Share story

RACINE, Wis. — A Wisconsin billionaire pleaded guilty Friday to repeatedly sexually assaulting a girl, a charge prosecutors ended up downgrading from a felony to a misdemeanor after they said the victim and her family repeatedly refused to cooperate.

Samuel “Curt” Johnson III, whose family has run home-products giant SC Johnson for five generations, was convicted of fourth-degree sexual assault and disorderly conduct. He was sentenced to four months in jail, short of the one-year maximum. He was also fined $6,000.

In considering the sentence, Judge Eugene Gasiorkiewicz acknowledged that neither the girl, now 17, nor her mother wanted a case brought against Johnson. Authorities only became aware of the accusations after Johnson, 59, sought counseling at a clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he made an undisclosed comment that triggered a mandatory report.

The victim has moved to North Carolina and fought legal efforts to make her come to Wisconsin to testify.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

The girl initially told Racine County investigators that Johnson had inappropriate sexual contact with her 15 to 20 times, starting when she was 12 and ending when she was 15. She said Johnson exposed himself, fondled her under her clothes and kissed her breasts and elsewhere. When the girl’s mother confronted Johnson, he denied the accusations, the criminal complaint said. Later, the mother repeated the accusations and, after he confirmed he wasn’t being recorded, he acknowledged fondling the girl and apologized for hurting her, the complaint said.

The girl and mother would have been the state’s two strongest witnesses. But Assistant District Attorney Robert Repischak said they refused to cooperate, leaving him a flimsy case. Why they didn’t want Johnson prosecuted was not explained.

Absent their cooperation, Repischak tried to gain access to Johnson’s counseling reports, hoping that details of whatever triggered the counselor’s report might have been incriminating enough. But the clinic also fought requests to cooperate, he said.

“I would have liked a chance to present the felony case to a jury,” Repischak said after the hearing. “But given the state of the case, with little if any evidence, I did was I was able to do.”

Johnson, who is married and has four children, had worked for SC Johnson decades ago but has had no formal relationship with the company in years.

During the hearing Gasiorkiewicz questioned Johnson, asking if he understood that fourth-degree sexual assault meant Johnson had sexual contact with the girl against her will. “Yes, your honor,” Johnson said. Later, he apologized to the victim and her mother for “the tremendous hurt I have caused.”

Criminal charges were filed in March 2011, but the case was slowed by legal wrangling. Johnson is the former chairman of Diversey, a company once owned by his family. He resigned from Diversey’s board in 2011.

Material from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is included in this report.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.