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Their stories: After living in fear and isolation for years, women who claim to have been stalked, harassed, and abused by Josiah Johnstone are joining forces and speaking out 

click to enlarge HEALING TOGETHER From left to right: Jennifer Byon, Tanya Walker, and Becky Heart attended Josiah Johnstone's hearing on Oct. 17, where they had hoped to see him sentenced to time behind bars for charges of stalking, criminal threats, and perjury. Instead, Johnstone was ordered to a mental health evaluation, and his sentencing was rescheduled for January 2020.

Photo By Jayson Mellom

HEALING TOGETHER From left to right: Jennifer Byon, Tanya Walker, and Becky Heart attended Josiah Johnstone's hearing on Oct. 17, where they had hoped to see him sentenced to time behind bars for charges of stalking, criminal threats, and perjury. Instead, Johnstone was ordered to a mental health evaluation, and his sentencing was rescheduled for January 2020.

Editor's Note: New Times spoke with several of the women who accused Josiah Johnstone of harassing, stalking, and, in at least one case, assaulting them. Some pressed charges, some didn't. These are the stories they told New Times about what happened to them.

It's not every day you come face to face with someone accused of committing the kinds of crimes that inspire horror movies, but a few years ago, Shaana Keller let one such person crash on her couch.

Keller met Josiah Johnstone for the first time in 2013 at the Solano County Fair in Vallejo, where they were both working. Although they'd only just met, she remembers that he'd hurried to the informational booth she was working at to tell her about his dad's death the day he found out. He'd said he was heading back to San Luis Obispo County to be with his family, Keller said.

She felt so sorry for him.

She didn't hear much from him immediately after that, but they'd added each other on Facebook before he left, and they messaged occasionally.

Keller said she and Johnstone saw each other the following year, and then the year after that she reached out online to ask if he'd be working at the fair again. He told her his carnie work was behind him, she said, and that he was moving to San Francisco to become a DJ. He'd lined up housing and a job, he told her, but he needed a place to stay before his move-in date.

"I thought it was no big deal," Keller told New Times in October of this year, about six years after she first met Johnstone. "It's just a few nights."

She offered her couch, and that's where he stayed for what turned into weeks. First the apartment fell through, then the job. Keller watched as he seemingly grappled with the basics of bringing his big-city dreams to fruition. Again, she felt sorry for him, and since he wasn't bothering her, she let him stay.

Just before the fair started, Keller's boss asked her if Johnstone might want to make some money working the company booth. He accepted, but after she turned in his application, she received a call from the Solano County Fair Association saying Josiah Johnstone was never to be allowed on the fairgrounds again. Keller learned that he'd been kicked out the year prior for bad behavior—an apparently major scene that ended with Johnstone threatening a law enforcement officer.

When Keller asked him about it, Johnstone played it off as a big misunderstanding. But something didn't add up, she said.

She did some digging the next day, and what she found more than confirmed her suspicions.

click to enlarge WANTED After Josiah Johnstone failed to appear for a sentencing hearing on July 11, a warrant was issued for his arrest and his information was shared in a SLO County Sheriff's Office "Most Wanted Wednesday" post from July 31. Johnstone was later tracked down by a bounty hunter and apprehended. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SLO COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE
  • Photo Courtesy Of SLO County Sheriff's Office
  • WANTED After Josiah Johnstone failed to appear for a sentencing hearing on July 11, a warrant was issued for his arrest and his information was shared in a SLO County Sheriff's Office "Most Wanted Wednesday" post from July 31. Johnstone was later tracked down by a bounty hunter and apprehended.

Keller discovered that Johnstone had been accused of harassment and stalking in a number of California counties, and that he'd been served with restraining orders filed by at least half a dozen different people. Keller said she ended up connecting with one of his ex-girlfriends online, who claimed that Johnstone had physically and emotionally abused her throughout their relationship.

Keller said the information was alarming.

