE MESSAGES

Prosecutors point to Facebook posts they say were written by Johnson in early August as evidence of Johnson's struggles with motherhood.

Johnson posted frequently throughout her pregnancy and also wrote about her birth experience on her Facebook page, which remains open to the public.

After the baby was born she responded to a string of congratulatory posts from friends with a thank-you note.

On Aug. 4, a day before police say Johnson killed her daughter, Johnson posted a note or comment to her sister about being a mother, the charges say.

"Almost every moment of everyday, I wish I had made a different choice," she wrote, according to the charges.

Prosecutors say Karnes had asked her sister about her options, such as adoption. "I have no options," Johnson replied, according to the charges.

On Aug. 6, Johnson sent Karnes a text message, prosecutors say.

Pepper had died, she wrote, according to the charges. She didn't want to talk about it right now, Johnson texted.

On the same day she posted on Facebook:

"Our baby girl was found this evening dead in her crib. We don't know why, but the medical team did "all they could". Please don't respond, as we know your thoughts are with us. Will be taking a Facebook hiatus for a while. Love to all."

Johnson called her sister two or three days later and confessed to the killing, according to prosecutors.

On Tuesday, police in Idaho photographed the text messages between Johnson and her sister, with Karnes' permission. In the messages, Johnson admits hurting the baby, the charges say.

In one of the texts, sent Tuesday morning, Karnes asked Johnson if she would admit to the killing if it was obvious police had "serious evidence," the charges say.

Johnson texted back.

"I wont fess," she wrote, according to the charges. "I will never allow ben to know what I did. I prob wont tell psy either. I need you and me and mom to take this secret to the grave."

THE ARREST

In interviews with police on Tuesday, Johnson stuck to her story. She continued to tell police that Pepper died naturally when placed on her stomach to sleep, prosecutors say.

But after she was released from custody, detectives recorded a conversation between Johnson and her husband -- with Ben Johnson's knowledge -- in which Sarah Johnson again admitted the killing, charges say.

Johnson told her husband that nothing specific provoked the killing, the charges say. The baby was not crying or fussing. She did it because she felt overwhelmed, the charges say.

Johnson admitted telling her mother and sister the truth about her daughter's death and talked about wanting to kill herself, the charges say.

After the recorded conversation, police arrested Johnson at her Anchorage home.

She has no prior criminal record, prosecutors say.


Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or email khopkins@adn.com. Reporters Lisa Demer and Julia O'Malley contributed to this story.

Anchorage Daily News is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service