Robbing 'em blind

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.

"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.

"She was up in age," Mitchell says of her mom. "She had high blood pressure and stuff. I moved her here so I could watch her and take care of her. I don't have any children. I thought I'd do the right thing."

On Friday, October 3, Mitchell planned to spend the weekend celebrating her friend's birthday. Before she left for the evening, she stopped at home to check in on her mother and feed Malcolm, a rottweiler-mix puppy. Everything was in order.

Sometime around 5 a.m. October 4, the Rev. Ray Ball heard someone pounding on his door. It was Gussie Allen, his new next-door neighbor, whom he hadn't yet had a chance to meet.

"She said, 'There's a man in the house, come help," Ball recalls.
A large man, who uses a cane to help ease the arthritis in his ankles, Ball grabbed his walking stick, put on his shoes, and headed next door in the darkness.

A footprint on the front door revealed that the intruder tried to kick it in before he sneaked around the side of the house, jumped the security fence, broke through the side door, and entered Mitchell's bedroom. He walked past the closet, where Mitchell's gun was, and rummaged through the kitchen. Then he went down the hall to the second bedroom, where he found Gussie Allen.

"I tried to get her to calm down," Ball says. "She said that the man walked into the bedroom and woke her up. He told her to give him her purse."

At about that time, Mitchell and her friend arrived breathlessly at the house. Allen had called her daughter before she summoned Ball.

"Mom called. She said, 'Hurry, come quick, someone's breaking in.' We just burned out," Mitchell says. "When we got here, the reverend was with her."

From there, everything happened quickly. Ball and Allen were in the bedroom. Mitchell and her friend were in the living room.

"She was standing at the foot of the bed, showing me her wallet with the money in it," Ball says. "She said she didn't give him the money, and all of a sudden she just fell over. I made sure she was breathing. There was a heartbeat."

"The reverend came out and said, 'Come quick, your mom's fell over,'" Mitchell recalls. "I said, 'Mom are you all right?' I was looking around. I don't know if he [the intruder] is still in here. I said, 'Mom get up.' That's when I called 911."

"By the time [the paramedics] got here, there was no pulse," Ball says.
The only items stolen from the house were Allen's purse, a Sony VCR, and an old CD player that barely worked.

Weeks later, the Dallas County medical examiner ruled that Gussie Allen died of a heart attack, but the truth is, she was scared to death.

Phyllis Mitchell sits at the edge of her living room couch, her eyes focused on a police report that details Johnson's last burglary--not the one that claimed her mother's life. Police don't know who was responsible for that break-in. A cigarette smolders on the coffee table. Plants rest on either side of the television set, which has been repositioned between two windows so it cannot be seen from the outside.

The red eye of a new motion detector blinks in the hall.
Tears flow and are replaced by angry words as Mitchell recalls that October morning. But those emotions are not as powerful as the guilt Mitchell continues to feel about her mother's death. What if she hadn't moved into this neighborhood? What if she had installed better protection sooner? What if she had stayed home that night?

"It's really been on my mind," she says. "I'm always thinking about what I should have done."

It has been eight months since the intruder entered this home and stole Gussie Allen. Since then, Mitchell hasn't heard much from the police.

"I hope this is him. I need to know. My family needs to know," Mitchell says, peering at the police report. "If he had not broken into my house, my mom would still be alive. It's as simple as that. They need to understand that."

But there is little that police can do.
Dallas Detective Rebecca Williams, who is handling Allen's case, was unaware of Johnson's arrest or his connection to the Junius Heights burglaries when she spoke about the case late last month. But unless he or someone else confesses to the crime, Williams says, it's doubtful that they'll ever make an arrest. So far, they have no suspects.

"He didn't leave any fingerprints. There's no one that can identify him. She [Allen] is the only person who saw the suspect," says Williams, who adds that whoever broke into Allen's house is a "sorry piece of shit, mainly."

It would be logical to conclude that Johnson was responsible for the break-in--after all, Mitchell's house sits right in the middle of the area Johnson targeted earlier this year. But Detective Paul Fullington, who is one of the officers assigned to the Junius Heights cases, says the facts of Allen's case don't fit with Johnson's style.

