Robbing 'em blind

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

"People have to be more aware of the type of environment in which we live, because it doesn't matter if you live in Highland Park, Far North Dallas, Plano, Richardson, Garland, or Mesquite--there's a type of element that will come to you wherever you are," Johnson says. "Just because you live in this particular area doesn't mean that you are safe from the predators of the world."

When Johnson followed his sister Candis to Dallas in the late 1980s, all of the opportunities life has to offer were in front of him.

"He was just a good brother when we were all growing up," says Candis, who is one of Johnson's five siblings. "My mom and dad raised him right. He never got in any trouble."

Fresh out of high school in Tulsa, where he had played football, earned good grades, and worked at Pizza Hut, Johnson set out to find grown-up employment.

Johnson bounced around for a while. He did construction, worked at J.C. Penney and a uniform company. Finally, he landed a job as a technician at MCI, where he built telephone systems.

The job was his last respectable source of income.
Johnson says he was first introduced to cocaine in 1993, shortly after he broke up with his fourth fiancee.

"Oh well, [I thought], I'll just do this recreationally," Johnson recalls with a shrug. "As I began to indulge in the drug, the drug began to take hold. In the middle of 1993, I got into some trouble due to my financial situation. With my bills and other things I was taking care of, I just couldn't support my habit."

(Dallas County records, however, show that in 1990 Johnson was nabbed for writing bad checks.)

With his bills growing along with his coke habit, Johnson became open to suggestion. In that moment, a "friend" convinced Johnson that he would make a great burglar, what with his handsome profile, good fashion sense, and especially his propensity to smile and make people laugh.

"He said, 'You can do this, you don't look like the type.' He said, 'Nobody would expect you,'" Johnson says. "Burglarize? Burglarize? I said, no, man, that's against the law."

But buying cocaine is against the law too, and that didn't stop Johnson. Why not burglarize?

"It was a panic to me. It was almost as if, man, this is outrageous. What am I doing? But I had overspent my bank account, and I just didn't want my friends to see me looking that way, and I said, OK, I'll do this," Johnson says. "The first time out, I attempted to go in, and I said, 'Man, naaah, I'm too scared. I can't do it. I'll wait outside, just hand it to me,'" Johnson says. "It was a traumatic experience for me, and I swore I'd never do it again. I swore I'd never do it again.

"Yes, I knew it was wrong. I had no business doing what I was doing," Johnson says. "You would not believe it, but each and every time I've done it, I had the same feeling. It never got easy."

As it turned out, it was easier for Johnson to overcome his fear of breaking into a house than it was for him to live life sober. Soon, he was burglarizing houses by night and staggering into work during the day. Before the year was over, he lost his job at MCI, and his life was spiraling out of control.

When he is asked to describe his feelings when he's burglarizing someone's house, Johnson stomps his feet, puts his head in his hands and pauses, sighing. It's hard, he says, for people who have never been addicted to understand how you justify your behavior with false promises of quitting later, then greedily cave into temptation.

"You come down from this euphoria rush that you're on because your adrenaline is pumping and you're so nervous," he says. "Afterward, I take time to settle down [and say], 'OK, I feel bad for that. I feel bad for that.'"

Burglary, Johnson says, is like hitting a wet spot on the freeway at 100 mph.

"You're in a panic because you have no idea what's going to happen. You try to regain your composure at the same time you're trying to regain control of the car. And once you regain control, it's like your heart is up here, and it drops back down here," he says. "You just sit there and think, 'What just happened to me?"

The same thought might have been going through 66-year-old Gussie Allen's mind the day she died last October, not long after she moved with her daughter Phyllis Mitchell into a modest blue home in the heart of Junius Heights.

Mitchell, a flight attendant for American Airlines, says she chose the house because a friend lived nearby, and she had always boasted about how nice the neighborhood is. Its diverse population, old homes and trees, and central location attracted her.

Mitchell thought Junius Heights was a good place to call home, and in late August she convinced her mom to leave her lifelong neighborhood in Los Angeles.

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