Robbing 'em blind

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

If anyone knows Junius Heights like the back of her hand, Mary Carroll does. She and her family own scores of properties in the area--once-dilapidated homes and apartment buildings they bought, one by one, and renovated.

Since February, Johnson and his colleagues hit the six houses to Carroll's left, two to her right, and several across the street. Of the 31 break-ins that occurred when Johnson was on his roll, 13 of them plus two attempts were in properties the Carroll family own.

But Carroll's properties are more than just a source of income. They are just as much a part of her family as her son, who still lives across the street.

When Carroll moved to Junius Heights in 1951, she rented a house on Tremont and took a job at Central Freight Lines. She had left the country and her family of sharecroppers behind, hoping to build a better life in the city.

"I saved my money. I'd bring my lunch to work. I'd make my own clothes," Carroll says. "I made $30 a week at Central Freight Lines, and I saved about $20."

When a nearby house went up for sale in 1953, Carroll borrowed money against her stock in the company's credit union and, together with the money she had saved, she had enough for a down payment.

"This was before anyone bought old houses," Carroll says. "This was when Garland, Mesquite, Irving--they were all their own towns. You needed to take a Greyhound bus to get to them. Everyone wanted to move there, to the other side of the world."

As Carroll strolls down Tremont and veers left onto Augusta, she casts an eye at a ragged-looking man who is approaching, heading straight for Mike's Grocery and Market. She looks down at the sidewalk and lowers her voice.

"This is what I'm talking about," she says. "He doesn't belong here."
Moments later, the man emerges from the store clutching a can wrapped in a brown paper bag.

In the old days, the tiny corner store was a wonderful necessity.
"They had a meat counter, fresh potato salad. We did our grocery shopping here. We used to have a charge account. When we ran out of money, we could put it on our account."

Today, the store only has beer and cigarettes to offer. A Marlboro sign is nailed to a light pole in the store's lot. Black steel bars cover the front windows. Carroll says the beer and the two pay phones in front of the store attract bad elements.

"It brings all of the riffraff from Gaston," Carroll says. "This way, they have a destination. They can stand there and case everything on the street."

In hindsight, Carroll says she's sure that Johnson's crime wave began at the corner of Worth and Augusta, where three matching one-story duplexes stand within a stone's throw of Gussie Allen's house.

When Carroll's daughter bought the properties last winter, people thought she was crazy. They were in such bad condition, they could have been bulldozed. Today, they are strong, gorgeous buildings that are painted a light gray with red trim. Flowerbeds filled with carnations and pansies bloom in the front. The units now pull down $770 a month in rent.

At the end of February, one of the units was broken into. The gloved intruder gently broke the front window, placed the pane of glass off to the side, and went into the house--right under the glare of the porch light.

"He is the main one. I have no doubt," Carroll says of Johnson. "He did the same thing, going in with the screwdriver and breaking the glass. This was the first time we had seen this."

At the time, Carroll had no idea she was dealing with a habitual offender. But on March 2, the house of an SMU professor who lives next door to Carroll was burglarized in the same manner. Before the week was out, three additional properties were hit.

Although many of the burglaries involved garages and storage sheds, which offered lawn mowers, weed trimmers, and tools, a pattern soon emerged with the houses. Most were hit when the owners or tenants weren't home. Most had windows that were carefully broken and placed to the side.

Back at her house, Carroll points to a peach house across the street. "I told Kate to leave the lights on when she left and, sure enough, it got hit twice," Carroll says.

During the spree, a neighbor standing on his porch at 5 in the morning, smoking a cigarette, spotted Johnson going into the house a few doors down.

"He didn't think anything when they went in," Carroll says. "Then he saw him come out without his shirt on. He was carrying something with a white bag on top. It was the microwave."

Later, a house two doors down from Carroll was hit on a Saturday, the burglar walking off with stereos, video games, and other electronic goods. The next day, the owner bought a $3,100 computer. That night, when the owner went out to dinner, the burglar came back for the computer.

"Just when Steve thought there was nothing left to steal," Carroll says, "he came back and cut the lock on his garage. It was just like every night was Christmas for him."

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