Residents of Snow Hill embarrassed for the town Mayor's resignation sought over Web site

December 29, 1997|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

SNOW HILL -- If the mayor of this town of 2,200 residents that bills itself as the "Antique Capital of the World" follows the wishes of many of his constituents, he'll be leaving office soon.

The mayor, Craig S. Johnson, 41, who was a Worcester County deputy sheriff until he resigned that job two weeks ago, is facing allegations that he allowed his patrol car to be used in pornographic photographs displayed on the Internet.

Not surprisingly, the pictures have stirred quite a ruckus in this one-traffic-light town on the Eastern Shore. Longtime residents of Snow Hill, the Worcester County seat, say controversies such as this are rare.

"This has been so devastating to Snow Hill because he's been involved in many of the good things that have happened here," Mickie Bare, 42, a bartender at the Duck In Grille said yesterday. "And then all of a sudden this comes up. Now he's the bad guy."

Johnson, who had been with the sheriff's department since 1993, was charged last week by Worcester State's Attorney Joel Todd with two counts of malfeasance, one as mayor and one as a sheriff's deputy. An investigator said Johnson told the Internet site operator, Ocean Pines resident John-David Messner, that, as mayor, he might be able to provide Messner with access to some restricted areas for his photo shoots.

In the photos picturing what is purported to be a Worcester County patrol car, Cherie Messner, John-David Messner's wife, is shown in the nude sitting on the car in a series of photographs. In one, she is clutching an automatic rifle.

"When you're in public office, you've got to set an example," said Bill Nock, Jr., 67, a city councilman for the past eight years who runs Snow Hill Grain Inc. "He failed to do that. Until the air is cleared, I think he should step down. If he wants to run again at the next election, fine. But the town has to move on with business. He needs to go."

Nock said the Town Council plans to meet with Johnson this week. No one answered the door at Johnson's home yesterday, and he did not return calls.

Customers at the Duck In Grille said yesterday that they are angry that Johnson allowed county property to be used in the photos.

"It's hard to believe this would happen in a town like this," said Dexter Ayers, a retired investigator for the Worcester state's attorney's office who has lived in Snow Hill for more than two decades. "If it happened in Baltimore or Anne Arundel County, fine. But not here. It just doesn't fit the image."

Johnson, who has served as mayor for 19 months, has held several public positions in the town, starting as a Snow Hill

police officer and then becoming a deputy sheriff in 1993.

Johnson's successful influence as mayor reverberates throughout the town. Under his administration, many townspeople said they have seen the number of empty storefronts in the downtown area go from more than a dozen to virtually none. And when county officials proposed building a new courthouse 2 1/2 miles outside Snow Hill, Johnson helped lead the protest to renovate the historic structure in the heart of town.

Some residents said Johnson was influential in collecting an estimated $130,000 in unpaid property taxes and overdue water bills. Others credit the mayor with collecting on an unpaid debt -- the owner of a now vacant building that once housed an antique gallery known as the Opera House has promised to make good on an outstanding loan by January.

"Things were going pretty smoothly until all this happened," said Bill Walker, another Snow Hill town councilman.

Now residents are criticizing Johnson and questioning his credibility. "He's one of my customers, and he's a nice guy, but we wouldn't be able to trust him after this," said Jan Owens, an employee of the Edgehill Pharmacy.

That high school students in the town alerted the county sheriff's department to the photos on the Internet has alarmed many people in town, too.

"Nobody should be involved in [publishing] images of a naked LTC woman, especially someone representing the law enforcement of this town and someone who is mayor," said Ayers. "He just doesn't deserve to be mayor. He would undo a lot of embarrassment in this town if he'd step down."

Nock said that since Johnson's arrest, he has received more than 25 phone calls and letters from residents demanding the mayor's ouster. According to the town's charter, if 20 percent of the town's voters petition for a referendum to remove the mayor from office, a mayoral election can be held within 45 days if the Town Council agrees.

But Johnson said Friday that he will stay on the job. And others are defending him.

"Johnson's just an ordinary guy, he's just a prankster," said Frank Bailey, 41, a paramedic for the Snow Hill Volunteer Fire Co. "I don't think he meant any harm by it. It was just a joke."

Messner, according to the Associated Press, said last week that Johnson contacted him last month by electronic mail, telling him he was leaving the department and the photos would be a prank. Messner said, "I thought it was crazy to be honest with you," according to the wire service. "It's a porn site. It's not something I would think a mayor would want to be associated with." Messner could not be reached for comment yesterday.

A sheriff's department investigator, however, said the mayor was bitter about being reprimanded while serving as a deputy and contacted Messner, not as a joke, but in an attempt to seek revenge against the department.

Members of Spence Baptist Church, where Johnson worships, said they wish people would wait to hear Johnson's side of the story before rushing to judgment.

"He's a likable person," said Ben Nelson, 76, a member of the church. "I'm not sure what got into him. He's a nice guy."

Pub Date: 12/29/97

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