The glory of the winter's setting sun flashed red and pink across northwestern Ohio's frozen horizon as Charles Johnson drove his tired green Chevrolet home from Sears with a space heater he hoped would save him from his wife's icy feet in bed. The two-lane rural highway was almost empty, but Mr. Johnson kept to the thirty-five-mile-per-hour speed limit. At seventy years of age, with the remains of his hair grey and the memory of thousands of wide, proud smiles recorded in deep creases in his weathered red-brown skin, life was no race to Mr. Johnson. But this evening, he was hurried. He knew his wife was anxious for him to get home.
A tall, willowy man with brown eyes regularly buffed by the wind and shining with the wonder he found in life around him, he genially bent to his wife's wishes. He smiled whenever he thought of her, even after thirty years of marriage. Jeanette Johnson, a petite, gentle woman, "held the Lord's love in her eyes," as he put it. To say that Mr. Johnson loved his wife would understate the truth. She was his world on this earth. He loved even her cold feet, though the thought of them made him shudder slightly and shake his head with a low chuckle.
A sharp cold had rolled down from Canada across Lake Erie and invaded the Johnsons' one-story aluminum-sided house earlier in the week, and hadn't budged since. The two-bedroom home had no furnace, only a woodstove and a space heater which had broken sometime during the previous night. Mrs. Johnson always wore thick white socks to bed, but Mr. Johnson could feel the cold rush to her warmth, and though she protested, he knew how she melted when he rubbed her feet in his large work-callused hands before letting the space heater take over. Her quiet, shy smile thanked him more than any words. The light in her eyes warmed his soul. She was too good for this world, he would say.
With his eyes carefully on the road, Mr. Johnson felt the sky. He said he could read the skies better than most weathermen with all their equipment, not just by looking up, but by soaking in the air it breathed. Mr. Johnson had a gift for feeling. He could feel the sky through his eyes, he told me with a humble smile, and even through his pores.
This evening the sky was hard, icy, aloof, glorious, and unyielding. Though thick clouds approached, red smoldered through their darkness. Any way it was, the sky spoke to Mr. Johnson of some truth. He let the sky guide his thoughts regularly; it was how he lived. That moment, he recalled for me, he was thinking of the subject for his next sermon as a lay minister at St. Mary's Baptist Church back in town. Redemption, he decided. Forgiveness and redemption rising like a phoenix out of the red burnings of life.
The sun was now setting at a distance not too far. A dusting of fine snow outlined the sharp, bare trees, and rested in the crevices between frozen tufts of yellowed grass in fallow fields. Almost within reach, the sky met land. He took his last full, deep breath of wonder.
Mr. Johnson's Ohio is quiet, still, flat, and vast. He visited Toledo, or "town" as he called the state's fourth-largest city, for church and a few other necessities. But he preferred the rural life and chose to live mostly within the seven-and-a-half acres of Spencer Township. When he first came to Spencer in the late 1940s, migrating north from Georgia in search of work, there were no paved roads. People relied on outhouses then. Spencer educated its children in a one-room schoolhouse down the road from where he now lived. Nature's fickle character never allowed stable prosperity to fall on the township, but even when farms suffered, people lived by neighborly goodness. There was little crime in the county. You could count the entire history of Spencer's violent crimes on one hand. In the 1950s, a man stabbed his wife to death with eighty strokes. Some years later, a fight in the corner bar left a man dead in a ditch. Spencer was then, and remains today, the kind of place where neighbors look out for one another and usually leave their doors unlocked at night.
The roads now are blacktopped, and the school closed in favor of busing children into the city, but Spencer has stayed much the same. Even as commerce and industry spread westward from Toledo, doubling the population of the counties it overtook, Spencer barely changed. The population even dropped a little, to around 1,700. City life, it seemed, stopped short just east of the township and then turned south, probably because Spencer still lacks public sewer and water lines.
