Johnson, 34, admitted that between July 2009 and January 2011, he adopted the online persona of a 16-year-old girl to persuade 10 boys to send him sexually explicit photographs of themselves. In return, he sent the boys sexually explicit photographs of an unidentified female. Many of the exchanges included a promise of engaging in sex.
Johnson asked his victims to include their faces in the photographs. Over time, his conduct escalated as he asked for more explicit images. When victims balked, Johnson threatened to publicly share the images already provided. The victims were between the ages of 12 and 18.
Investigators found folders on Johnson's computer that contained an extensive collection of sexually explicit photographs, mostly of male genitalia, according to a court document. By the time of sentencing, federal prosecutors had identified an additional seven victims.
Johnson also had engaged in an illegal sexual relationship with another minor over a period of several months in 2010, pleading no contest to that crime. Prosecutors said that despite receiving treatment in response to that incident, Johnson continued to engage in the aberrant behavior.
"There is nothing to indicate that Johnson was in any way deterred from his desires to seek out sexual contact with young men," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Carol Dain in a sentencing memorandum submitted to the court. "As evidenced by his ongoing inappropriate criminal actions, his escalating behavior overcame any fear of punishment."
Prosecutors asked Stewart to give Johnson a sentence of 27 years, the low end of a guideline range of up to 30 years. U.S. Attorney for Utah David Barlow called the case "particularly egregious" because of Johnson's deception and threats.
"We take our responsibility to protect children in Utah very seriously. The court recognized the serious nature of the conduct in this case and imposed a 25-year sentence," Barlow said in a statement.
In her letter, dated Sept. 23, Herbert said she understood lawmakers' interest in "trying to crack down" on pornography addictions with a "somewhat no tolerance approach.
"But the majority of the young people that have struggled with this problem are good kids that have gotten caught up in pornography's addictive snares," Herbert wrote, adding that "a one size fits all law and punishment is not what I see as a real solution to the problem.
"We need to make sure that the punishment fits the crime and those decisions are made on a case-by-case basis," she wrote.
In Johnson's case, "being incarcerated for years will serve no purpose in rehabilitating and will destroy the lives of all involved," Herbert wrote. "There are many programs that help with addiction that would prove more beneficiary [sic] than prison."
Herbert closed by noting Johnson has a close, supportive family and that he "realizes that he must accept some degree of punishment for his crime" but asked the judge to "look at the merits of the case and take it all into consideration."
Herbert has served as honorary chairwoman of a philanthropic program founded by Johnson's mother, Ali Johnson.
Judith George, Herbert's assistant, said the first lady was not available and the only comment would be a statement released Thursday to The Salt Lake Tribune by Gov. Gary Herbert's office.
The governor's office released a draft copy of the letter in response to a records request; the version submitted to the court, as described during the sentencing hearing, was on official letterhead from the first lady's office.
The statement, from Ally Isom, deputy chief of staff and the governor's spokeswoman, said:
"The Governor and his Office will occasionally receive requests to provide letters of support to defendants in criminal proceedings. It is Governor's Office policy to deny such requests. Office policy also prevents officials and staff from using official letterhead for personal correspondence. Those policies had not been adequately explained to Mrs. Herbert at the time she signed the letter. She now understands the policies and as such regrets having provided the letter."
Defense attorney Susanne Gustin, who represented Johnson, asked Stewart to vary from sentencing guidelines because of Johnson's own abuse as a child and give her client a prison sentence of 15 to 20 years. She said Johnson had been molested at age 9 by a teenage uncle and, despite some counseling, had became withdrawn, suffered low self-esteem and was bullied at school. That unresolved trauma was compounded in 2007 by the death of Johnson's father, she said.
Gustin also noted that since being jailed, Johnson had provided law enforcement with information from other inmates about drug and firearm crimes.
As for Herbert's letter, Gustin said Thursday, "The first lady was willing to help a friend in need even though she knew it would be unpopular and controversial. I admire her for that."