"He's got to get out of my house right now," she remembered thinking at the time.

She quickly worked up a bluff to get him out and called Johnstone to break the news.

Just like that, he snapped.

Keller said he practically screamed at her on the phone and told her he wouldn't leave. She packed up his things, gave him his bag, and locked him out. He bombarded her with angry messages on multiple platforms, so she blocked him everywhere she could think to, and "that was that."

She didn't hear much about him until years later when another woman created a public Facebook post detailing her alleged frightening encounter with Johnstone. The post was shared dozens of times, Keller said, and scores of commenters came forward with their own similar experiences with Johnstone.

"It was just crazy," Keller told New Times, "and it really made me sad to know how many people he'd hurt and used and manipulated."

Keller figured there were other women out there who wanted to share their stories but didn't feel safe doing so in such a public sphere, so she and two other women who claim to have been harassed by Johnstone—Becky Heart and Jennifer Byon—created a private Facebook group solely for the victims of Johnstone's alleged crimes.

There, victims can share their stories freely without fear of judgement or retribution. They're able to hash out specific events and details, talk honestly about their trauma, and find legal and emotional advice and support.

"It's just a lot of women coming together, comparing notes, and healing," Keller said.

Keller launched the group in September 2018, and today it has more than 30 members, about 75 percent of whom claim to have been directly stalked, threatened, abused, or harassed by Johnstone. The rest are friends and family of alleged victims, many who also say they've faced direct repercussions because of Johnstone's presence in their loved ones' lives.

It's trauma that ties all these individuals together, and now that Johnstone has been arrested, they share a desire to see justice served. But Keller said it's been beautiful to watch how his alleged victims have come together and grown since the group was created.

"On the one hand, it makes me really sad to see how many people he's hurt," Keller said, "but on the other hand, I'm really glad I connected with these women, because they are such a strong group of women."

Some members had never shared their stories before the Facebook group existed, Keller said, either because they were so embarrassed that they'd been tricked or afraid Johnstone would come after them. But with so many of them banded together, Keller said they feel safer now. Safer, and unashamed.

Now with Johnstone in custody and facing felony charges of perjury, stalking, and criminal threats, this group of women closely follows his case, notifying each other of any updates, encouraging each other to write victim impact statements to the judge, and attending his hearings arm in arm.

But even with so many of them rallying together, things haven't been easy. Many of what were supposed to be Johnstone's sentencing hearings have ended with dissatisfying results for those who hope to see him behind bars, including one hearing he skipped in July after posting bail and fleeing to Nevada.

The court process has been draining for those involved, and infuriating for those who'd like to join in on the case but can't because of California's statutes of limitations.

And even if all goes smoothly for the prosecution, Johnstone is expected to spend less than five years in prison at most, a chilling thought to individuals like Keller, who are actively and publicly working to make the unsavory side of his reputation known.

But Keller said it's time for everyone to know about Johnstone's extensive collection of accusations of abuse, violence, stalking, and harassment, and the only ones who can bring that information to light are his past victims.

"That's what he's done over the last 15 years, if not before that," Keller said, "and it's disgusting."

The silver lining

There were hardly any seats left in the courtroom on the morning of Oct. 17, the third time in less than a month that some of Johnstone's alleged victims traveled to SLO from near and far in hopes of seeing him sentenced to prison time.

Jennifer Byon smiled politely at other attendees as she made her way through a near-full row of seats toward the back of the audience, and she took a deep breath as she settled into her cramped spot. The judge hadn't appeared yet, and neither had Johnstone.

It wasn't the first time Byon had been to one of his hearings. She waited around practically all day on Sept. 24, when a judge denied Johnstone an opportunity for bail. She attended another on Oct. 3, where she said Johnstone gave an irritating statement, blaming his actions on the alleged PTSD from the death of both his brother and father.

Byon wasn't at Johnstone's July 11 hearing, but she heard all about it.

