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Grandparents at odds over custody of 4-year-old orphan

Alice Mayer of Park Rapid laughs with her granddaughter, Leah Johnson, in this undated photo. Special to The Forum.

In her young life, 4-year-old Leah Ashley Johnson has experienced many losses.

Her father, Eric Johnson, died Oct. 31 in a car crash near Wyndmere, N.D.

Her mother, Heather Johnson, died in a car crash in Rhode Island in November 2005.

At the time of her mother's death, Leah Johnson's parents were in the process of getting a divorce.

Now, the little girl is caught in the middle of another family rift.

The latest involves her grandparents.

On the day of her father's funeral, Leah Johnson's maternal grandmother, Dale Campbell of Fall River, Mass., arrived at the funeral home with a lawyer and court papers.

The papers granted Campbell temporary guardianship of Leah.

"It's heartbreaking still," said Alice Mayer, Eric Johnson's mother, recalling the scene Nov. 6 at a West Fargo funeral home.

"You lose your son, but to tell you the truth, losing Leah the way this lady did it is way harder," said Mayer, who lives in Park Rapids, Minn. "We raised Leah since the time she was 16 months old."

Mayer said she spent a good deal of time with her granddaughter when the girl wasn't living with her father and her paternal grandfather, Gene Johnson, in Wyndmere.

Campbell filed papers in Cass County District Court on Nov. 6 seeking temporary guardianship of Leah pending a hearing to determine permanent guardianship.

The papers included a copy of Heather Johnson's will, which stated that if anything happened to her she wanted her mother to care for Leah.

Eric Johnson did not have a will, according to court papers.

Campbell's appearance at the funeral home did not come as a complete surprise, according to Mayer, who said Campbell announced her intentions to seek guardianship of Leah during a visit to Mayer's home two days before.

Mayer said the meeting, which took place the night before a family memorial service, left her distraught.

Mayer said when Campbell arrived at the memorial service the following day, Campbell was asked to leave.

Campbell declined to comment for this story.

Her Fargo attorney, Jason Loos, said the case is an example of why it's a good idea for parents to have a will that spells out their wishes for child guardianship.

In an affidavit filed in court, Campbell said she flew to Fargo on Nov. 4 to discuss Leah's future with Eric Johnson's family.

Campbell said when she learned Leah was at her grandmother's home in Park Rapids, she drove there and had a conversation with Mayer that ended on a bitter note.

"I want to do this as civilly as possible," Campbell said in the affidavit.

She went on to state she has a good job and lives near a daughter who has three young children - Leah's cousins.

Campbell described Gene Johnson as "a very nice man," but she said he is on disability and in her opinion not able to care for a 4-year-old.

Campbell stated in the affidavit that Mayer did not have custody of her own children when they were younger and asserted that Mayer, too, is not able to care for Leah.

"I don't know what she's implying," said Mayer, who acknowledged that after she and her husband separated it was decided the children would live with their father.

"Yes, my kids lived with their dad, but I paid child support," she said.

"We did what was best for the children. They stayed in the school system. They stayed in 4-H," Mayer said.

Gene Johnson said he has a disability that makes it difficult for him to lift heavy things, but he said he has cared for his granddaughter many times in the past and is ready to do so again.

Mayer, too, said she is prepared to care for her granddaughter, who has many pets at her grandmother's home, including dogs, a cat and two ponies, which Leah named Sugar and Ice Cream.

Mayer described her granddaughter as a strong little girl.

"Eric always told her that her mommy died and went to heaven, so she's never had a real fear of death," Mayer said.

When it was time to tell Leah about her father's death, Mayer said she took the news bravely and made a point of comforting her uncle, Aaron Johnson, who on the day of his brother's fatal crash was driving a few minutes behind his brother and discovered the wreck.

Mayer said Leah told her: " 'Gramma, it's OK. Daddy is in heaven with mommy.' And she told Aaron - 'Aaron, don't be sad. I'll make you happy.'

"She's only 4 years old," Mayer said.