Defense Says Arrest Of Chattanooga Photographer Ordered By Texas Sheriff Was Not Her First

Tuesday, August 19, 2014
Donna Johnson
Donna Johnson

A Chattanooga photographer who is suing a Texas sheriff for having her arrested for allegedly taking payment and not furnishing photos had been taken into custody before, it was testified Tuesday in Federal Court.

Attorney Jerry Tidwell brought out that Donna Johnson was arrested on bad check charges in 1994 and 2003.

Ms. Johnson is suing Wichita County, Texas Sheriff David Duke after he brought theft charges against her in late November 2011. She is asking $500,000 in damages.

Sheriff Duke, Chief Deputy Allen Boyd and other personnel from the Wichita County Sheriff's Office have had to be in Chattanooga for recent days of testimony before Judge Curtis Collier.

Ms. Johnson said Tuesday that Sheriff Duke had given her an extension of time on filling the order from photos taken in late July 2011, so she said she could not believe it when two Hamilton County Sheriff fugitive detectives showed up at the Extended Stay motel where she was staying on Nov. 30, 2011.

She said she called Sheriff Duke, and he told her he was unaware she was being arrested. She said she also tried to call Gino Bennett of the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, saying she had taken photos of him and Sheriff Jim Hammond in the past.

Sheriff Duke testified earlier that his department made payments, but did not get their photos after months had past. He said he spoke with other sheriff departments, who told him they had the same experience. 

Attorney Tidwell said prior to the arrest of the 54-year-old Ms. Johnson that several Texas sheriffs had gotten together with an assistant district attorney to discuss theft charges against Ms. Johnson.

The defense attorney produced an email from a sheriff department that had photos made in 2010 and had not gotten them two years later. The email said it was "past ridiculous."

Ms. Johnson said she had a good relationship with Sheriff Duke throughout the process of taking the pictures and then working with him on getting them filled. She said, "We had a great rapport."

She said during the photo shoot he had borrowed her camera. She said when she later looked at the pictures "I saw he had taken one of a K-9's anus." She said, "It was a big joke. It was all in good humor."

Ms. Johnson said she conversed with the sheriff just before her arrest with him asking her Thanksgiving plans and then later wanting to know how Thanksgiving went.

She said most sheriffs "have a lot on their plate. They are busy fighting crime." But she said Sheriff Duke agreed early on to be the contact point with her on the photo order.

Ms. Johnson said after making trips to Texas on the various sheriff orders she could see that actual orders were inadequate and she was in a losing proposition. She said, "There was a shift in technology. This was not a viable business model any more."

She said she closed her office on Chestnut Street after the July shoots, and she moved to a Microtel and then to the Extended Stay. She said she put her printing equipment in storage. She said her husband, two sons and her real estate agent helped move some of the equipment to the Extended Stay so she could finish the jobs.

She said she took a job at a staffing service and worked on finishing the photos at night. She said she had trouble getting the money to buy paper and ink. However, attorney Tidwell introduced records of spending at her Cherokee Studios account, including numerous cash withdrawals and purchases at Starbucks, Fresh Market and elsewhere. She admitted that at the time she and her husband-to-be were mingling their private funds with the company funds in the one account.   

She said she had the Wichita County job almost ready and offered to send what she had, but Sheriff Duke always said not to send anything until it was all ready.

Ms. Johnson said not long before her arrest she got word "there were rumblings among the troops" and even Sheriff Duke "seemed a little different."

She told the six-person jury, "Because of the nature of the accusation and the illegal arrest, I was terminated." (from her job at Amazon).  They have zero tolerance for anything of a theft nature. My permanent position, my promotion, everything was gone."

Ms. Johnson currently works with Keller Williams in Cleveland.

Wichita County officials had to have a special meeting to approve the considerable expenses involved in the trial, including travel back and forth to Chattanooga.

She is represented by attorneys Joe Dickson and John Anderson.

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