Johnstone was initially arrested in September 2017 and posted bail in November of that year. On May 28 of this year, Johnstone pleaded no contest to a few of the charges against him, including one count of stalking and one count of criminal threats, according to Deputy District Attorney Nikhil Ashok Dandekar.

After Johnstone failed to appear at his sentencing hearing on July 11, a judge issued a warrant for his arrest. Bounty hunter Richard Dunbar found Johnstone in Battle Mountain, Nevada, a tiny town nearly 650 miles away from SLO County, where local law enforcement arrested him and brought him back to SLO. Now Johnstone could either accept the plea bargain and the court’s indicated sentence, which is currently set at four years and eight months, or withdraw his no contest plea and go to trial.

Byon has seen Johnstone a lot since he was found, but the experience never gets any less visceral.

When he was finally ushered into the courtroom by a bailiff on Oct. 17, cuffs and chains around his wrists and ankles, Byon's bubbly disposition disappeared. The color left her cheeks as she pushed herself further back into her chair. She took a shaky breath. Her eyes welled up with tears, but none fell.

Only a few alleged victims attended this hearing, which again ended in disappointment for them.

Although Judge Hernaldo Baltodano noted that he had received seven victim impact statements and was considering a sentence of four years and eight months, he ordered Johnstone to first participate in a 90-day mental health evaluation. Baltodano said in court that he felt a diagnosis would help him hand down an adequate sentence, and that the evaluation was a necessity in this case.

He rescheduled Johnstone's sentencing to Jan. 28, 2020.

After the decision, Byon and several other women gathered around the deputy district attorney working Johnstone's case as he explained the team's next move. Byon agrees that Johnstone needs treatment for his mental health issues, but she was frustrated with the court's decision nonetheless.

"I thought this was going to be a done deal today," she told New Times after the hearing. "I was really surprised."

She's trying to move on from Johnstone and all the pain she said he's caused her. But with the case still unresolved, that's almost impossible to do.

Byon met Johnstone about six years ago, when they went on a few dates before seeing each other seriously.

Johstone had informed Byon of the death of his father and his difficulties dealing with it, she said, and after about four months Byon broke up with Johnstone. Things just seemed "a little off," she said. She's not sure how to explain it.

A few weeks later, she found out she was pregnant. The baby had to be Johnstone's, so Byon said they got back together, he moved in, and then they were engaged. Things were great at first. He attended every doctor's appointment, and he was helpful, attentive, and supportive.

But then something changed. He'd tell Byon he needed to borrow her car to go to the Army recruiting office, but after searching his phone, she said she discovered he was really meeting with other women and men.

Sometimes his trips away with her car would last days at a time, Byon said, and if she asked for it back, he'd threaten to "drive it off a cliff." He was always apologetic when he returned, she said, blaming trauma from the sexual abuse he claimed to have endured as a child for his behavior.

She felt horrible about what he'd been through, so she said she forgave him time and time again.

A lot happened during her pregnancy, Byon said. Johnstone told her that her friends were trying to hook up with him, she said, but later she found out he was keeping them away from her with threats. Johnstone offered to make payments on her new car in exchange for his borrowing it, but later the car was repossessed, and Byon found out he hadn't made a payment on it for three months. When she contacted the repo guy, he told her Johnstone had threatened to hunt him down and kill him, along with his entire family.

Johnstone's behavior escalated as Byon's pregnancy carried on, she said, and his actions eventually evolved from verbal attacks to physical. During one particularly nasty argument, Byon alleged that Johnstone pushed her up against a wall and choked her until she couldn't breathe. When he finally let go, she reached for her phone to call 911, but he intercepted and told her she'd lose her baby if she reported him. So she never did.

"I was just waiting for the time I could get away," Byon wrote in a statement to New Times.

About two months after the baby was born, Byon ended things with Johnstone, filed for a restraining order, and was granted full custody of their child. He didn't fight it, and that's the one thing he's ever done that Byon is grateful for. That, she said, and their daughter, Melanie.

