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Couple convicted of arson seeking answers

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a series on Charles and Kim Johnson, of Niobrara, Nebraska, and their lives after being convicted of felony arson and reckless burning in 2013.

An empty lot is what remains of Charles and Kim Johnson's restaurant called Libby's Steakhouse that burned down in 2010. (Photo composite Matt Gade/Republic)
An empty lot is what remains of Charles and Kim Johnson's restaurant called Libby's Steakhouse that burned down in 2010. (Photo composite Matt Gade/Republic)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a series on Charles and Kim Johnson, of Niobrara, Nebraska, and their lives after being convicted of felony arson and reckless burning in 2013.

SPRINGFIELD-Just a few blocks from the restaurant they used to own, Charles and Kimberly Johnson talk about the night their lives changed forever.

The Johnsons, of Niobrara, Nebraska, owned the former Libby's Steakhouse in Springfield. They each were convicted in 2013 of second-degree arson and reckless burning, each of which is a felony. They were convicted of starting the fire in October 2010 that destroyed their restaurant, Boschma Law Office and Bon Homme Insurance, and caused smoke and water damage to several others.

Charles and Kimberly, or Charlie, 65, and Kim, 59, were each sentenced to 10 years in prison, with nine years suspended. They each spent 90 days in prison.

Despite their conviction, the Johnsons maintain that they are innocent. Now caring for their young granddaughter and bearing a debt load of more than $435,000, the Johnsons say they just want their lives, and their good name, back.

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That's why, nearly three years after their conviction, the Johnsons have started speaking out, seeking answers and hoping to have their voice heard. And more than anything, they just want to know: why?

"I wanted to know what in the world the jury thinks they heard to convict us for 20 years," Kim Johnson said.

The conviction

In the early morning hours of Oct. 7, 2010, Springfield's typically quiet Main Street erupted with lights, sirens and fire trucks. Around 2:30 a.m., a fire broke out in Libby's, the Johnsons' downtown restaurant. Firefighters from Tyndall, Avon, Tabor, Lesterville and Yankton responded to help fight the blaze.

The fire destroyed Libby's Steakhouse, then spread to the building that shared a wall to the east, Boschma Law Office; it and Bon Homme Insurance were also destroyed. Several other businesses on Springfield's Main Street, including Mr. Golf Car, reported smoke and water damage after the fire.

Charlie and Kim got the call about the fire shortly after it was reported, and drove straight there-pajamas and all.

When they arrived, officials asked them for their keys to get into the business. The Johnsons say they told firefighters to break down the door, and firefighters instead sent the Johnsons home to retrieve their keys. They were-and are still-baffled by the response.

"We didn't even put coats on," Charlie said. "It never even dawned on us that we didn't have keys-or that we would need them. If they're saying your building is on fire, you expect someone to at least be taking care of it to fight it."

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Shannon DeFries, a Springfield firefighter, was the first to go into Libby's when the blaze started. According to Daily Republic archives, DeFries said he and a fellow firefighter were able to get two initial attacks on the flames and thought they had it under control.

Because the building had more than one layer of roofing and many false ceilings, then-chief of the Springfield Fire Department Randy Hixon testified during the trial that it was next to impossible to fight the fire once it got into those areas.

Now, nearly six years later, the lot where Libby's stood remains empty, and at least one of the nearby buildings still bears black char marks, scars of the fire.

The fire was investigated by the Bon Homme County Sheriff's Office, Division of Criminal Investigation, state Fire Marshal's Office and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. By the end of the month, investigators hadn't found a cause for the fire, but had deemed it suspicious. In April 2012, the Johnsons were each charged with felony arson and reckless burning.

In June 2013, it went to trial. Judge Glen Eng presided over the trial, which lasted a week, at the Bon Homme County Courthouse in Tyndall. A Bon Homme County jury found Charlie and Kim Johnson each guilty of second-degree arson and reckless burning. In addition to their prison time, the Johnsons were sentenced to pay $439,328.48 in restitution costs, according to court documents.

It's a far cry from what the Johnsons say they expected.

"We thought, 'Fine, we'll go to court, we'll prove our innocence, we'll be done,' " Kim said. "That didn't happen."

The aftermath

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After the verdict, Kim wouldn't leave the house. She was too embarrassed. It's still shameful for them both.

"The thing that hurt me the worst about this is that we lost our reputation," Kim said.