On this winter evening, Mr. Johnson drove past the more prosperous and larger farms of Harding Village, where red barns stand on flat plains a few acres from their white houses with broad pillared porches. Spencer rests like a horseshoe around Harding. In recent times, politicians have been accused of drawing town boundaries here along racial lines, but in fact they were made and stiffened by religion. Around the turn of the century, invisible borders were marked between Catholics and Protestants. One group prospered; the other did not. That was well before Mr. Johnson left the South in search of opportunities. He had made his way from a very poor sharecropping family up to the Cleveland area as a teenager. Scavenging for work, he stayed in the basement of a church. He worked in the steel mills around Cleveland before the steel mills went bust, then landed a job in a glass factory in Toledo. He stayed with relatives in Spencer and commuted into Toledo until he got on his feet. Much later, he worked as the janitor of the school down the street. He had found Jeanette Collins by then, demurely nestled in a church gathering, and they were happily married. She carefully packed a baloney sandwich for his lunch every day, which he doled out to children who had "forgotten" their own lunches. There were many families in Spencer too proud to ask for subsidized lunches.
When they had saved enough, they bought a house. It was difficult in that era for a black man to do all these things with almost no education, but Mr. Johnson never spoke of those hurdles or complained. Life, to him, was a blessing and a miracle, and he did what he could to help people less fortunate.
Leaving the broad farmland, he drove into Spencer, where small houses are squeezed alongside each other in random fashion. There is no reason or plan to this township. Houses grow as randomly as weeds on land that is bought slowly and built on with almost no rules. Some houses stand near the street, others far back, their numbers skip, jump, and are interrupted by spurts of forest and fields.
This evening, his neighbors' thick chimney smoke dissipated gently into the thin air. The land lay lifelessly brown, awaiting the spring thaw. The gravel road crunched as he drove toward his yellow house, standing quietly against the gurgle of a nearly invisible creek winding under his driveway.
Mr. Johnson pulled the Chevrolet carefully into his garage. The swing set he built for the scores of children he and his wife had foster-parented over twenty years sat idle, a sad wind tinkling its chains. The sky had darkened suddenly in the early winter evening, with no flicker of light.
The house's silence made him uneasy. Jeanette did not call out his name as usual. He hurried his step to the back door, suddenly wanting to hear her voice and feel the warmth of their kitchen. The back door he would always step through was locked. It was never locked. The air felt unusually quiet and tense against his skin. He fumbled with a key. The sky went cold. He smelled something wrong. When he opened the door, black smoke rushed at him. Something was on fire.
He found his wife's lifeless body on the linoleum floor before him, her hand reaching for the door, her blood seeping toward his feet. Her eyes -- he breaks, recalling the terror and confusion still staring out of her one undestroyed eye. Thankfully, he did not notice her charred legs, only the flame licking at her clothes. When he turned to get the extinguisher, the fire was gone. He went into the bedroom and pulled a white bedspread from their mattress and wrapped it snugly around his wife. She wouldn't want people to see her like this, and he wanted to keep her warm. Briefly, and only in his heart, she was still alive. Only there could he feel the flutter of her heart, of her breath. The stillness of life and the silence of death, of what his senses knew to be true, he could not take in. Instead, he was struck by a sadness so thick and heavy that it knocked the breath out of him, a sadness so bottomless and profound that he felt irretrievably numb.
Charles Johnson does not remember walking to the telephone or dialing. But he recalls waiting on the line, hoping Johnnie Jordan would come up behind him and finish the day by killing him too. That would be a mercy. He knew it had been Johnnie. He knew it as he knew his last strong grasp of faith was draining from him. With his wife's unprovoked, senseless death, by a child they had agreed to take into their home and foster-parent, Charles Johnson's beliefs in goodness and caring for others, in man's capacity for redemption, became hollow shells without the warm core that fed them. His faith remained. But for the year he lived on after his wife's death, it was a ghost of what it had always been.
* * *
I pray every day that I wake up soon, that the Lord gives me some reason, because I don't see no plan to this at all and I can't rest until I do. I can't sleep knowing that Jeanette is going to die again in some other person.
-- Charles Johnson
At the trial of Johnnie Jordan half a year later, Charles Johnson's once tall and dignified frame appeared frail and bent, his once shining eyes, dull and vacant. His voice echoed the emptiness in his heart. He spoke to reporters with a striking lack of anger or vindictiveness. It was a tragedy, he said, not only for his wife, but also for Johnnie Jordan, a child of fifteen, with only prison in his future.
