Robbing 'em blind

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

As the weeks passed, Carroll grew frustrated as Johnson continued to elude the police.

"We didn't know who was doing this. They [the police] kept saying it has to be somebody close. We started thinking, it has to be a neighbor," Carroll says. "You're suspicious of everyone at this point."

In addition to the thousands of dollars Carroll spent installing new lights, fences, and alarms in her properties, she also purchased a pair of $1,200 walkie-talkies. By night, she patrolled the streets and reported any suspicious vehicle. Sometimes, the vehicles were undercover police cars, which were staking out the neighborhood.

In the daytime, Carroll worked the phones, calling the police department regularly to keep abreast of their progress.

The whole time, Johnson was right under their noses, living in Old East Dallas. He continued to watch the neighborhood, smoke crack, and move the items he and his partners stole.

Back in Balch Springs, Candis and Steve say Johnson had become a rare commodity around their house.

"I suspected he might have fallen off the wagon when he started to stay gone," Steve says. A missing weekend soon turned into three days, a week, then a month. Eventually, Johnson never came back.

"I asked him about it," Steve says. "He was really vague in his answers. He really didn't say what he was doing when he was gone."

Unlike his pre-Huntsville days, Johnson says he learned to stay away from pawnshops because they are often one of the first places cops go to look for stolen goods. Instead, he took the goods to people he knew; people whose positions in society would surprise.

There was a business owner, "worth millions," who wanted any kind of computer Johnson had. There was the owner of a chain of Texaco franchises who bought anything Johnson brought him. A liquor store owner. A clothing merchandiser.

"These people are reputable. These people are business leaders, community activists driving Jags, Lexuses, and wearing the finer things in life, but they're stolen merchandise," Johnson says. "It's an element in our society. If it's a good deal, people are going to go for it. People don't care."

As far as he's concerned, Johnson says the fact that the police caught him was "just the luck of the draw." A random nab, he claims, that was possible only because God spoke to Johnson the moment he poked his head through Bessie's window and saw a preacher talking on the TV.

"It was like the minister was talking directly to me, and I just walked away," Johnson says.

Instead of going back to his car and driving away, Johnson says, he just kept on walking. Right down Junius Street.

"The squad car drove right past me. He stopped and got out and went to some door. I didn't pay any attention to him, and he didn't pay any attention to me," Johnson says.

The undercover officer sitting in a parked black Regal was paying attention, however. When Johnson saw the car, he says, he knew he was caught.

"I walked by and I said, 'How you doing, officer?'" He backed up and said, 'Come over here.' I thought, 'Oh man, I don't want to go to jail.' So I ran."

Johnson didn't talk to his sister about his criminal activity, but he told Steve many things. He talked about how he used to kick down doors and hit three, four homes a night. In the day, he said he used to put on a suit and carry a briefcase. All he had to do, Steve recalls, was knock on the door. If no one answered, he went right in. Nobody suspected Johnson.

When presented with a report detailing the Junius Heights break-ins, Steven nods his head.

"Smash, kick, pry. That's him, all the way. I wouldn't be surprised if he did all of them," Steve says. "I hate this for him, but there's nothing I can do for him. I don't plan on seeing him anytime soon."

Back on the sixth floor of Lew Sterrett jail's north tower, Johnson's sermon is interrupted when an overhead intercom crackles to life and a bored voice issues a routine command.

Suddenly, the white brick walls that contain Johnson seem to close in, compressing the harsh light around his body and creating a skewed reflection of his image on the polished surface of the industrial gray floor.

On May 1, a Dallas County grand jury indicted Johnson on two second-degree felony charges of burglary. A trial date has not been set, but Johnson says he is planning to plead guilty to the offenses.

Given his history, and his recent admissions to the police, there's little doubt that Johnson will be returning to Huntsville. If the district attorney's office prosecutes Johnson as a habitual offender, he could face anywhere from two to 99 years or life in prison. But Johnson isn't worried.

"I don't anticipate a long stay. But it's not the quantity, it's the quality of the time that I'm doing," Johnson says. "I'm not asking people to believe me for what I say. I ask them to believe me for what I am becoming. You take this to be true, when I am released from this place of higher learning, as some like to call it, I'm going to be bigger. I'm going to be better than I've ever been before."

In the near distance an electronic door clangs shut, the metallic racket a reminder that Carnell Johnson is none of the things he has been mistaken for. He is none of the things he could have been.

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