Byon is now four years into a happy marriage to the man Melanie knows as her father. She said she's never been happier.

"So out of all the craziness and darkness of this whole Josiah experience a beautiful gift came out of it," Byon told New Times. "A beautiful, happy little girl who God blessed me with at the perfect time and when I and my family needed it the most."

Later, Byon found out about all the other individuals who claim to have been threatened, harassed, and abused by Johnstone. She learned about the other restraining orders, the felonies he's been charged with, and the Facebook group for his alleged victims.

She'd always been afraid to speak out against him—afraid that he'd come after her and their daughter and afraid she'd be judged for staying in an abusive relationship as long as she did.

"But not anymore," Byon wrote. "Today I finally stand up and speak up and have no shame or anything anymore. I now know I'm not alone."

She wants others to know they're not alone either.

Legal restraints

At least six separate individuals have been granted restraining orders against Johnstone in SLO County alone.

In February 2017, Tanya Walker received legal protection from Johnstone after he allegedly threatened her and her kids, and followed her kids to school. Walker wrote in a statement that when she met Johnstone in 2016, he told her he was gay and trans, and had plans to transition soon.

Within a few weeks, Walker said he told her the gay bit is just a lie he tells people to keep his "crazy Christian mother out of his life," and Walker and Johnstone started dating. Walker claimed she repeatedly tried to break things off, but each time she tried, he would threaten her or her children, follow them around, and then apologize and blame the trauma of his father's death and sexual abuse as a child.

After about six months, Walker broke things off for good, but she said he stalked her until she sold her house and moved out of state.

"My life since Josiah has never been the same," Walker wrote in a statement she sent to New Times. "Up until the point he was arrested in Nevada, I was always living in fear. ... I don't trust anyone anymore, particularly men. He is the reason I lock my doors at night."

Pastor Garrett Kruse was granted a restraining order on Sept. 1, 2017, according to court documents, after Johnstone allegedly attended a service at the Atascadero First Assembly of God church.

Shortly after the service, Kruse claimed Johnstone messaged the pastor a photo of Johnstone's car vandalized with a note that read, "God Didn't Make Fags," which Johnstone said was left on his car during service at the church. Johnstone told Kruse that because of his own affiliation with the LGBTQ community, he was deeply offended.

That initial conversation was followed by weeks of incessant and threatening messages and calls to the church, according to court documents, and a media frenzy allegedly ignited by Johnstone. Church leaders later deduced that Johnstone had written the note himself, according to cour documents.

Another restraining order against Johnstone was granted to Amanda DeBello in September 2017, after Johnstone allegedly threatened to have a friend kill her horse, according to court documents.

In 2018, Amelia Degenkolb also secured a restraining order against Johnstone after she responded to a Craigslist ad in which he claimed he'd been kicked out of his house and disowned by his Christian family for coming out as transgender. Degenkolb and her wife let Johnstone rent a room in their house, according to court documents, but were quickly put off by his aggressive way of butting in to their private lives.

Eventually they discovered Johnstone's criminal history and kicked him out. They slept in their cars and hotels just to avoid him until he finally left, according to court documents.

Becky Heart also filed for and was granted a restraining order against Johnstone in May of this year, after her romantic relationship with Johnstone allegedly ended with him following through on a threat to have her fired from her job. Johnstone messaged Heart's employer nude photographs she'd sent him during their relationship, according to allegations made in court documents, and pretended to be an angry and offended customer she'd sent them to unwarranted.

Despite these court-validated complaints, Johnstone has faced few legal repercussions for his behavior. Many of his alleged victims blame the failings of the judicial system—including the ineffectiveness of restraining orders and the suppressing nature of the statutes of limitations. Others blame the stigma that often still surrounds situations of domestic and intimate partner violence and say more women would have reported Johnstone's alleged crimes had they not feared judgement.

