A teen who pleaded guilty to playing a part in what was described as a riot at the Youth Correctional Center in Mandan was sentenced Wednesday to serve 3 ½ years in prison, with the judge allowing him credit for time served since the January 2018 incident.
Gavin Johnson in July pleaded guilty to seven felonies, including assault on a correctional officer, terrorizing and interfering with an emergency call, and two misdemeanors. He entered an Alford plea on the most serious charge of felony aggravated assault. An Alford plea means he does not admit guilt but acknowledges that the evidence in the case would likely convict him.
South Central District Judge Bruce Romanick said he disliked the idea of putting Johnson, who will turn 18 next week, in prison "with some of the people I deal with on a regular basis," but the judge said Johnson's actions at YCC and at other institutions left him little choice. He told Johnson he was being somewhat lenient by giving him credit for the time served and cautioned him that “from here on out you have to decide how you live.”
“Understand this,” Romanick said. “Whether you’re 18 or 68, I’ll still be here if you come back,” adding that he’d have no problem handing down a stiffer sentence if Johnson got in trouble in prison or violated probation terms after his release.
The 3 ½-year sentences on five felony counts will run at the same time. Johnson must also serve three years on probation upon his release.
Johnson is one of four teens charged in what was described as a riot at the center. Morton County Assistant State’s Attorney Austin Gunderson at Johnson’s change-of-plea hearing said Johnson early in the incident allegedly followed a correctional officer into a closet and assisted another inmate in choking him. The guard was on his last breath, Gunderson said, and did everything he could to escape. One of the two inmates handcuffed the officer before trying to escape from the facility, Gunderson said.
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Johnson said he was “not in his right mind” when he entered the correction center and acted out immediately. He hadn’t started treatment when the incident occurred, he said, but his actions were his decision and “nobody made those decisions for me.” He’s worked to learn how to better handle himself, and even though he’s not completely rehabilitated he no longer blames his problems on others, he said.
“Saying I’m sorry doesn’t cut it and I get that,” Johnson said. “I can’t believe I put myself in that situation, but that was the old me. I hate that person.”
The sentence was much in line with the recommendation made by Gunderson. He said Johnson’s history included fights, property damage and escapes during previous placements.
“Those institutions haven’t worked for Gavin, sadly,” Gunderson said. “It’s our hope the penitentiary can do something different.”
All of the teens were charged in adult court. Elijah Barse pleaded guilty to similar charges in August. A presentence investigation was ordered. His sentencing date has not been set. Julian Wolf was sentenced to serve five years in July. Starson Buckles pleaded guilty in early June and will be sentenced Sept. 9.