By Sean Pendergast
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Seven months later, in December 1987, Binder and 27 other people were indicted by a federal grand jury on drug charges. Binder surrendered to authorities a few days later, and in July 1988, he went on trial. Even though he was facing the possibility of life in prison, according to his attorney, Binder still could not bring himself to rein in his ego. Specifically, says Schaffer, Binder enjoyed upstaging U.S. District Judge David Hittner each morning before the trial resumed.
"Binder would not walk into the courtroom until the judge was on the bench, and the jury was in the box," says Schaffer. "He did it every day, and Judge Hittner would just glare at him. I kept telling him that he was making a bad mistake; that if we lost the judge was going to remember."
In addition to Binder's behavior, the trial also featured defense testimony from some unlikely sources. Among the eight other defendants on trial with Binder was Martha Marie Preston, the owner of Myosha, a nightclub with a predominantly African-American clientele and frequented by some of the city's most powerful politicians. Then-mayor Kathy Whitmire had been a guest at Myosha as had then-councilman Ernest McGowen, U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt and even then-police chief Lee Brown, the current mayor of Houston. Then-councilman Anthony Hall, now the city attorney, testified during the trial he had received about $40,000 in legal fees from Preston. McGowen, Hoyt, Brown and Hall were all called to the stand by the defense in an attempt to show that Myosha was not the crack house the prosecution made it out to be, and that legitimate business was conducted there.
Nevertheless, in September 1988, ten weeks after the trial began, Binder, Preston and one other defendant were found guilty of selling cocaine, but were acquitted on counts that could have resulted in life prison terms. Instead, Judge Hittner gave them 40 years a piece. The Johnny Binder Show had just been cancelled. A new act would soon take its place.
Johnny Binder began his new way of thinking in 1991. He was three years into his sentence, doing time at the federal correction facility in Leavenworth, Kansas. On the radio one day, he heard a conversation between a Christian man and minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam. Both men, says Binder, were "deep." He recalls that they pledged to put their differences aside and to work together for a common good.
At about the same time, Binder took an inventory of his own life, and he came to the conclusion that it had not been a very good one. The deaths of his grandmother and his father left him depressed. Several of the guys he used to run with -- cats like Johnny Hickman and several of his other former associates -- were dead, victims of drug-war shootouts. It was then, says Binder, that he decided he had been a fool, that he was lucky he wasn't dead himself. He had to change his ways.
"I told the devil I was through with him," says Binder. "The devil was not going to make me his whore no more. So I work for God now, and I'll work for God until the day I die. I've gotto do this."
So, he began his new calling immediately. Without being specific, Binder says he studied the ministry while in prison. At the same time, he testified to his fellow inmates, spreading the word. But when the other prisoners started listening, prison officials apparently became concerned, and Binder was frequently moved from one facility to another, from Leavenworth to Louisiana to Florida to California to Texas. Along the way, Binder adopted a new moniker: minister Johnny Jeremiah. He got the idea in Leavenworth in 1994 from an Hispanic Catholic priest who told him the name was appropriate because Binder liked to shake things up. (The prophet Jeremiah was active in Jerusalem during the city's destruction by the Babylonians. Jeremiah prophesied an unavoidable disaster. He is also said to have felt disgusted with his own life.)
Somewhat surprisingly -- considering that he still insists he was wrongly convicted -- Binder credits prison with changing his life, and says he would not have been able to reach his epiphany without it.
"Even while I was doing my dirt, God always knew I had a good heart," says Binder. "It's always been in my heart to do something for children. But now I can do it God's way instead of doing it Johnny's way."
When Binder says he is no longer doing things "Johnny's way," he's only referring to the broader framework of his life. The details are still courtesy of Johnny Binder. After spending 12 hours straight with Binder recently, one thing was abundantly clear: Johnny's way is the only way he knows, which is not to say Binder's metamorphosis isn't genuine, or that his interest in helping children isn't sincere. But Binder is definitely the center of Binder's world. He is also a man not afraid to drive over a freeway median if traffic is bad, or above parking in a handicapped-designated spot -- even if other parking spaces are available. He is a man who constantly remains locked in on the subject important to him. He may briefly pay lip service to a question, but will quickly steer the conversation back to what he wishes to discuss. And the only topics Binder is really interested in discussing are his foundation and his new life.
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