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?

"The government tried to milk the case for all they could," says Schaffer. "The government's PR machine is not unlike many of ours. It's predisposed to making things seem more important than they really are. And at the time, Binder had been an embarrassment to law enforcement for a couple of reasons."

First was the pardon for the armed robbery. Secondly, says Schaffer, the day after Binder received his $25,000 compensation from the state, he checked into the old Stouffer's Hotel next door to the Summit -- the hotel where Houston Rockets Mitchell Wiggins and Lewis Lloyd, known for their own drug excesses, liked to hang out. An undercover DEA agent staked out the lobby. At one point during the evening, when the Binder entourage was leaving the hotel, the agent overheard one of the women in the group say something about not forgetting to put the "keys" in the trunk of the limousine. The agent assumed the woman was referring to kilos of cocaine. But a few minutes later, when Binder's limo was pulled over and searched, the only keys the agents found in the trunk were a set of keyboards to an electric piano. To make matters worse, Channel 13 reporter Wayne Dolcefino, who had been listening to a police radio and heard the search go down, showed up at the scene and videotaped the entire incident which was broadcast on the news later that evening. It was an embarrassing moment for the DEA agents, and one they wouldn't forget, especially considering the way Binder continued to flaunt his notorious reputation in public.

Indeed, says Schaffer, part of Binder's problem was that Binder actually liked the attention -- that he wanted to be as big as law enforcement thought he was. For example, Binder, with an all-female entourage, would show up at the Summit for Rockets games wearing a fur coat, lots of jewelry and carrying a briefcase and a cell phone back when cell phones were a big deal.

Binder (on the phone) at an AIDS awareness march with the Reverend Michael P. Williams (front row, second from right).
Deron Neblett
Binder (on the phone) at an AIDS awareness march with the Reverend Michael P. Williams (front row, second from right).
Retired Harris County detective Joe Harris was part of the DEA's Johnny Binder task force.
Deron Neblett
Retired Harris County detective Joe Harris was part of the DEA's Johnny Binder task force.

"He sat on the front row," says Schaffer. "He wanted everybody in the Summit to see his entrance. He'd shake hands and wave to the players. He was asking for trouble, but he liked being noticed."

And notice the DEA did.

After two years of watching him flash his act all over Houston, the DEA established its Johnny Binder task force in 1986.

"Just about every agency had taken a shot at him individually and couldn't get him," says Joe Harris, a retired detective with the Harris County Sheriff's Office. "So when the DEA decided to go after him, they knew they would need some help."

In addition to DEA agents, the task force also comprised detectives from several law enforcement agencies in Harris County. The sheriff's office was represented by Harris, a narcotics investigator who had developed many of his contacts and snitches while working as a jailer when he first signed on with the Harris County Sheriff's Office in 1970. He'd even met Binder at the jail during one of the drug dealer's periods of incarceration. In fact, it's with some pleasure that Harris remembers seeing another inmate knock Binder into a summersault when Binder refused to get off the telephone. He also recalls how Binder showed up in his limousine at the funeral of a sheriff's office captain who had died of cancer, and how Binder forced his way into the front of the procession en route to the cemetery. Harris knew Binder, and he didn't like him. And he was more than happy to be a part of the DEA team with the job of bringing him in.

Still, it would take months to do that job -- one that involved hours and hours of surveillance and working sources. According to Harris, one of his informants actually landed a job as Binder's chauffeur. In May 1987, the driver/snitch informed Harris that Binder had taken some cocaine to his condominium on Hearth Street near the Astrodome where he planned to convert it to crack. Hoping to catch Binder in the act, the task force got a search warrant for the condo. The agents lined up in the hallway outside the second-floor unit. They had the building security guard knock on Binder's door and tell him something was wrong with his Mercedes out in the parking lot. But somehow, Harris believes the guard was able to give Binder the high sign that something was up.

"I had my ear up to the wall, and heard him say his girlfriend's name," says Harris. "Then he told security to wait a minute, that his girlfriend had to put her clothes on. He was stalling for time."

At that point the agents began kicking in the door. By the time they got inside, 32 packets of crack were in the toilet, and Binder was out the window.

"One agent who got there late was just getting out of his car," continues Harris. "He saw Binder jump off the balcony and into a tree, and the limbs and the leaves were coming down with him. And when Binder hit the ground, he hit the ground running. He got away from us that day, but we found all the dope he was cooking."

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

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