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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Paul Walsh

Minn. parents who left US after suspicious death of son, 7, have returned years later

MINNEAPOLIS -- A former Plymouth, Minnesota, couple who moved to New Zealand after their 7-year-old son died of suspected neglect have returned to the U.S. more than five years later.

Timothy D. Johnson, 45, appeared last week in Hennepin County District Courtin connection with the death of their son, Seth, on March 30, 2015.

He was jailed briefly and then released without bail. He's due back in court Aug. 5.

Sarah N. Johnson, 42, is scheduled to appear in court Friday, said her attorney, Gordon Mohr. He said she is staying with relatives in the Pacific Northwest and getting help looking after the couple's other children.

According to the criminal complaints, Seth endured extensive trauma from an inflamed pancreas and possible infections until he died. In his final days, the ailing boy allegedly was left in the care of his 16-year-old brother while the Johnsons attended a wedding out of town.

The couple were charged in December 2016 with gross misdemeanor child neglect. Warrants were issued for their arrest were issued after they failed to appear for a hearing a month later.

Mohr said the Johnsons were not trying to evade capture but had moved to New Zealand with their many children after a child protection investigation ended without any finding of wrongdoing and before the criminal charges were filed.

"They were left with the impression that nothing would happen [to them]," he said.

Mohr said the Johnsons told authorities in Minnesota that they wanted to stay in New Zealand, where they started new careers, and let their attorneys represent them at subsequent criminal court hearings.

"When you have a family like that, you can't leave your kids there and come back three, four times" for hearings, Mohr said.

He said the Johnsons pledged to return for a trial, but their offer was rejected.

Now, after about 5½ years, the couple have returned to the United States. Mohr said he wasn't sure why they decided to come back now.

"They always wanted to come back and take care of it," he said. "Or maybe New Zealand said to go clear this up."

According to the charges:

Police arrived at the Johnsons' home in the 6100 block of N. Vicksburg Lane and found Seth on the bathroom floor and Timothy Johnson trying to resuscitate him. Emergency medical responders declared the child dead at the scene.

Seth had many bruises, as well as "breaks on his skin on the majority of his body."

At age 3, he was a foster child in the home and a "thriving, conversant preschooler," according to a routine doctor's exam. When he was 4, the Johnsons adopted him. Another exam at age 5 raised no concerns.

In the weeks before Seth's death, however, he stopped sleeping, would shake on occasion and developed blisters and other marks on his legs, along with lesions on his heels, which suggest a lack of mobility. The parents explained that Seth would throw himself down stairs and was hitting his head.

But the Johnsons had "issues with going to doctors" and never sought medical attention for Seth.

They said they didn't want Seth on medication and concluded from their research that he had a post-traumatic stress disorder from a brain injury.

The couple also said Seth had fetal alcohol syndrome, but authorities found no record of such a diagnosis.

As Seth's behavior worsened, the Johnsons increased his vitamin intake and treated his wounds with antibiotic skin ointment Neosporin and "medical honey."

On the weekend before Seth's death, the 16-year-old brother watching the boy called the parents March 29, a Sunday, and said Seth wasn't eating or interacting. He said the boy had stopped talking and couldn't get out of bed.

When the couple arrived home that night, Seth was unresponsive. "They prayed for his health," at that moment, the complaint read.

The next morning, Timothy Johnson found Seth unresponsive on the mattress and covered in vomit. The couple cleaned him off and began CPR.

Then they called 911.

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