Most, including Sarah Berkey, blame both.

Speaking out

When Berkey started dating Johnstone in 2011, she had no idea that a month-and-a-half-long relationship could have consequences that would follow her for nearly a decade. But today she's well aware of just how much damage one person can cause.

Berkey was in her early 20s when she and a roommate started chatting with Johnstone online. All three had plans to attend the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry, a religious school in Redding, and they'd been encouraged by the school's administrators to connect with other incoming students before the year's start.

They formed a friendship online, but Johnstone didn't end up attending Bethel, and she didn't hear much from him again until October 2011, when Berkey said he reached out for solace during a rough patch.

He claimed to be going through an ugly divorce, a situation that resonated with Berkey, who had also married and divorced young.

"I can help him through this," she said she thought. "I went through this."

She and Johnstone started corresponding regularly. They had a connection, and he eventually asked her on a date. He was living in SLO County at the time, and Berkey said he offered to make the 430 mile one-way trek just to take her out for dinner.

The date was nothing short of magical, and from then on they dated exclusively. Soon Johnstone moved into a Redding apartment complex directly next to Berkey's. Their respective living spaces shared a fence.

All was well until one day after class, when Berkey found that her phone had been bombarded with aggressive texts from Johnstone. She thought there had been some kind of emergency, and she rushed out of school only to find him waiting in the parking lot in her car, which she said he borrowed almost daily.

Johnstone, she said, was livid.

"Where were you?" Berkey said he asked.

Confused, she assured him she'd been in class. He asked what time class ended, and when she told him, he asked, "And what time is it?" She still remembers looking at the clock in the car and seeing that it was mere minutes past the time class had let out for the day.

"I didn't even know what to say," Berkey told New Times.

She broke up with him on the spot, but shortly after, Berkey said, Johnstone reached out to apologize. He was adamant that the way he had acted wasn't his fault. He confessed to Berkey that he'd been tormented by something awful since he was a child: demonic spirits.

She said Johnstone told her the spirits could take over his mind and body and often forced him to say and do things he didn't want to. He sometimes faced physical attacks, Berkey said he told her, and had the scratches to prove it.

Berkey said she isn't religious at all anymore, but at the time she was a true believer. The ministry school she attended was heavily focused on the supernatural, and Berkey said she even took a course on the demonic. Though she scoffs at his story now, she really believed it then.

Her school had a "Transformation Center," which was dedicated to ridding people of spirits through intensive counseling and prayer. Berkey signed Johnstone up for a session there, but during a healing event before his appointment, he appeared to manifest a demonic spirit, behavior that included twitching, facial contorting, and some violent writhing on the ground, she said.

After that, Berkey said Johnstone claimed the spirit had left him. He told her he felt truly healthy for the first time in his life and wanted to get back together, so Berkey gave him another chance.

"And then that went to hell really quickly, too," she said.

Something was always off.

There was the time Johnstone said he purchased a $300 malware software and installed it onto her computer without asking, then made her feel guilty for not paying him back. Later, after their final breakup, she received an email notification that her free trial for the software had ended.

There were also all the times he told her he was in the Army and being deployed to Iraq, only to later say that he "got out of it."

When she brought Johnstone home to Oregon for Thanksgiving, that went poorly, too, and ended with several of her family members confiding to her that they didn't like him.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Berkey said Johnstone broke things off on Nov. 27, 2011. He told her he just didn't see a future with her.

But the next day she found her phone overflowing with texts from him, some claiming he'd made a mistake, others demanding she stay away from him. She repeatedly told him she needed space, but the texts kept coming.

When she tried to forward a text of his to her mom and accidentally forwarded it right back to him, he went ballistic. She said he threatened to call the police, to embarrass her at work, and to file a restraining order.

