Here's Johnny

Reformed and reborn, the man now pushes the word of God, not drugs. So why does it still feel like the Johnny Binder Show?

"I think Johnny's trying to make up for lost time," says the Reverend Michael P. Williams, the pastor of Joy Tabernacle Baptist Church, and a Houston Community College board member. "I think he understands the previous part of his life was so destructive to the African-American community, and he is trying to make amends. But it's kind of difficult sometimes, because [some] people's perceptions of him are hardened. Like they say, it's almost impossible to make a good first impression the second time around."

Especially when Binder's methods haven't changed, even if his message and his heart have.

These days Binder does a different dance, outside Joy Tabernacle Baptist Church.
John Childs
These days Binder does a different dance, outside Joy Tabernacle Baptist Church.
U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee says Binder has "a vision."
John Childs
U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee says Binder has "a vision."

Three days after the AIDS awareness march, Binder mixes lunch and business at a westside chain restaurant. A strict vegetarian since well before his release from prison, Binder polishes off two house salads with generous amounts of thousand island dressing, two desserts (a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a Mason jar full of banana pudding) and several glasses of ice water while telling a reporter, and any waitress he can cajole into listening, about his past and his future. Sometimes they seem the same, or at least similar.

Born in the Fifth Ward, Binder, 46, was raised primarily in the Sunnyside and South Park areas. His mother, with whom he currently lives, runs a beauty shop out of the house next door to her home near Martin Luther King Boulevard and the South Loop. His sister operates a flower shop next door to the beauty parlor. His late father had his own construction company where Binder says he became a master bricklayer by the age of 15. Unfortunately, he got ahead of himself in other areas, as well. After the ninth grade, he dropped out of high school and married his pregnant girlfriend. The child would be the first for Binder, who would father seven others with various women. The kids now range in age from 12 to 30. All but one live in Houston and, as Binder puts it, are involved in his life -- and presumably he in theirs.

Children, he says, have always been a concern for Binder. Preventing the spread of AIDS among teens is his present mission, but even as an outlaw, according to Binder, he kept an eye out for underprivileged youngsters. He says he helped purchase back-to-school clothes for poor kids in Houston's depressed neighborhoods.

"I'm a living legend, and I realize I'm a living legend," declares Binder, completely serious and without a trace of a smile. "I'm the king of the Fourth Ward, the Fifth Ward, South Park. God let me go to prison to clean up my dirty, crazy, nasty self. He cleaned me up, and now I'm back. I'm back by God's popular demand. And I'm going to take Houston."

Take Houston again, that is. According to officials with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Binder and his associates controlled 80 percent of the crack cocaine traffic in the city during the mid 1980s -- the culmination of a life of crime that Binder claims began as his personal response to an attack on a woman in his neighborhood.

Without giving specifics such as the date it happened or the names of anyone involved, Binder says he was in his late teens when a black woman from South Park was raped by a white man. Binder never saw the crime, didn't know the woman, but after learning of the attack, he says he went a "jacking" spree.

"I took a pistol, and I went to whipping people," says Binder. "I whipped a couple of white folks. I was wrong, though."

By the time he was 34 years old, according to news accounts, Binder had been arrested 34 times, but was only convicted once. In perhaps a bit of divine retribution for the jackings, he was sent to prison in 1980 for a crime he did not commit. That year, Binder was convicted of aggravated robbery in connection with the armed hold-up of a Bullock Jewelers store on Westheimer. He served three years in state prison before a woman incarcerated in California confessed that she and another man committed the crime. As it turned out, the woman's accomplice, like Binder, sometimes went by the nickname "J." Also, like Binder, the other man drove a yellow Fleetwood Cadillac. The late state District Judge Joe Kegans issued an order releasing Binder from prison and granting him a new trial. Then-governor Mark White formally pardoned Binder in 1983. Binder also received $25,000 as compensation from the state of Texas.

Less than four years later, he was the focus of DEA task force investigation and, in 1991, he was featured in a U.S. News & World Report article entitled The Men Who Created Crack. Binder -- who claims he has never been high a day in his life and has never sold drugs to anyone -- believes that he came under DEA scrutiny as part of governmental retribution against him for beating the aggravated robbery rap. His former attorney, Kent Schaffer, agrees. Just as he did during Binder's two-and-half-month-long federal trial in 1988, Schaffer still contends that Binder was never the drug kingpin that local and federal authorities made him out to be.

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Johnny Binder is an uncover informant, and he is a conning crook.

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