Mr. Johnson knew more than most of us could see then. Johnnie was among the first child murderers to vie for national attention after committing violent, seemingly senseless crimes, murders without motive or meaning. Over the next several years, other grisly murders spilling out of schools and homes would shock America, forming an apparently new phenomenon of young, rage-filled killers taking lives with motiveless passion and little or no remorse. While juvenile crime rates were generally declining, the number of child murderers rose. Senseless murders committed by children as young as six years old assaulted communities both urban and rural, rich and poor, throughout the country.
A year and a half after Johnnie murdered Mrs. Johnson in January of 1996, a sixteen-year-old boy in Pearl, Mississippi, killed his mother and then went on a rampage in his high school, shooting nine students, killing two. In December of 1997, a fourteen-year-old killed three students and injured five others in West Paducah, Kentucky. Three months later, in Jonesboro, Arkansas, four girls and a teacher were shot to death and ten people were wounded when two boys, aged eleven and thirteen, opened fire from the woods after triggering a fire alarm. In Edinboro, Pennsylvania, the next month, a fourteen-year-old shot a science teacher to death in front of students at an eighth-grade graduation dance. The next month, May 1998, a teenager in Fayetteville, Tennessee, opened fire in a parking lot at his high school, killing a classmate, three days before their graduation. Two days later in Springfield, Oregon, a fifteen-year-old boy slayed his parents at home and went on to school, where he shot twenty-five people, two teenagers fatally. Then, on April 20, 1999, in Littleton, Colorado, two high school students shot twelve classmates and a teacher to death and injured twenty-three before killing themselves.
These are only the most sensational murders, those that took more than one young victim. There were, and still are, far more cases skating through the local news in which only one or a few adult lives are taken by children and which are barely noticed by the national media. In Queens, New York, for example, five teenagers, the youngest fourteen years old, beat a Chinese food deliveryman to death in September 2000, merely because they wanted free food after the Chinese food dinner they had just finished.
Mr. Johnson could not begin to fathom the crazed nature of young murderers like Johnnie, who kill in a consuming rage that not even they can understand, for reasons they cannot explain. He sought some explanation, however, hoping that in these children's stories lay some rationale, some larger truth beyond race, beyond poverty and drugs, beyond easily available weapons and gratuitous television violence. And Mr. Johnson sensed that his loss was part of a greater loss, his shock and grief the forerunner of the nation's shock and grief as his tragedy repeated itself in different forms, across socioeconomic borders, in homes and school yards and classrooms throughout the country. In response to what several news magazines referred to as an epidemic of cold and remorseless young criminals, public outrage pushed legislatures to pass harsher sentencing laws for children, "to put them away, to keep us safe," as one Ohio legislator put it. Several states lowered the age of criminals eligible for capital punishment to thirteen. Some states abolished a minimum age at which children can be prosecuted as adults and incarcerated in adult prisons. The late 1990s saw the largest overhaul of the American juvenile justice system which, derived from the Elizabethan model, was initially intended to rehabilitate and save young offenders.
Over the months following Mrs. Johnson's murder, the cotton and willows that framed the Johnson home in Ohio dried and withered along with Mr. Johnson. He did nothing to save them. Like the house itself, they seemed haunted by a murder too real and too empty of sense to move forward in time. A red lantern still hangs from a tree limb next to a hatchet much like the one that mutilated his wife and destroyed his world. Both rust slowly in the Ohio air.
The greater Toledo community, first angered and shattered by the murder, soon sought to move beyond the tragedy by convincing itself that the killing was a rare, fathomless, and unpredictable act of brutality. It occurred in a moment devoid of reason or understanding, in one small home, in a gentle farming community where there is little crime, where kindness was plenty and love was taught and learned. Still, the shock of a child's rage capsized the community's faith in saving children. It drew citizens away from their benevolence and made them less willing to open their homes to neglected and abused children. Lucas County Children Services (formerly Lucas County Children's Services Board), which had placed Johnnie in the Johnsons' home, as well as several neighboring Ohio foster care agencies, quickly recorded a severe drop in volunteer foster parents. Worse, Lucas County sought to avoid blame by continuing to portray the case as random and unpreventable.
