Wife of embezzler in Aspen Skiing Co. scheme blames husband at sentencing

Jason Auslander
The Aspen Times
Kerri Johnson walks to the courtroom at the Pitkin County Courthouse on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

While admitting that some things about their online business selling second-hand skis did not seem kosher, Kerri Johnson on Tuesday laid the blame for the years-long $6 million scheme squarely on her husband’s shoulders.

“Looking back, there were indications that something was off,” Johnson said during her sentencing hearing in Pitkin County District Court. “But I made the decision to trust (my husband) and that was my mistake.”

That decision — coupled with the magnitude and length of the theft from the Aspen Skiing Co. — led Judge Chris Seldin to sentence Johnson to 90 days in the Pitkin County Jail, five years of probation and 300 hours of community service for her role in the scheme.

“There were questions she should have asked,” Seldin said, including why the $3 million in income they made over more than a dozen years was never reported. “There’s sufficient evidence to justify a punitive sentence.”

Johnson, 49, was not taken into custody after Tuesday’s hearing because Seldin allowed her to begin serving her jail sentence at 7 p.m. Friday.

Johnson’s husband, Derek Johnson, is a former Skico executive who was in charge of the company’s rental/retail division for more than 15 years. During the course of that employment, he stole more than 13,000 pairs of skis from the company valued at about $6 million and sold them on eBay for about $3 million.

Derek Johnson, who also is a former Aspen city councilman and mayoral candidate, pleaded guilty to felony theft and was sentenced last month to six years in prison. He is currently incarcerated at the Sterling Correctional Facility, Colorado’s largest prison located in the northeast corner of the state, where his estimated earliest eligibility for parole is December 2022, according to online prison records.

The couple will jointly have to pay back $250,000 in restitution, which is the amount of Skico’s deductible on the $6 million insurance claim the company filed.

David Clark, Skico vice president and associate general counsel, urged Seldin on Tuesday to sentence Kerri Johnson to six months in jail and give her 10 years of probation and 500 hours of community service. He said the Johnsons’ massive breach of trust was done for no other reason than simple avarice.

“It was just two greedy people who wanted to live far beyond their means,” Clark said. “I wonder if she truly appreciates what she and her husband have done to the community.”

Clark said it is “absurd” to believe that Kerri Johnson didn’t know what was happening and simply believed Skico would give the couple 13,000 free pairs of skis to sell.

“How could the cost of the goods be zero?” Clark asked. “This is grave stuff.”

Seldin said he could not legally impose six months of jail, and that 90 days was the maximum he could give her under the law.

Prosecutor Don Nottingham noted that the evidence against Kerri Johnson wasn’t as significant as the evidence against her husband. He said that was the main reason he agreed to give her a plea deal that took prison off the table in exchange for her guilty plea to felony theft.

However, Kerri Johnson removed the Skico stickers from the skis she and her husband sold online, she listed the skis for sale on eBay, took payment for them and shipped them out in boxes paid for by Skico, Nottingham said.

“It really was her that ran the eBay business completely,” he said.

Nottingham also brought up the fact that the Johnsons weren’t poor — Derek Johnson made more than $100,000 a year as a Skico executive — and didn’t appear to need the extra money they made. The lack of reasons for the theft speaks to the “depravity” of the couple’s actions, he said.

Kerri Johnson, however, only ran the second-hand ski business so she could quit her bank teller job and stay home with the couple’s children, said Dru Nielsen, her attorney.

“The job was presented to her as a no-brainer by her husband,” Nielsen said. “She did it without passion.”

Derek Johnson worked out the original plan to sell second-hand skis with Skico’s blessing. Then when that arrangement ended after a couple years, Derek Johnson began taking skis without Skico’s knowledge on his own, she said. Kerri Johnson didn’t know the ins and outs of the ski business and didn’t understand the details of buying and selling equipment, Nielsen said.

Further, the extent of Kerri Johnson’s bookkeeping for the eBay business consisted solely of paying quarterly sales taxes to the state of Colorado, she said. Kerri Johnson had no formal training as a bookkeeper and no college degree.

Still, Kerri Johnson did notice nefarious signs signaling that the business wasn’t “on the up and up,” Nielsen said. For example, Derek Johnson told her not to talk about their business with members of the Aspen community, she said.

“So this is the situation of the proverbial ostrich who buried its head in the sand,” Nielsen said. “That’s where she messed up.”

But Kerri Johnson is ultimately not to blame for the embezzlement, she said.

“Mr. Johnson is the one who devised this scheme,” Nielsen said. “Mrs. Johnson’s role could have been done by anyone.”

The Johnsons’ three children figured prominently into Tuesday’s proceedings. Their oldest son attended his mother’s sentencing and sat with his grandmother in the first pew behind his mother during the hearing.

Nottingham said his sympathies were with the children, but noted that simply having children is not a reason to avoid punishment for serious crimes.

“This is what the Johnsons did to their children,” he said.

Seldin asked Kerri Johnson who would take care of her two middle school-aged children while she is incarcerated in jail.

“My mother is here as long as I need her,” she said.

Skico officials have said their employees were harmed by the Johnsons’ actions, which included taking away bonuses because goals were not met and missing out on promotions and 401k contributions.

“I’m so sorry to all the people who’ve been hurt by what has happened,” Kerri Johnson said. “It hurts my heart every day.”

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