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“People ruin people”: Former Forsyth County firefighter sentenced following week-plus-long child abuse trial
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Public defender Jake Shapiro, left, and John Weisgerber, center right, listen as Judge Clint Bearden explains the terms of Weisgerber’s sentence during a Dawson County Superior Court hearing on May 26, 2023. - photo by Julia Hansen

CORRECTION: A headline in the May 31 edition erroneously reported a jury verdict on one count in the trial of John Weisgerber. Weisgerber was acquitted on the molestation charge. He was convicted of sexual battery, child cruelty and simple battery. It is the policy of the Dawson County News to correct all errors of fact.

A former Forsyth County firefighter has been found guilty and sentenced in a case in which he was accused of multiple assaults and other acts of child cruelty.

This story continues below.

During a May 26 hearing, Dawson County man John James Weisgerber III, 43, received a sentence of 40 years, with the first 15 years in prison and the rest to be served on probation. 

Weisgerber was found guilty of aggravated assault, three counts of sexual battery against children under the age of 16 and five counts of first-degree cruelty to children. He was found not guilty on a fourth count of sexual battery but instead was convicted of the lesser charge of simple battery. The jury found him not guilty of child molestation.

Quoting lyrics from a song, presiding Northeastern Judicial Circuit Judge Clint Bearden told the former Forsyth County firefighter: “People ruin people.” Bearden went on to say, “Your actions have now impacted these kids and in many ways will probably impact how they view relationships, their lives and their children.”


In addition to 911 for emergencies, there are other local resources for victims of family violence.

No One Alone is a nonprofit that helps people affected by family violence in Dawson and Lumpkin counties. The nonprofit’s crisis line is staffed with trained advocates. NOA’s services include the shelter, counseling, case management, help filing protective orders and other children’s and parent services. 

John Weisgerber was arrested on Sept. 27, 2019, and accused of repeatedly physically assaulting one child, exposing five children to adult nudity and sex toys and touching and striking multiple victims inappropriately, according to his indictment. A charge of child molestation was added in June 2022.

Following an investigation into his arrest, Weisgerber was fired from the Forsyth County Fire Department effective Oct. 9, 2019, according to records obtained by DCN.

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John James Weisgerber III

His then-wife, Ashlee, was arrested six days after him. She later divorced Weisgerber and changed her name. She negotiated a plea as a first offender prior to a scheduled trial in 2022 and pleaded guilty to five counts of second-degree cruelty to children and one count of reckless conduct. 

John Weisgerber’s trial had been delayed by a lengthy investigation, a re-indictment and the pandemic. 

As the trial finally got underway on May 15, lawyers for both sides described years of a chaotic home environment, with six and eventually seven children living with the Weisgerbers in a three-bedroom home. 

Supervising Assistant District Attorney Conley Greer said in his opening argument: “I expect you’re going to learn that the children will tell you their lives were a living hell.” 

Ashlee testified against her ex-husband John at his trial. She described what led to her plea only a week before her scheduled trial, adding that she “didn’t do the interview for leniency but because of soul searching.”

During her testimony, Ashlee described the dynamic within the household, noting punishments that “became more and more progressive and progressive in both frequency and intensity” and having to “walk on eggshells” around Weisgerber.

“I wholeheartedly thought I could help him. … I thought I could fix things,” she testified. 

She described her decision to stay as a “very complex answer” and noted multiple red flags looking back. 

“Why didn't you tell her (the interviewer) the truth in 2019?” Greer asked. 

“I was in survival [mode]. I was 100% trying to figure out how to get out of the situation I was in,” she said. 

She also recalled conversations in which she or Weisgerber would tell the children how to respond to DFCS or law enforcement.

Greer said at least 62 calls were made to DFCS before John Weisgerber’s arrest.

During John Weisgerber’s sentencing phase, Bearden said it was “maddening” to him how many adults failed to help the victims, and noted how different living arrangements could perhaps have made a difference.

He also said had he heard more of the facts and circumstances regarding Ashlee he wouldn't have accepted her negotiated plea. She retains custody of two of the children.

“DFCS was a complete failure…and I mean nothing personally [to those authorities], but the system failed but failed in part because [Ashlee] and Mr. Weisgerber kept fighting for DFCS to stop from taking the kids and putting them in a safer environment,” Bearden said. 

During Weisgerber’s sentencing, Ashlee took the stand again and pointed to the impact of his actions on her children.

“My children… deserve to feel safe,” Ashlee said. “They have not felt safe until this week. They’ve lived in fear. They shouldn't have to live with that fear every day of their lives.”

As part of her plea deal, Ashlee was sentenced to 10 years of probation, two years of H.E.L.P. or mental health court and 40 hours of community service, as well as other standard probation-related conditions. 

First offender status means that after she completes her sentence, the charges will no longer be on her record, and she will not be considered a felon.

Bearden left the matter of restitution in John Weisgerber’s case open for 90 days so that details could be finalized.

While “victim” is a factual, legal term, Bearden told the children during the sentencing, he hoped that wasn’t a word that would ultimately define them.

“Young people are resilient and you can, if you endeavor to do so, overcome all the obstacles that are thrown at you into your lives,” Bearden said. “I hope you can work through that, and I hope the closure of the case can provide closure for you.”