But Mr. Johnson was determined that his wife's death should not be forgotten, that even though it was difficult to comprehend, it should not be dismissed as senseless. Mrs. Johnson's death deserved some greater meaning, he said. Only he believed it should be recognized as a tragedy that could have been avoided. Moreover, if action was not taken to remedy the failures that contributed to her murder, such tragedies could -- and would -- be repeated in some other place, with some other person, at some other time.
He brought a lawsuit in an effort to reform the system which he believed killed not only his wife, but also the humanity in Johnnie Jordan. Through legal action, he hoped to draw attention to the blatant negligence and failings of county agencies in dealing with troubled children, particularly those prone to violence. He was convinced that Johnnie Jordan's rage could have been curbed and channeled if county officials legally responsible for him had been more vigilant and aware of the propensity to violent behavior that Johnnie openly displayed. And, if they had prepared his caretakers, or at least made them aware of the danger, the life of a gentle, caring woman might have been saved.
But the local government's sovereign immunity from lawsuits for negligence ultimately saved the county agencies from liability, and thus from change. And instead, the agencies rejected public examination of their actions, even internal introspection, lest reform suggest an admission of guilt.
Mr. Johnson, worn out and despondent, did not live long enough to see the case settled out of court for under $1 million. He had told me he would have neither the time nor the notion to spend the money. It was change he sought. His attorney accepted the settlement because he was not certain he could prove that the failings of Children Services and juvenile justice had gone beyond simple neglect to malice, and, equally influential in his decision, he no longer had a grieving spouse to bring home to a jury the full tragedy of the murder. But without an admission of guilt from the county, the possibility of reform fell apart with Mr. Johnson's death. No agency took responsibility or accepted blame. Worse, no one searched for a truth that might prevent another Johnnie from erupting. And the questions that haunted Mr. Johnson, the mystery of what happened to Johnnie Jordan, went unsolved in the prevailing hush and angry glares of people in the community who wanted -- and still want -- this story to be over, who still want to forget.
But Mr. Johnson deserves a greater effort to answer his questions than he received from the authorities. Who was Johnnie Jordan? What made this child into a killer? Why will his story likely be repeated?
Initially, I was drawn to Johnnie's story by those same questions. In my work with children, I had heard teachers and social workers increasingly complain of "superpredators," children with apparently no conscience whom they anxiously watch passing through their classrooms and caseloads. Johnnie was cited as an example. That's when I called Mr. Johnson.
Mr. Johnson taught me a great deal, and not solely about this case. Through his pain, fear, and compassion, he was able to look beyond anger and judgment as well as community pressure to let the story go, to move on and to forget. My interviews with him convinced me to continue his quest for understanding and reform, even as I watched his hope and drive fade. Though I never achieved Mr. Johnson's forgiveness of the crime, throughout this project I drew motivation from the Johnsons, their memory, their goodness, their hope, and their belief in helping children.
I began my work seeking the evil inside Johnnie Jordan, a so-called superpredator who could kill without remorse. At first, Johnnie fit my preconception. He sought gain from his crime; he wanted to be paid for being interviewed for this book. I refused. Without benefit to himself, he said, he would not cooperate. He did not care to help the public understand about children like himself, he told me, for what would it get him? Only when his former attorney intervened did he agree to our first interview.
In prison, shackled with chains too large for his arms and legs, I saw a child too small for his prison-issued jumpsuit, lost among the adult prisoners surrounding him, too shy to look me in the eye. He was a boy who still would not eat vegetables, whose worries and anxieties he did not acknowledge but came in the form of stomachaches he treated with candy. I would come to understand that he was a child who had not developed emotionally, who was capable of a monstrous act which he saw only as "a mistake," never fully comprehending its horror.
For years, I vacillated between my outrage, anger, and frustration toward the killer, and my sadness for the lost child whom no one wanted to remember or cared about any longer. It would have been easier to dismiss Johnnie as inhuman. But that is not what Mr. Johnson saw in him, nor what I found in him in those first interviews -- at times a child who could be soft and creative, even sensitive -- at other times, cold and evil; and above all and always, confused.
