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A mentally ill man was pushed to the brink of suicide in jail. Then Michael Avenatti stole millions from him, feds say

Michael Avenatti speaks during a Bloomberg Television interview in New York on Aug. 2. Bloomberg photo by Mark Kauzlarich

Geoffrey Johnson was paralyzed and in dire straits at the time he met Michael Avenatti.

His life had reached a critical juncture: Behind him was a traumatic experience at the Los Angeles County jail, one that would leave him a paraplegic for the rest of his life. Ahead of him was a chance to seek retribution and money, if not his health.

It was the fall of 2013 when they connected, two years after Johnson jumped off a balcony within the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles and landed headfirst on the concrete floor, according to a federal lawsuit.

As Johnson tried to put his life back together, he hired Avenatti, who later earned fame representing adult-film star Stormy Daniels. To the attorney and his law firm, Johnson's case amounted to civil rights abuse. It was clear that the Twin Towers staff had ignored the warning signs that Johnson was suicidal, Johnson's lawsuit would soon contend. And it was clear the jail failed to take any reasonable steps to prevent the mentally ill man from jumping off the ledge, even after he had done it once before, the suit argued.

It was clear enough, apparently, that the county gave up fighting the case in 2015 and agreed to pay Johnson $4 million, a settlement agreement that Avenatti negotiated.

But four years later, Johnson is more destitute than ever before. He never saw the millions of dollars that were owed to him, federal prosecutors say. For years, Avenatti told him the money was entangled in red tape, inaccessible to him because the county hadn't approved a special trust fund.

In reality, the feds say, Avenatti had siphoned nearly all of it into his own personal bank accounts - entangling Johnson in a scandal that has thrust the celebrity lawyer into legal turmoil as he stands accused of stealing millions of dollars from his clients.

Now, after years of trauma stemming from Johnson's life-altering injury in jail, his long-held belief that the money would come soon has evaporated, said his current attorney.

"He feels betrayed," attorney Joshua Robbins told The Washington Post. "I think in this situation one might feel embarrassed about not having realized sooner what was going on, and profoundly disappointed. A few weeks ago, he thought he had a couple million coming his way, which for somebody in his position is immensely important to his future - only to realize it was all a mirage."

Federal prosecutors unveiled a 36-count indictment against Avenatti on Thursday, alleging he embezzled numerous clients' settlement funds for his own personal gain and lied to cover it up. The indictment comes weeks after Avenatti was accused in another indictment of trying to extort Nike, allegations that Avenatti denied.

In the new indictment, Avenatti has also insisted on his innocence, saying "any claim that any monies due clients were mishandled is bogus nonsense."

But the consequences of Avenatti's alleged misdeeds are serious for Johnson, who now has no source of income, Robbins said. Avenatti had been paying Johnson in piecemeal amounts, $1,000 here and there, so that Johnson could cover rent, Robbins said. Now those payments have stopped.

Making matters worse, Johnson, who describes himself on Facebook as a music minister at a nondenominational, country western-themed church in California, had also been living off Social Security benefits - but those also ended earlier this year after Avenatti failed to provide the requested information to the Social Security Administration, prosecutors say. The agency was waiting for information about the status of Johnson's multimillion-dollar settlement, according to the indictment.

"The most immediate concern is, how am I going to get by?" Robbins said.

The events that led Johnson into the center of Avenatti's alleged criminal plot begin early the morning of April 24, 2011, around 6:30 a.m., when Los Angeles police found Johnson in the middle of the street outside his apartment, according to court documents. He was naked and praying to God. Police brought him to the emergency psychiatric unit at a public hospital, but he wouldn't stay at the hospital for long. After he allegedly "pushed a doctor," according to court documents, he was arrested and taken to jail.

Upon learning of her brother's dire situation, Johnson's sister filled out an inmate medical form that warned jail staff of his recent suicidal thoughts and described the delusions that had been haunting him. He feared he was being chased, and that a group of people were trying to bury him alive, she wrote. He "believed that the only way to escape the plot of others to kill him was to commit suicide," she wrote, and warned that he "planned to jump off the roof."

On April 29, 2011, just after jail nurses evaluated him and found him not to be suicidal, he climbed to the top of the stairs on the top tier of his jail pod and, "without warning," threw himself over the ledge. He injured his foot, returned to the hospital and, after a one-night stay, returned to jail.

For a while, he remained in inpatient custody, where doctors expressed unease about his "elevated risk for self harmful behaviors, possibly leading to severe injury or death." But when he was released back into general population in July 2011 - still awaiting trial for allegedly lunging at a hospital nurse - he was again housed in a cell on the top tier. At least one nurse had recommended he be placed on a lower tier, since he had tried to jump to his death before.

The next month, Johnson tried to jump to his death. On Aug. 30, around 5:10 a.m., a deputy let him out of his cell for breakfast. Johnson walked to the top of the stairs and climbed onto a railing. He straightened his arms as if he was about to dive into a swimming pool and lunged head first.

When he woke up, he couldn't feel anything from the waist down.

Robbins said Johnson had never dealt with civil attorneys in a case like this before. Johnson didn't know what to expect from Avenatti. He wasn't yet the bombastic celebrity lawyer speaking on cable television about President Donald Trump on behalf of his now-former client, adult-film star Stormy Daniels. He seemed like a good lawyer to Johnson, Robbins said, especially after helping him win $4 million.

They were alone when Avenatti explained the terms of the settlement to him, terms that the lawyer entirely fabricated, according to the indictment. He told Johnson the settlement was confidential, which was false, prosecutors said. He told Johnson it couldn't be paid all at once - also allegedly false. And he told Johnson he couldn't have it until the county approved a "Special Needs Trust" fund for Johnson, so that the settlement money didn't interfere with his Social Security benefits. Another lie, prosecutors say.

In fact, the county had already paid all of the money out to Johnson. It was just sitting in Avenatti's hands, prosecutors say.

The $4 million was dispersed among his personal account and accounts associated with Avenatti's racing team, according to the indictment.

Avenatti paid Johnson a total of $124,000 in 69 payments over four years, the only money Johnson ever received from the settlement. At one point, Robbins said, Johnson grew tired of living in an assisted living facility and wanted to buy his own house. Avenatti told him that was a great idea, and even helped him find a real estate broker, according to the indictment.

But when Johnson asked for the money, Avenatti, again, told him sorry, the county still hadn't approved it.

"He was told, for four years basically, that that was the delay," Robbins said. "So he was just waiting for this to be done. In the meantime, Mr. Avenatti was giving him these small amounts of money to tide him over, as though he was giving him money out of his own pocket."

Finally, out of the blue, prosecutors say Avenatti paid Johnson a visit late last month to inform him that, actually, the county was ready to pay the entire settlement to him. He would just have to sign these documents - one of which included a "client testimonial" praising Avenatti as a loyal and highly capable attorney.

Avenatti made this visit to Johnson directly after a hearing in federal court where he was questioned about Johnson's settlement, according to the indictment.

"He must have known the cat was out of the bag," Robbins said. And of course, Robbins said, "obviously if he tells you you're about to get a few million dollars - can you just sign here and say I'm a great lawyer?" Johnson had no reservations about signing the document.

Avenatti posted the "client testimonial" that Johnson signed on Twitter on Thursday, claiming it was evidence that can attest "to my ethics and how his case was handled."

Johnson received his last piecemeal payment from Avenatti last month, and is now trying to figure out how to pay next month's rent, Robbins said. Prosecutors said in the indictment they will seek to recover the money for all of Avenatti's alleged victims.

This article was written by Meagan Flynn, a reporter for The Washington Post.