Whidbey dermatologist held on $75,000 bail | Update
By JESSIE STENSLAND
Whidbey News Times Assistant editor
September 12, 2011 · Updated 4:32 PM
A judge set bail for Dr. Donald "Russell" Johnson at $75,000 during a preliminary hearing in Island County Superior Court Thursday afternoon.
The 51-year-old dermatologist appeared in handcuffs and orange jail clothes. He was represented in the hearing by a public defense attorney.
Judge Vickie Churchill found there was probable cause to hold Johnson on suspicion of two counts of assault in the second degree and a single count of harassment / threats to kill.
Prosecutors charged Johnson with the three counts Friday; the charges were all filed as domestic-violence related. If convicted of the charges, he could face from 13 to 17 months in prison under the standard sentencing range.
Johnson posted bail Saturday and left jail.
At the hearing Thursday, Senior Deputy Prosecutor Eric Ohme argued that Johnson should be held on a significant amount of bail because of the risk he'll intimidate the witnesses or flee the area. He cited a story the News-Times broke this summer after Johnson abruptly closed his clinics in Coupeville and Anacortes and abandoned his patients because of massive financial problems.
Ohme said the troubled doctor tried to strangle or suffocate his girlfriend on on two occasions and that she is extremely fearful of him.
"He said he was going to kill her and kill himself," Ohme said.
Johnson's attorney, Peter Simpson of Coupeville, argued that his client should be released on his personal recognizance. He said there was no evidence of injury to the alleged victim, though Ohme countered that a deputy did photograph bruising.
Simpson said the doctor has lived on Whidbey for 12 years and is a member of the Methodist Church in Oak Harbor. He claimed Johnson is working at a medical clinic in Anacortes.
Churchill, however, agreed with the prosecution, pointing out that Johnson allegedly hid from law enforcement. She set Johnson's bail at $75,000, which was Ohme's recommendation.
Deputies with the Island County Sheriff's Office were looking for Johnson since the alleged assault occurred at the couple's home on Cornet Bay Road, but found him back at the home in the afternoon of Sept. 7. The alleged victim is identified as his girlfriend, Marianne Baker.
According to the affidavit of probable cause, Baker told detectives that things had been tense between the two of them because of problems with his failed medical practice, his drinking and bouts of depression.
Baker said she had been away from the home for a couple of nights, but returned in the morning of Sept. 6. She claimed Johnson pinned her to the bed and told her "he was going to kill her then himself," according to the report written by Detective Ed Wallace with the Island County Sheriff's Office.
"Baker stated she was pleading for her life when Johnson let go of her wrists and placed both hands around her neck squeezing hard enough that she couldn't breathe or scream for help," Wallace wrote.
The report states that Baker became light-headed but continued to squirm until Johnson fell off the bed. She crawled to the patio door, went outside and screamed for the neighbors to call 911, according to the report.
Johnson followed her, got back on top of her and shoved a cloth belt from his robe into her mouth. He then covered the woman's nose and mouth with his hand, causing her to have trouble breathing and nearly pass out. She continued struggling, so he took the cloth belt from her mouth, wrapped it around her neck and attempted to choke her.
Baker claimed he looked up at the neighbor's house and apparently saw something, so he let go of the belt and went back inside the home, Wallace wrote. Baker ran to a neighbor's home; the neighbor called 911. Johnson fled the residence in his Lexus SUV prior to deputies arriving.
Later that day, a caller reported seeing Johnson going back inside the house. Deputies responded and heard someone fleeing through blackberry bushes, but didn't see him. They found his car parked about a quarter of a mile from the home. Then on Sept. 7, detectives went back to the house to look for Johnson and found him in the downstairs bedroom. He was arrested without incident.
The next day, Johnson asked to speak to Wallace at the jail. The doctor claimed he had been verbally aggressive with Baker because she was having an affair, but denied threatening to kill her or touching her at all.
Court documents filed in Island and Skagit counties indicate that Johnson has been under a great deal of stress since his wife, a Langley resident, filed for divorce early this year. The divorce filing claimed Johnson married Baker without divorcing his wife. The court records include a copy of an online marriage license search in Skagit County that shows the couple have a marriage license number, but no marriage date.
In addition, Johnson is under investigation by the Washington State Medical Quality Assurance Commission for patient abandonment, was sued by his former landlord and owes large amounts of back taxes to the IRS, according to court documents.Contact Whidbey News Times Assistant editor Jessie Stensland at email@example.com or 360.675.6611 ext. 5056.