When I began this book, Johnnie was a child -- perhaps a morally stunted one, perhaps not. He is a monster now after years in jail, some would argue, not because of evil in his heart or in his soul, but because his rage has grown unabated until it is beyond his or anyone's control. Not even he understands his emotions, what brings them on so ferociously, let alone their origin. He is often cut off from his conscience and his heart.
When he is angry, he often laughs. He doesn't know why. It is not to turn away from his anger, he says. He does not even know at times that he is angry. "My eyes'll get watery and stuff, and then I'll flip," he told me during our second three-hour interview in prison. "That's when I know I was angry. I do the first thing that comes to my head then. It depends where I'm at. If there are chairs around, I'll throw them. If it came down to it, I could kill someone. I try not to though." Afterward, "I try not to feel too much. If I do something, I try not to have no afterthoughts. Just know it's done and over with. That's one thing that kill most people in prison -- too much stress."
He had ironed his blue prison jumpsuit and combed his hair into a soft Afro, but his eyes were puffy and sleepless. He was too wary of his surroundings to rest much. He slumped forward in his chair, resting his forearms on his thighs in a tough inmate pose which instead only exaggerated his youth. He had been trying to gain weight, to look stronger, but the weight fell softly on his young frame. Later it would turn to muscle. Honesty carried in his voice, always. He had nothing more to lose, and had decided to like and trust me, he said. He didn't know why.
"I guess it's the loneliness and misery that draws me close enough to confide my secrets," he wrote me. Still, he doubted he could. "Will I have the strength, the courage, the time to explore the period of my life that was the most surprising and concentrated of all?" he asked in another letter a month later. It was the only time he expressed self-doubt.
Every week, he phoned and we spoke for the prison-allotted time. I visited him in each of his five prisons, interviewing him for four and five hours a day in weeklong stretches. As he faced rejection from the people he loved on the outside world, as they cut him off or forgot him, he became angrier, feeling as a child would that he was still entitled to their care. He came to appreciate my interest in him. By the end of this project, only his former lawyer and I had kept contact with him. I treated him like a person, he said, though often a young person.
"Why do you talk to me like a child sometimes?" he once asked with a hiss of exasperation. For as his time passed in prison, he preferred to see himself as an adult, hardened and at times mean.
"Because sometimes I prefer to see you that way," I told him.
Johnnie was silent for a moment.
"It's not who I want to be anymore, though," he told me.
Our interviews were often unsteady. Difficult questions sometimes enraged Johnnie. Several times, I wondered if he would stop cooperating with me. But he would call eventually, still angry and threatening and claiming he didn't know why he continued to speak with me.
"Expressing my feelings have always been a problem for me not only in here, but out there also," he once wrote. "This is hard telling you but, I got to tell someone or I break down or blow up insides. And I think that you're the best person for me to talk to. I feel you be the one that will get me through this sorrow." He signed the letter, as he usually did, "Respectfully Submitted, Johnnie Jordan" followed by his inmate number. He always included the time as well as the date in the upper right corner of the first page. He wrote in faint pencil, his letters so precariously slanted to the left that his words were difficult to decipher. His a's were triangles, and he bubbled the dots over his i's.
At first, he bristled at questions about his past. Even in jail, he preferred the present. He did not want to go back, to remember, or to try to explain his thoughts.
"The truth is sometimes it seems at moments I can't get the words out to put in place," he wrote from Ross Correctional Institution. "Believe it or not, you have taught me a lot and gave me a lot of reasons to believe in you."
We had come to know each other better by then. It had taken some time not only to get Johnnie to open up, but to try to express himself clearly, and for me to learn how to understand what he meant when he did. We both worked hard on our communication. I began to see a sadness in him that is as deep as his anger.
"People tell me that I'm going to hell," he wrote one afternoon around four o'clock. "Jennifer, hell can't get worse than this cause I'm in hell now. I can only do so much to survive. At times I just want to stop, but I know I can't, I tried. I feel I'm in a deep sleep. Some kind of dream with a lot of misery, that won't let me wake up, that's how I feels, but this is real."
