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‘Something truly insidious’: Michigan mom who killed 3-year-old on orders from SpongeBob SquarePants learns her fate

Justine M. Johnson (Iosco County Sheriff’s Office)

Justine M. Johnson (Iosco County Sheriff’s Office)

A 23-year-old mother in Michigan will spend the rest of her life behind bars for killing her 3-year-old daughter, claiming she brutally stabbed the child to death on orders from cartoon character SpongeBob Squarepants.

Iosco County Circuit Judge David C. Riffel ordered Justine M. Johnson to serve a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for the 2021 slaying of young Sutton Marie Mosser, who was stabbed 17 times just two days after celebrating her third birthday, court records reviewed by Law&Crime show.

Johnson last month pleaded guilty to one count each of first-degree felony murder and first-degree child abuse in her daughter’s Sept. 16, 2021, death. Additionally, Judge Riffel sentenced Johnson to a maximum of 50 years on the child abuse charge, to be served concurrent to the life sentence.

Johnson’s Sentencing Hearing

Before being sentenced, Johnson addressed the court, telling Judge Riffel that she had been suffering from several mental health problems since adolescence and had been self-medicating with narcotics prior to killing Mosser.

“At the age of 13 I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, bipolar, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), anxiety, and depression,” she says in courtroom footage posted by MLive. “In 2021 I had been without mental medication for one year and had been abusing drugs that included meth and heroin.”

Johnson said that before killing her daughter she had been experiencing hallucinations and could not remember her mother leaving the child in her custody, how long her daughter was with her, or any details about the little girl’s death. She further claimed that she only learned of her daughter’s death after police told her what she had done, saying she spent the subsequent four months experiencing more hallucinations before her medication began working.

“I want everyone to know that I am full of remorse and wish every day that I could trade places with [my daughter],” Johnson continued.

The convicted killer said that she pleaded guilty and accepted her sentence because she, like “any mother,” wanted to see her daughter’s killer face consequences for their actions.

“Any mother would want justice. I also want justice for Sutton,” Johnson said. “If it was me who committed this murder I expect to be punished as any other person would be. It is what’s fair for her.”

Johnson closed by asking that the media write about her daughter with “the grace and respect she deserves,” adding, “I love you, Sutton Marie.”

Iosco County Prosecutor James A. Bacarella also addressed the court, saying the crime scene was something he couldn’t imagine seeing “in over 30 years as an attorney,” MLive reported.

“It was something truly insidious. It’s difficult for me to imagine, first off, how anybody could murder a child, a toddler, a 3-year-old. But for its mother to murder it, it’s just beyond what I can comprehend,” Bacarella said. “Instead, her mother chose to stab her 17 times. I don’t know you can reconcile with that. I don’t know how you can recover from that. I don’t know a way any person could be reformed from that. The most vulnerable of lives was entrusted to this mother and then brutally murdered by her.”

The Murder

According to prosecutors, Johnson’s brother was in her home early at around 4 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, when he came across a black garbage bag with a child’s foot sticking out of it and immediately called 911. When police arrived they recovered Sutton’s body from the trash bag, but Johnson was nowhere to be found.

After conducting a search, police reportedly found her four and a half hours later, at approximately 8:30 a.m., walking on railroad tracks in the township. Officers reportedly took Johnson into custody and asked her several questions concerning the body of her deceased daughter. She allegedly responded by telling police that she did not want to discuss the topic and was placed under arrest.

During a preliminary hearing, Child Protective Services (CPS) Investigator Ryan Eberline testified that Johnson confessed to being at her mother’s house in Oscoda Township on Sept. 16, where she and her daughter lived at the time. Johnson told Eberline that she went outside and fell asleep in a nearby graveyard. When she awoke, Johnson said she returned home and tried to kill herself before killing her daughter at the behest of SpongeBob.

“She told me that she didn’t remember the specifics of what happened at the time of what happened to Sutton, that she was experiencing hallucinations due to heroin withdrawal and not sleeping for approximately two weeks,” Eberline reportedly said in court. “She was getting hallucinations from the TV that had instructed her to take her daughter’s life or they would kill her.”

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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.