Robbing 'em blind

For burglar Carnell Johnson, willing fences, indifferent neighbors, and friendly dogs ame for an easy living

As he speaks, it is easy to forget that Carnell Johnson is sitting inside the north tower of the Lew Sterrett jail, caught safely in the hands of the Dallas County sheriff.

On this Monday afternoon, Johnson is remarkably happy and, for just a moment, the white brick cell doesn't seem so tiny. Indeed, Johnson looks at home as he casually jangles his inmate identification wristband and proceeds with his monologue about what society needs to do to improve itself.

If it weren't for his ill-fitting white jumpsuit, DALLAS COUNTY JAIL stamped on its back, Johnson could be mistaken for a community leader--a block captain, perhaps. Ignore the tan plastic sandals, their laceless design a reminder of jail suicides, and you might mistake Johnson for a philosophy major or a college lecturer--even a preacher.

"People are not concerned with people anymore," Johnson says.
Mindful of the steel door slightly ajar and the guard standing within earshot, Johnson lowers his voice to a whisper.

"As a society, we have to be more in tune with each other," he says. "We have to be more willing to lend each other a helping hand. We just have to just keep willing to be there for each other, instead of always throwing the stone."

Johnson's gospel of love may sound good on the surface, but at its heart it's hollow, coming from the mouth of a crack-head predator who feeds off good, hard-working people by breaking into their homes. His message arouses anger not just because it is hypocritical, but also because there is a sad truth in it.

Carnell Johnson is truly sorry, in every sense of the word.

For nearly two months this year, the residents of Junius Heights in Old East Dallas probably mistook Johnson for many things. A door-to-door salesman, maybe, or a businessman. A visitor. A trusted neighbor.

In that time, the 31-year-old Johnson says, residents waved to him and bid him hello. Some especially kindhearted people even offered to lend a hand when they saw him moving appliances or electronic goods out of houses they assumed were his.

But most people probably paid no attention to him at all. And that's just what Johnson was banking on, because when they weren't looking, he was robbing them blind.

For about six weeks, beginning in late February and ending in the late hours of April 8, Dallas police beat No. 112 in Junius Heights was hit by 31 burglaries.

Dallas police believe that a single person was responsible for most of the break-ins because there was a pattern to the crimes. The burglar carefully broke windows with a screwdriver or some such tool and placed the glass off to the side. The thief apparently didn't like confrontations and carefully selected unoccupied houses.

Officially, Johnson has been indicted in only two burglary cases, but he admits taking part in an additional 10 to 13. Shortly after his April 8 arrest, Johnson gave police a tour of Junius Heights, where, from the back of a squad car, he calmly pointed out the houses he had hit.

Still, police believe the number of cases Johnson is responsible for is much higher. While Johnson says he only acted as a driver in most of the burglaries, leaving an accomplice to do the breaking and entering, his record of convictions, his own admissions, and interviews with neighbors and family members suggest otherwise.

This particular spree began just six months after Johnson was released from the penitentiary on previous burglary charges, at about the same time Johnson says he fell back into his six-year addiction to crack cocaine. The burglaries appeared to end the day police threw Johnson in jail.

The residents of Dallas didn't hear or read about the Junius Heights break-ins in the news. They are, after all, just a string of 31 seemingly harmless burglaries among the 12,500 in the city so far this year.

And Johnson isn't a flashy burglar, the kind that legends are made of. He doesn't leave a calling card to taunt police, nor is he violent. Johnson despises violence and he avoids confrontation. Rather, he is so considerate about not creating a mess in his victims' homes that he dubiously claims that his colleagues call him "The Gentleman Burglar."

Until he was thrown in jail, Johnson was just one of countless common thieves quietly at work in Dallas. He is a spike in the statistics, a blip on the screen.

On the surface, Johnson and his ilk steal possessions that can be replaced. But the damage they do to their victims' sense of security and peace of mind is much more long-lasting. In some cases, like that of Junius Heights resident Gussie Allen, they literally scare their victims to death.

What is perhaps more sinister about people like Carnell Johnson is how they feed off the routine of daily life--the struggle to hold down a steady job and finance a good home in a safe neighborhood, where people can drop their guard against bad elements.

If there is one thing that Johnson says he is sure of, it's that people like him strike at the very moment when other people become oblivious to their surroundings. He uses trust to get into homes, and he profits from indifference, selling his hot goods to regular people who just don't care.

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