LAWRENCEVILLE -- The topic du jour Wednesday in the child molestation trial of a former Dacula church mentor was a 14-year-old Texan named "Kristen." And she never even existed.
Kristen was an online invention of 29-year-old Antoine Johnson, a former intern and summer camp organizer at Hebron Baptist Church, who posed as the girl on MySpace to lure underage boys, most of them loners and outcasts, into a twisted game of sexual abuse.
Calling the scheme "absolutely diabolical," Gwinnett Superior Court Judge Timothy Hamil meted out a life sentence to Johnson for molesting two boys (ages 13 and 14) and attempting to lure a third (age 15) in 2008. Posing as Kristen on MySpace, in emails and even phone calls, Johnson emptily promised the boys sexual favors with her if they had sex with him, as a means to show they were loyal and could keep a secret.
So convincing was the ploy, one teen victim spoke of Kristen as if she were a codefendant, as did Johnson.
Johnson testified that he created the Kristen persona -- using a photo he stole from a real account in Texas -- to help a friend's younger brother with self-confidence issues. Things, he claimed, spun out of control when one of the victims stumbled on the Kristen profile and started making sexual advances.
The teen victim who testified Wednesday said that, entranced by Kristen's good looks, he agreed to meet Johnson outside his parents' Dacula home at 2 a.m. one night, where they had oral sex in the driveway. Johnson used a vacant home in an under-construction subdivision for his other wee-hour rendezvous.
"At first I refused for a few weeks ... but she kept asking me and asking me, and I gave in," the teen testified.
Johnson, short and stocky in a checkered orange Oxford, launched into rambling explanations of nights he met with the teens that he claimed didn't involve sex. Hamil, grilling Johnson from the bench, called his accounts convoluted and questioned his honesty.
In closing arguments, Assistant District Attorney Nigel Lush catagorized Johnson's manipulation as "evil genius."
"I've been a prosecutor 13 years, and the defendant's testimony was some of the most bizarre I've seen," Lush said. "We got a look inside the mind of a true pedophile."
For her part, Johnson's defense attorney Stacy Levy, facing a confession tape and stacks of printed email exchanges, painted the youngest victims as liars.
Lush said none of the victims had initially met Johnson at church. Johnson testified he mentored 500 kids per week, from kindergartners to college students, but said he touched none of them.
The judge pointed to a taped interview with police as damning evidence, in which Johnson admits to sex acts with the teens and even mimics the falsetto voice he used for Kristen.
On the stand, though, Johnson recanted, saying he only "took the fall" because he wanted to keep secret homosexual tendencies between the boys that they'd confided in him.
Johnson repeatedly dismissed his online behavior as altruism, saying the attention paid to the boys by who they thought was an attractive teen girl only boosted their self-esteem. He ripped photos of scantily clad women's bodies from the Internet and passed them off as Kristen, duping not only the local teens, but dozens of males who emailed him photos of their genitals.
"It was that profile that helped me to get to know them better," Johnson testified. "I would use that as a way to shape them to be better people."
Johnson's online exploits came to the attention of police only when the mother of one teen, who had been monitoring his MySpace account, found explicit emails and alerted other parents. Hamil and Lush both praised her as a "hero" who spared untold victims from Johnson.
Following his June 2009 arrest, Johnson was jailed for a year until Hamil lowered his bond to $39,700. In the two years since, he'd been hired by a Wendy's restaurant and had risen to manager.
Johnson opted to have his case heard by the judge in a bench trial -- an attempt to spare the teens from recounting their past troubles in front of a jury, he testified. He pleaded guilty to 11 counts of sexual exploitation of a child in connection with a cache of dozens of child porn films and hundreds of photographs found on his personal computer.
He also copped to a count of enticing a child for indecent purposes and two counts of attempting to entice children. Those allegations were supported by the emails and online messages that hadn't been deleted by the victims.
Johnson was sentenced to life in prison for three counts of aggravated child molestation. The judge tacked on 60 years of probation to restrict him from computer access or unsupervised contact with minors, should he ever be paroled. Prosecutors had offered Johnson a plea deal of 20 years in prison, but he balked at admitting in court to physically molesting the teens. On the stand, he admitted to lusting for young boys but blamed his impulses on a distant relative who molested him and exposed him to child pornography when he was 7 years old.
Lush recommended the life sentence because "true pedophiles never get better," while Levy asked for the mandatory minimum of 25 years, pointing to his family as a strong support system, should he be freed.
Two church associates and several family members, some weeping, begged Hamil to spare Johnson from a life in prison.
"I love him and you have to have mercy," said sister Janice Johnson.
The last words of support for Johnson were his own. He keeled over on the defense table at one point, tearfully pleading for leniency. "I'm not a monster," he told the judge.
Hamil appeared crestfallen by what he called three days of "gruesome" testimony, likening a trusted church leader who lures children into sexual abuse to "a parent's worst nightmare." He said Johnson had appeared competent to stand trial all week, suffering from sick lust and not a split personality.
"I have said to my staff several times that I think society is going to hell in a hand-basket," said Hamil. "Frankly, I think this case proves that."