City settles $325K molestation lawsuit

Mark Johnstone was sentenced to 19 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to one count of child molestation and two counts of attempted child molestation in 2009. (Submitted photo)

The city of Peoria has settled a lawsuit with the alleged fourth victim of a former city worker who was convicted in 2009 of inappropriate conduct with several other minors.

Mark Johnstone, a former groundskeeper at Cheyenne Elementary School and a part-time city recreation worker, pleaded guilty a decade ago to one count of child molestation and two counts of attempted child molestation. He is serving a 19-year sentence.

Per the recent settlement, “Jane Doe” will receive $325,000. Her name has not been released because she was a minor at the time of the alleged incident, which she reported occurred in 2005. No new charges are expected for Johnstone.

The three previous victims settled with both the city and the Peoria Unified School District (PUSD) after they filed a $3 million claim in 2011, but the total settlement was never disclosed. Those incidents reportedly happened between June 1 and August 3, 2007.

“Given the private and sensitive nature of the allegations and the fact that the plaintiff was a minor at the time of the alleged molestation, the city cannot disclose further details,” Peoria City Attorney Vanessa P. Hickman told Peoria Times. “The plaintiff filed her lawsuit in September of 2017 and the payment terms of the settlement are confidential.”

Hickman, who was not city attorney at the time, said the incident with the fourth victim allegedly occurred during the city’s after-school program.

“The plaintiff filed a lawsuit alleging she was molested while a participant in the city’s AM/PM program in the fall of 2005,” she said.

Peoria’s AM/PM program offers elementary school-age children at 22 PUSD elementary schools a variety of activities such as arts and crafts, games, events, field trips during school breaks, and outdoor activities.

The original lawsuit alleged that Johnstone groomed the 6-year-old students for sexual activity. Johnstone would have the victim sit on his lap, and then he would hug her and give her candy before molesting her, the lawsuit claimed. The fourth alleged victim claimed “similar aspects to the original filings,” Hickman said.

The suit claimed the city as well as PUSD knew of Johnstone’s behavior but failed to investigate. The city and district, however, both stated that they take allegations of abuse seriously.

Since the original allegations surfaced, the city has increased employee background checks, but maintains intensive checks have always been performed on all staff.

“The alleged incident occurred 14 years ago. The AM/PM program has been in operation for 20 years, and it follows all the rules and regulations of the Department of Health Services child care licensing as well as city of Peoria policies and procedures,” Hickman said. “All employees were required at that time, and will continue to be required, to have a background check, a Class 1 fingerprint card from the Arizona Department of Public Safety, reference checks and 18 hours of annual training per employee.”

Hickman added that the city continues to try to improve all participants’ safety.

“The program continues to grow and evolve in all areas and its goal is to provide a safe, secure and fun environment for all of our participants,” Hickman said.