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Former Wells County sheriff suspected of bribery, conspiring to deal meth

Johnny Lawson

FESSENDEN, N.D. — The former Wells County sheriff was jailed Saturday, May 27, on suspicion of committing two felonies: bribery and conspiring to deliver methamphetamine.

Johnny Zip Lawson, 41, was also booked on three misdemeanors: neglect of duty by a public official, ingestion of meth and providing false information to a law enforcement officer, according to staff at the Stutsman County Jail in Jamestown.

The details of Lawson's case were not available Saturday. Messages left for Wells County State's Attorney Kathleen Murray and the Wells County Sheriff's Office were not returned.

Lawson's wife of 24 years, Christine Lawson, said she and her family were shocked by her husband's arrest. "He is and has been always a wonderful father and husband," she said. "We are at a loss as to what these charges are truly about."

Christine Lawson said she's never known her husband to use illegal drugs. "He doesn't even drink. He doesn't allow alcohol in our home," she said.

Lawson resigned as Wells County sheriff on April 25, citing personal reasons, County Commission Chairwoman Mary Hager said at the time.

In the same week, the commission fired two deputies because they didn't have the proper licenses to work without the supervision of a peace officer. The deputies had recently been hired.

An investigation was launched with help from the state Attorney General's Office and the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, but at that point, the reason for the investigation was unclear.

On Saturday, Hager declined to comment on Lawson's arrest. She said county officials plan to hold a news conference in a few days to discuss the matter.

Charges have not yet been filed against Lawson, according to North Dakota court records. His attorney, Peter Welte, declined to comment on the case.

Lawson was being held without bail in the Stutsman County Jail, and he's expected to appear in court on Tuesday, May 30, jail staff said.

Lawson was hired as sheriff in 2013 and elected as sheriff in 2014, Hager said. He studied at Lake Region State College in Devils Lake, N.D., and he lives in Harvey, N.D., according to his Facebook page.

The loss of Lawson and the two deputies left the Wells County Sheriff's Department with only an office deputy. The sheriff's departments of neighboring Eddy, Foster and Sheridan counties and the North Dakota Highway Patrol were called on to provide law enforcement services for the roughly 4,100 residents of Wells County.

Hager said the county is searching for a new sheriff.