Robbing 'em blind

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

Getting into a house is a breeze, and Johnson says he would use whatever method was the easiest. "You know, people actually leave their windows open. They actually leave their doors unlocked. They actually leave their alarms unarmed."

Even when alarms are on, Johnson says, he is often able to work around them--not because he's an electronic whiz, but because many alarm companies are in the business of selling a false sense of security.

"The alarm companies are out to make money, quick money. Most people do a rush job, and they don't give you the best system that your money can buy," Johnson says. "They shortchange you."

Though he will avoid houses with dogs, Johnson says he learned that many dogs will just sit and watch--like a big Labrador he once encountered.

"I went through the back [yard], and the dog was barking. When I opened the door, the dog just started wagging its tail. I figured it was hungry, so I went to the refrigerator, and I got it whatever they had. He sat there, and he ate it. And he followed me around," Johnson says. "I said, this is too nice. I gotta go. So I just went home. I didn't take anything."

No matter what the neighborhood was, on whatever side of town, Johnson says he learned that most homes are basically the same once you're inside.

"The den is like a family setting, you know, people spend time together there watching television or playing video games or listening to music. So you can find most of your electronic equipment in the den. In the bedroom, you will find your jewelry, a safe, things like that," Johnson says. "I didn't want to destroy people's things. I just searched. I pushed drawers back in, put the clothes back. They used to call me the Gentleman Burglar."

In truth, Johnson is just a thief.
But he's a thief with a definite, if preachy, outlook on modern life: Johnson decries the lack of a sense of community that allows men like him to thrive. People are polite--they may know their neighbors by face or name. But, in Johnson's experience, people don't take the time to really know and truly care about each other.

"If you're going out of town, tell somebody you're going out of town--they'll come watch your home," Johnson says. "Your neighbors will not, most of them won't. They don't really care. Most of them don't even like one another. Why? Because John doesn't have a BMW, he doesn't drive a Jag, so I can't talk to him."

Johnson's advice may be difficult to swallow, given his current home at the jail. But his message is based upon years of experience.

One incident, which came when Johnson was walking out of a house with an armful of stolen goods, still makes Johnson squeal.

"I can remember in the broad daylight, the broadest of day, people act like you're moving, [they said] 'Can I help you,'" he says. "There I am shaking in my boots, scared of I don't know what, and these people are talking about can I help you? It is mind-boggling: People are willing to help me steal somebody else's stuff, unbeknownst to them. Unbeknownst."

Just how many houses, apartment buildings, garages, storage sheds, and cars Johnson has broken into since his personal crime wave began in 1993 is one detail that he doesn't care to discuss. Whatever the number, it's probably much higher than the seven cases that pop up under his name on the computer down at the county courthouse.

According to the computer, Johnson's official record as a burglar begins when he was indicted for a break-in that occurred June 12, 1993. The following October, he tried to kick his way through the door of another home, the records show.

But it was in December 1993 when Johnson's habit was out of control. Between the eighth and Christmas Day, Johnson broke into three Dallas homes. The details of those cases are missing from Johnson's court files, including when and how often he was arrested, but he appeared to avoid long stays behind bars.

The records do, however, illustrate how a nonviolent offender with a short criminal history like Johnson can avoid long stays behind bars by winning probation.

On March 11, 1994, Johnson was sentenced to 10 years' probation as part of a ruling that combined the cases. One of the conditions of the probation was that he serve 120 days in the county jail.

It wasn't long after he was released that Johnson found himself in trouble again. Urine tests turned up dirty with cocaine in July, September, and November 1994. At the time, he promised the court that he would seek drug treatment.

"It did occur to me that I needed some help, but my pride got in the way of me just coming out and saying, 'I need help,'" Johnson says. "It hurts to this day to know that a person could really just throw his or her life away for a drug that's so evil in our society. It's really scary, and the more I think about it, the more sorrowful I am for what I have done."

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