For much of the time, I remained a cool distance from Johnnie. I didn't want to mislead him into thinking I was primarily sympathetic toward him. He had murdered in a particularly brutal way, and I never lost sight of his crime or achieved Mr. Johnson's selfless, almost nonjudgmental compassion. But one evening, during his weekly call, his voice carried the poignant loneliness of a lost boy trying hard not to cry: "I'm trying to hold on, but I don't know how long I can."
pardI realized then that I had become his link to the outside world. Everyone else that week had refused to accept his collect calls. Usually he told me he was "cool," he was hanging in there. This night, I heard the voice of suicide. Why? I asked. Why now, four years after the crime? Had four years of imprisonment finally broken him or had his past caught up with him? I cared more about the reason than about him until he answered quietly in the voice of a childhood he had left behind far too early, and yet was still caught in.
"It hurts, man," he said.
Still, Johnnie had not "snapped," as kids in juvenile hall put it when they recognize the horror of the crime they committed and regret their actions.
"I could get killed in here any day and no one would know about it," he said instead, and I recognized the truth in his words. No one would really care, not even for the sadness of losing another lost child. No one really knew Johnnie Jordan anymore, except me -- and now, perhaps, you. His life, his story, became more important to me then, not because of who Johnnie is, but who he has become and how he became that way. His story holds clues to understanding one of the mysteries of our times: child killers without motive or remorse, without reason.
Through Johnnie Jordan, I hope to bring some light of understanding to the darkness that filled his and Mrs. Johnson's world for that evil moment, one bitter night in January of 1996.
* * *
Johnnie Jordan, Jr.'s Ohio is a cold place of broken glass. The sky doesn't mean much to him. His world is cement and crumbling houses, caving roofs, broken windows, smashed bottles, and slow-moving, dark-windowed cars with loud, hard music, and nineteen foster homes with parents and grandparents in between. "The hood" is what Johnnie considers his home, Toledo's ghetto. "It's cool," he says and shrugs.
"That's where my boys are."
Johnnie's world had always been small, a matter of four or five blocks. Now, in prison, it's even smaller, a few cells or a floor. He doesn't like to go outside much. It's too cold or hot, too wet, or too bright. Outdoors, the air prickles his skin and makes him uneasy. It's not natural to his institutionalized life.
The Johnsons' home in Spencer Township, twenty miles from the Toledo corner that Johnnie hung on, was the farthest he had ever been from the city. He didn't like "the boondocks," as he called it. He did his best to sabotage his placement there by the social workers, until he realized that he liked the Johnsons. He even wanted them to adopt him. They had begun to expose him to something better. Johnnie enjoyed joking and playing checkers with Mr. Johnson. He warmed to Mrs. Johnson's gentle ways. His mouth watered for her fried chicken and collards. He was almost looking forward to tasting the shrimp and fried catfish Mr. Johnson talked so much about.
Two years later, with Johnnie now seventeen years old, a good meal to him is a Coke with Little Debbies. He has never seen an ocean or a mountain. But now, with chains and shackles, through blackened windows of prison transport vans, he has traveled as far as the outskirts of Columbus, Ohio, in the center of the state. He has learned more about the world while in prison.
"You know there's a place called Akron?" he asked me. "Akron, and it's in Ohio. There's a place called Canton, Ohio, too."
The Johnsons, although neither were educated beyond elementary school, could have taught Johnnie all that and much more. They might even have saved him, but slowly. First, they would have had to understand Johnnie's dangerous world. Because even though they passed through the same Toledo streets and the same country roads, Johnnie and the Johnsons experienced profoundly different worlds.
Johnnie never really knew Mr. Johnson's Ohio of picturesque skies and friendly smiles. Though he lived in Mr. Johnson's world for a while, Mr. Johnson's world never lived in him. Johnnie never understood love and kindness, or the wonder, brilliance, and mercy that filled Mr. Johnson's life. And Mr. Johnson did not know Johnnie's world of using and being used, of blood and meanness, a jarring world with no reason and no sense. When he found out, it was too late.
Copyright © 2002 by Jennifer Toth