Judge Eng sentenced the Johnsons to 10 years, the maximum sentence for their crime, but suspended nine years. During the sentencing, Eng told the Johnsons that since it was their first, and a class 4 felony, they would serve 25 percent of that time-three months-as long as they complied with the court's provisions. He also allowed Charlie and Kim to alternate their prison time so they could continue to care for their grandchildren.

In addition to their prison time, the Johnsons were later ordered to pay a little more than $439,000 in restitution. For the Johnsons, it's a cruel irony since the state argued that the Johnsons started the fire to escape financial struggles.

"We'll never be out of the debt load," Johnson said. "We have a life sentence. We will never get off of parole. We'll never be able to pay off the restitution. We'll never get clear."

And further appeals are too expensive, they said.

"For us, there's not another place that we can go," Charlie said.

Their dream was for their grandson, Kade, to take over the restaurant once he turned 21. Kade, now almost 20, has since graduated from high school and now lives in Seattle, but the Johnsons still care for their 9-year-old granddaughter, Meadow.

They lost the home they owned in Springfield, and had to move back into the basement of the home they owned in Niobrara, Nebraska, where their daughter lived at the time. They had to sell many of their valuables, like Charlie's 1956 and '62 Chevys, so they could afford to move.

"We lost everything," Charlie said.

Their financial woes were compounded, they said, when they couldn't find work. No one in Springfield would hire them after the fire.

"There wasn't anybody that even came by our home to see if we were OK," Charlie said. "That's how the community treated us. That's a shame."

Life as a felon

And life as a felon has been a shocking change.

After Libby's burned down, Kim found work at a casino in Nebraska. Once she was convicted of two felonies, she lost that job. She now works as a cook at a cafe in Niobrara. Charlie retired, saying his health doesn't allow him to work. He's now on a fixed income from Social Security.

While they're grateful for the judge suspending most of their sentences, the Johnsons still feel far from free.

Their restrictions are numerous, a combination of rights not permitted to felons and conditions of their parole.

They need permission to travel from their parole officers. When Kim wanted to visit one of her sisters undergoing cancer treatment, she had to provide proof that her sister was sick to get permission.

The Johnsons also can't vote, and can't have firearms, which means they can't keep the guns passed to Charlie from his dad, grandfather and others. They can't buy a lottery ticket, drink alcohol or go into a bar or business that makes more of its money from alcohol sales than food sales-or if it has video lottery.

Their spending is closely monitored, as well. They have to ask permission for most expenditures, unless it's for basic food, clothing or living expenses. Other items, even home improvements, must be approved by their parole officer.

"It doesn't matter if you need a new roof, you have to ask," he said. "Im 65 years old, and I have to ask my parole officer if I can spend more than $100."

Meanwhile, their expenses went up.

"This is what they do to felons. How do these people have even a chance?" Kim said.

But they don't fit the mold of a felon, they said. Charlie noted that he has two bachelor of arts degrees, one in philosophy and one in religion. He was ordained in 1979 as a Methodist minister.

Prior to owning Libby's, the Johnsons owned a restaurant in Verdel, Nebraska. Before they owned restaurants, Charlie owned his own business, served in the Army 82nd Airborne Division from 1970 to 1971, and also worked in construction on the Chief Standing Bear Memorial Bridge that connects Nebraska to South Dakota near Niobrara. Kim had worked in food service most of her life, he said.

"We're educated. We're hard-working. We're honest," Charlie said.

They loved their business, they said, and lost more than just their income when it burned to the ground. Charlie noted golf equipment and a simulator he had inside the building, and Kim said her mother's cookbooks were all destroyed. Her mother died in 1988, she said, and those things can't be replaced.

"The people that knew us knew darn well we didn't burn that place down," Kim said.

Kim's sister, Teresa Cain, echoed Charlie and Kim's sentiments. Cain moved to Springfield to help her sister run Libby's Steakhouse. After the fire, Cain said she had to go to Niobrara to get a job. She adamantly stands by Charlie and Kim, and is angry at the rumor mill that she says falsely accused her family.

"This town does not like outsiders," she said.

Though they are still hurt and confused by what they see as an unjust verdict, the Johnsons said it has gotten easier to handle. They can laugh and joke about some aspects of the trial, citing their faith in God and support from family and friends as a help.

"You have to look at the good side of life," Charlie said. "I believe things happen for a reason."

He admits he wishes "God would talk a little bit louder" in this situation, but more than anything, the Johnsons said they want a second chance to prove themselves.

"This is our name. You don't get that back," Johnson said. "Our name was good before this. We want to re-establish that, if that's possible."

Related Topics: CRIME
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