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Parents' past, faith investigated

The former pastor of a family whose child died after 432 yellow jacket stings says, ""You have to be careful about how you challenge God.''

By AMY HERDY and RICHARD DANIELSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 2, 1998


MELBOURNE -- From birth to death, Harrison Johnson's life was shaped by his parents' fervent belief in the Scripture as the highest -- and maybe the only -- authority in their lives.

Neighbors knew him as a curly-haired 2-year-old who liked to draw with chalk and loved it when bigger kids squirted each other with hoses.

But police in Brevard County remember him because they charged his parents, Wylie and Kelly Johnson, with failing to report his birth. Now Hillsborough County sheriff's officials are investigating his death to see whether they waited too long before calling for help.

Harrison died Tuesday after a swarm of yellow jackets stung him 432 times near a family friend's Town 'N Country home. The Johnsons did not call 911 until seven hours after the attack.

Officials could consider charges ranging from child neglect to manslaughter, but some suggested Thursday that such charges could be difficult to prove.

"Is it neglect? Oh, yeah," said Paul D'Agostino, executive director of the Child Abuse Council in Tampa. "But the question is, will they or can they prosecute?"

Florida law defines neglect as depriving a child of "necessary food, clothing, shelter or medical treatment," including care to ease "immediate pain."

But the law adds that a parent "legitimately practicing religious beliefs in accordance with a recognized church or religious organization who thereby does not provide specific medical treatment for a child shall not, for that reason alone, be considered a negligent parent." The exemption does not address emergency care.

The Johnsons, who belong to a small group known as the Bible Readers Fellowship, have refused to talk to Hillsborough detectives. But in 1996 they told Palm Bay police their faith allows no room for doctors, and a fellow group member equated medicine with sorcery.

How long the Bible Readers Fellowship has existed is not clear, but until February 1996, Wylie Johnson, 36, played the keyboards part time and Kelly Johnson, 35, sang at the Tabernacle Church of Melbourne.

Don Williams, the church's pastor, said Wylie Johnson was fired for reasons he wouldn't discuss. He said there is "absolutely no relationship between Mr. Johnson's group and this church."

In November 1996, Wylie Johnson was charged with failing to report to the state the birth of Harrison, which took place outside a hospital with no attending physician. The charge, a misdemeanor, was dropped for reasons not stated in the court file.

Also in late 1996, Palm Bay police began investigating the death of Alexus Aitcheson, the 1-month-old daughter of Robert and Rachael Aitcheson. Police believe the Aitchesons cremated Alexus' body after she choked to death on her own vomit.

The Aitchesons couldn't revive her, even though the Johnsons and others prayed, "asking God to bring the child back to life," Mrs. Johnson said in a statement to police. They never discussed calling 911.

In 1997, Palm Bay police charged the Johnsons with failing to report Alexus' death. The Aitchesons were charged with child abuse, abusing a dead body and failing to report a death.

In March, the charge against the Johnsons was thrown out after a three-day trial during which the judge refused to let anyone who was not medically qualified testify that the baby died.

The Aitchesons are scheduled to go to trial, perhaps next week, but with a different judge and different evidence.

This week, all of the group's statements are being examined in a new, tragic light. In his own statement to police, Wylie Johnson said he wanted to see divine healing: "It's like, you know, God, if you want to be an awesome, powerful God, then, you know, where's the power?"

Thursday night, reflecting on Harrison's death, Don Williams questioned that demand.

"You have to be careful," he said, "about how you challenge God."

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