If Johnson had broken into the house, and if he had seen Gussie Allen, Fullington says he does not believe that Johnson would have awakened her, much less demanded her purse.

"That doesn't sound like him," Fullington says. "I think he knows what makes a robbery offense and what makes a burglary offense. I don't think he'd cross the line. He did not want to confront."

Sadly, the facts seem to point to another suspect. One who is probably still lurking in Old East Dallas or some other sector of the city.

In the last eight months, Mitchell has installed motion lights and secured her windows. She replaced the door the burglar kicked in with a heavier door and got a gun permit. Malcolm is full-grown. He wouldn't hurt a flea, Mitchell says, but he barks loudly.

None of these things have allowed Mitchell to sleep much better at night.
Not long after the break-in, Mitchell says she was at home late one night when she heard a bump on the front porch. Somebody was out there. Suddenly it felt like October all over again. Mitchell fell into a panic.

"I didn't know what to do. Should I get my gun? Should I shoot through the door? I was too scared to open the door," she says. "I was shaking."

Then she heard a car speed off and, the next morning, Mitchell discovered that somebody had stolen the spider plants from the overhang. "I said, 'Goddamn! Somebody took my two plants,'" she says. "I could have killed someone over two flowers. Isn't that petty?"

Mitchell considered moving, but she still likes living here, despite everything, and the house is the only thing she has left.

"This is the first house I ever owned. My family never owned anything. My mother never owned anything. My mother liked this house," Mitchell says. "It doesn't make any sense to me. I worked my ass off for 11 years at American Airlines. I worked hard for my things. I can't stand a liar and thief."

The one thing Mitchell says she wished she knew when she first moved in was that the house next door to her had been broken into twice, causing the occupants to move. The information might have prevented her from buying the house or, better yet, maybe she would have befriended her neighbors sooner and created a support network.

Now, Mitchell and Ball have become friends. When she laid her mom to rest, he fed Malcolm and looked after the house. Other neighbors sent her flowers and words of condolence. Still, Mitchell hasn't met her neighbor across the street, and she doesn't know most of the people on the block.

"I like this neighborhood. I really do, but since this happened my eyes are more open," Mitchell says. "If we're gonna be neighbors, we have to look out for ourselves. We've got to be aware. We have to come together. The cops can't be here 24-7."

The cops' inability to be at all places at all times is just another one of the observations about life that Johnson has made.

While Johnson likes to blame all of his problems on cocaine, he has what might be called a natural predator's eye. Johnson is a detail-oriented person.

"It's just a sheer living experience. You find yourself in a situation where you become familiar with life," Johnson says. "People are stuck in a routine, you know, get up, go to work. Leave this on, leave that off. Get the newspaper. It becomes a routine.

"I knew all of these things before I even indulged in [criminal] activity," Johnson says. "I'd tell my family when they got an alarm system, 'Get something that's good, because we have an element in our society that will perpetrate crimes against you.'"

They didn't know that Johnson was that element.
"I just didn't want to believe that he was capable of something like that," says his sister Candis, who works as an administrative assistant for Texas Instruments. "I never really knew that he had a problem. I guess I just never paid any attention."

A detail-oriented thief like Johnson thrives when honest people stop paying attention to details.

"I would admonish [people] to be more aware of the things that are around them. You know, their mail, their newspaper. There's so much that's obvious--the living-room light on, that's like [saying], 'Hey, I left the light on, come on in,'" he says. "When I did it, I just picked people that wasn't at home. If I went in a place and someone was there, I would run."

On any city block, it doesn't take long to figure out when residents go to work and when they come home. A Friday evening, the couple of the house drives off. They leave a porch light on though the sun is still up. Guests at a dinner party? Perhaps they're having a romantic night at the movies. Whatever. It's obvious that they'll be gone for hours.

"It depends on if there's two, three newspapers stacked up on the porch--obviously no one's here and no one's been here for weeks," Johnson says. "If there's two or three days' worth of mail, the people aren't coming home that late at night, so you can shop around."

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."

