LARGO — Prosecutors wanted to send Nicole and David Johnson, the Largo couple accused of bilking 22 people who had hoped to move into their rental home out of tens of thousands last summer, to prison for two years.
But after hearing from five victims on Friday, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Chris Helinger said that wasn't enough.
The Johnsons, Nicole, 30, and David, 32, both face charges of scheme to defraud, which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. According to investigators, they solicited renters on Craigslist and Facebook, collected deposits, strung the renters along and ultimately fled the state with more than $30,000. They had come to court Friday prepared to plead guilty.
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But Helinger's proclamation sent the couple to huddle with their lawyer, who decided he could no longer represent both as it would be a conflict of interest. That forced Helinger, who had hoped to close the case Friday, to reschedule the hearing without a resolution.
It hardly fazed the victims, who were elated to hear the judge say justice wouldn't be served by two years in prison.
"As long as justice gets done, that's all I care about," said Tremain Johnson, no relation to the other Johnsons, who had hoped to move in to the Largo home and lost several thousand dollars.
"I think the judge understood the severity of how it affected all of our lives," said Erin Walker, another victim.
When the hearing started Friday, there seemed to be two routes on the table, if the Johnsons — both represented by public defender Ross Brooks — agreed to plead guilty.
Brooks had asked Helinger to sentence the Johnsons to seven years probation and force them to pay restitution. Nicole Johnson's father, Chris Dominik, 52, of Levittown, N.Y., who was in the courtroom, was willing to contribute to the restitution so his daughter and son-in-law could be freed and reclaim their kids, who were living with him. Dominik had $5,000 he could put toward restitution immediately, according to Brooks.
Prosecutors wanted their two years in prison, plus five years probation.
Before deciding, Helinger allowed the victims to weigh in.
Walker and her husband, Bryan Walker, described how the scam went on for months. They became interested in the 1,400 square foot home at 1091 Lexington Court last spring and visited the home April 15. They signed a lease that day and handed over $1,250 in cash as a deposit and received a receipt.
The couples' kids played with each other. The wives talked of going to the park, making arts and crafts, becoming friends.
The Walkers were supposed to move in May 15. That's the day they were to be out of their previous home.
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Then the excuses came, Erin Walker said. First, the Johnsons were buying a new home and there was an issue with the title, so the Johnsons couldn't move out. Then, they said Nicole Johnson was pregnant, and there was no air conditioning in their new home, so they couldn't move out again. Then, Nicole Johnson said she had the baby, but it was stillborn.
"We named him Elijah and he was born asleep," Erin Walker, 35, recalled being told by Nicole Johnson.
In court on Friday, the Walkers said that wasn't true.
"They really manipulated the crap out of me," Erin Walker said.
Fed up by June, Bryan Walker visited the home, just off Belcher Road between Ulmerton Road and E Bay Drive. There he met a family from Indiana ready to move in. That's when he called the police.
By then, the Johnsons had skipped town in a car registered to Dominik, according to police. A warrant was issued for their arrest, and they were picked up in Las Vegas, where they were arrested on drug charges, prosecutors said.
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Other victims told Helinger similar stories.
Tremain Johnson, 24, said he paid them almost $3,000 in order to move in with his mother, pregnant wife and infant. They were forced to live in hotel until they could find another permanent place.
Dana German, 41, said she, her husband and three kids had moved out of a camper to move into Johnsons' home. Instead they were forced to move in with her parents in Weeki Wachee. She's out more than $5,000, she told Helinger, if she includes the gas money her husband spent commuting down to east Tampa.
When each was done telling their stories, Helinger had one question: would they prefer their money back, or the Johnsons to serve prison time? But they couldn't get both. Four of them pleaded for prison.
"I want them to go to prison," Tremain Johnson told Helinger. "I don't need the money that bad."
That's when Helinger, who seemed moved by the victims' statements, said two years wasn't enough.
Another hearing, where the Johnsons will be represented by different attorneys, is scheduled for Feb. 8.
Contact Josh Solomon at email@example.com or (813) 909-4613. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.