That day she sent a lengthy email detailing the situation to one of the pastors at her school. Johnstone had landed a security job at Berkey's school, and Berkey explained that she was worried his threat to file a restraining order could limit her access to school and church. Later, Berkey said she found out that Johnstone had never been hired to do security but had volunteered for the unpaid position. Administrators told her he'd made his uniform himself.

The alarming texts continued, and when Berkey blocked him, he contacted her friends and family. He showed up at Berkey's school and sat in the back of her classes, and eventually he had to be escorted out.

When he lost his security "job," he told one of Berkey's friends in a text, "This is now a all out war," according to copies of the texts provided to New Times.

Berkey moved across town, but she said almost immediately Johnstone contacted one of her friends to say that he knew Berkey's new address and that he and his "military buddies" were on the way to "fuck [her] up."

Terrified, Berkey called the police.

"Call us if he shows up," Berkey said the dispatcher told her. Her heart dropped.

"That to me was absolutely insane," she told New Times.

Johnstone never did show up that night, but for months after, Berkey cowered every time she heard her phone buzz or a knock on the door. She looked into filing a restraining order, but the process seemed daunting, and she figured a piece of paper wouldn't stop Johnstone.

Berkey eventually moved away from Redding, but she said Johnstone continued to stalk her online for years. Every time she blocked one of his social media accounts he'd make another using a different name. Occasionally, false accounts using her identity would pop up, and her email address would be used to sign up for "disturbing content," activity Berkey assumes was related to Johnstone.

"I was so terrified for so long," she said. "I told a friend of mine that if I ever went missing or wound up dead to find Josiah Johnstone because he would be the one who did it."

Then, a few weeks ago—eight years after first dating Johnstone—Berkey saw a post about Johnstone on Facebook. It was a SLO County Sheriff's Office "Most Wanted Wednesday" post from July 31, and it read, "Josiah James Johnstone, 34, is wanted for failing to appear for stalking and threatening to commit a crime of violence which will result in death or great bodily injury to another person."

The post was shared more than 200 times and garnered nearly 160 comments, many of which detailed situations in which Johnstone allegedly lied, stalked, harassed, and conned dozens.

Reading through the comments, Berkey felt for the first time that she wasn't alone, that she wasn't the only one who had suffered because of Johnstone. That post eventually led her to the private Facebook group made up of other alleged victims, where she met many of the women following and actively involved in his criminal case.

Since then, Berkey said, her emotions have been all over the place. The realization that so many people suffered after her relationship with Johnstone brought on devastating feelings of guilt. In hindsight, she said she wishes that she would have reported him to the police right after everything happened, but she was so afraid.

When she looked into getting involved in the current case against Johnstone, she discovered she couldn't. According to California law, harassment and stalking charges have to be brought forward within three years of the offense taking place, and domestic violence charges have to be filed within a year. Although proposed legislation, Senate Bill 273, would change the statute of limitations to five years in domestic violence cases, that doesn't help Berkey now.

"Because I didn't do anything then, I can't personally see justice served for what happened to me," she said. "And that's maddening."

The fact that so many other women who've come forward are also barred by the statutes of limitations, and that Johnstone will likely be sentenced to less than five years in prison, is just salt in the wound, Berkey said.

But good has come from joining the Facebook group, too.

After chatting with and meeting many of the others in the group, some of Berkey's feelings of shame have faded. She realized after meeting the other women—who she said are all amazing and caring and kind—that Johnstone didn't go after her because she's especially gullible or easily manipulated, but because she is kind and caring, just like all the others in the group.

And while Berkey once felt so isolated and misunderstood because of her experience with Johnstone, she knows now that she's not alone at all. Not even close.

"So then to actually be able to talk to people who've also experienced some of the exact same things, and heard the exact same lines," she said, "it is good to talk to people who actually get it."

What's more, Berkey is finally ready to have her story heard, she said, and to do whatever it takes to have Johnstone brought to justice.

"I'm just so tired of being terrified," she said. "Enough is enough." Δ

Contact Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash at kbubnash@newtimesslo.com.

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