On July 8, 1994, Johnson hit the streets again.
"In December it gets out of hand again. I burglarize, and I take a laptop and I pawn it. And of course I got caught for it," Johnson says, omitting an incident in which he broke into a man's car on the same day he stole the laptop.

On July 26, 1995, Johnson was finally penitentiary-bound, having received a five-year sentence to be served in Huntsville.

"The whole time that I was there, I had remorse for what I had done because I know I had harmed people," Johnson says. "I knew I had committed errors in my life."

Instead of seeking treatment while he was in Huntsville, Johnson chose to stick with his pride. On August 29, 1997, after serving two years, he was released under mandatory supervision.

"I really wanted to straighten my life out," Johnson recalls. "And I really thought I had it all together."

Bessie, not her real name, has two things in common with Gussie Allen. She is 66 years old, and she was asleep when she heard an intruder outside her window at 11:33 p.m. on April 8.

"The Lord woke me up," Bessie says. "I thought it was squirrels."
The sound was a man prying at the window. The man was Carnell Johnson.
Bessie, who had prepared for this sort of situation by keeping a list of her neighbors' telephone numbers at the side of her bed, didn't hesitate to call them for help. In moments a squad car arrived.

When they got to Bessie's house, they knew the same burglar who had been hitting homes in the area since late February had attempted to strike again.

"The [suspect] removed broken plate-glass pieces, while wearing black gloves, and placed the pieces on the ground next to the window," the police report states. "[Johnson] was subsequently located on Junius walking away from the offense location. [He] was subsequently arrested after a brief foot chase."

"I was distraught," Johnson says.
That evening, he had driven to Junius Heights with a friend, who supposedly wanted to visit a woman. Johnson says he had given the man $100, and he was sitting in his car while the man was inside the woman's house. After a while, Johnson says, he realized the man had taken off with his money.

"So I'm mad, I needed some more drugs," Johnson says. "Of course my bank card was overtapped, so I went and I attempted, and at that moment in my life, I said, 'This is it.'"

Some six weeks earlier, Johnson was heading back to his sister Candis' house in Balch Springs when he made another U-turn in his life.

In the five months after his release from prison, Johnson stayed with his sister. He had gotten a job doing paperwork for a family friend who owned a business. He went to the gym often with his sister's husband, Steve, and he stayed out of trouble. Except for an occasional beer, Johnson was sober.

"He was doing real good, me and my husband thought," says Candis. "We used to go to church quite often. There was a time when he would never miss a service or Sunday school. He used to teach Sunday school."

On the day that Johnson caved in to old temptation, he had been in East Dallas to pick up his dry cleaning and get his hair cut--preparations for a dinner date at which he was going to accept a job as a road manager for a band.

"It was a [simple question of] do you want to be a road manager or not?" Johnson says. "This was the job that I had been seeking for. I had it in the palm of my hand."

He would let it slip through his fingers. While he was in East Dallas that day, Johnson says, he ran into an old acquaintance at a gas station. It was someone he knew from the crack house. Johnson got in his car and turned onto I-30, going East and South. Before he could make it home, the thought of cocaine lured him off his path. Johnson got off at Buckner Boulevard.

"I found myself back in the same discontentment I found myself in back in 1993--four years later, almost to the day," Johnson says. "I fought hard. I really did."

All her life, Mary Carroll fought hard.
Carroll stands on her front porch on this Saturday afternoon, her rose bushes in bloom behind her. At 65, Carroll is still fit and trim. Dirt from her garden is visible underneath the tips of her nails, in places where her pink nail polish has chipped off.

She's wearing Bongo jeans, tennies, and a green sweatshirt that features a picture of a weightlifter and the words "Basic Training." The only indication of her age is the slight stoop, which gives her the look of a vulture perched high in a tree, scanning the territory below for trash.

Carroll is staring at a picture of Johnson's smiling, gap-toothed face, taken by the Dallas County sheriff's office.

"I can just visualize him in people's houses. To go right through a front window with the light on. Ohhhhh!" she says, scowling. "He knew this neighborhood so well. He knew it like the back of his hand."

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."

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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