"One shot, one kill": Like his former associate, Bob Ellis loves his guns.
"One shot, one kill": Like his former associate, Bob Ellis loves his guns.
Phillippe Diederich

Conspiracy Theory

In his smoky, cramped office filled with vintage rifle posters, books on warfare and military bric-a-brac, Al Johnson tells his favorite story. Filled with crooked politicians, drug dealers, international intrigue and, of course, a hero fighting for truth and justice, Johnson's engaging saga might make a novel or Hollywood thriller. Indeed, that's the plan. "I'm actively working on the books," he says. "There are parties that want to buy the screenplay, especially if I'm indicted."

If so, he may be close to a deal. Johnson has tried to sell the story many times before — to judges, law enforcement agencies, former business partners, ex-lovers. So far, instead of buying it, they're trying to put him in jail — on July 1, a grand jury indicted Johnson for perjury. He also faces trial on a criminal "deadbeat dad" charge. Either case could land him in jail for at least two years.

But that's all part of the unfolding drama, because Al Johnson's favorite story is about Al Johnson, the real-life protagonist in a tangled tale of lawyers, guns and money. He says he's the victim of a sweeping conspiracy that began in March 1993, when the Harris County District Attorney's office confiscated his machine guns, issued a felony indictment against him on a bogus bad-check charge and deprived him of his livelihood. And he insists it's true to the last detail, though he knows it all sounds rather far-fetched. "If I told me this story," he says with a rueful smile, "I'd throw me out of the office."

It might be easier for Johnson if he could back the details with hard evidence — copies of contracts for the millions of dollars in business he claims to have transacted in South and Central America, for example, or correspondence with the elusive operatives in Mexico City he says are now working to vindicate him — but such evidence is in short supply. "There doesn't seem to be a whole lot that he can produce to back up anything he says," agrees his court-appointed attorney, Jim Mount.

Johnson has an explanation for everything, and the absence of documentation is no exception. He used to have it, he says, but his enemies burglarized his office and stole his computer and files, leaving no records.

As for proof that his Mexico City friends actually exist, Johnson says he can't divulge their whereabouts for security reasons. "If anyone knew where they were, they could be killed," he says.

A jury might have trouble accepting that. But under every ozone-layer comment Johnson makes there seems to lie a maddening nugget of truth that renders obvious conclusions — that Johnson is a con man or a nut — inadequate. Many of his computer and paper files are in fact in the possession of his most rabid detractors. And those files do give credence to some of his more outlandish claims, such as being an informant for the Drug Enforcement Agency, hobnobbing with Guatemalan generals or selling police equipment to the Colombian military.

Even those who most dislike Johnson offer countervailing impressions, of a gallant, savvy wheeler-dealer who could easily have succeeded in the complex world of international high finance. "When you start talking about Al, you're talking about a whole lot of different Als," says former business associate Bob Ellis.

On one count, however, everyone but Johnson is in complete agreement: He has an enormous capacity to make people angry at him. He's sued more than a dozen public officials, including Governor George W. Bush and U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. On the Web site of his organization, Texans For Justice, he lists District Attorney Johnny Holmes as "the most corrupt official of Harris County." Of the judges who have ruled in his cases, Johnson says, "Every judge I've been involved with in Harris County is a criminal."

Many of those people now openly advocate to get Johnson out of the picture, preferably in prison. Foremost is lawyer Tom Fillion, who has frequently clashed with Johnson in court and who tops the Web site list of "the Dirty Dozen: the most corrupt attorneys in Harris County." Since 1993, when Johnson was first incarcerated for not paying his child support, Fillion helped jail him on three other occasions, once for 18 months.

And he's got plenty of help — along with several of Johnson's former friends and partners, Fillion has been working with the DA's Office to bring the latest charge for perjury. Though its origins may never be resolved, Johnson's conspiracy theory has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. "I want to hang him," Fillion says.

"Al's his own worst enemy," says one of his many former lawyers, who insists on anonymity for fear of being sued. "He just doesn't know when to quit.

"Poring over documents in the well-appointed living room of her West U townhouse, Shelby Ranly spoons another mouthful of Slim Fast out of a Stop N Go mug. With the cultivated manner of someone used to dealing with help, she occasionally issues an an amiable but firm order to one of the steady stream of workers passing through. Her clothes and penciled eyebrows a matching shade of bronze, Ranly seems suited to her current preoccupation, developing her townhouse complex that she likes to say has a value of $3 million.

Like many people who have intersected with Al Johnson, Ranly says she felt sorry for him at first. Introduced by a mutual friend in 1990, she was immediately taken by Johnson's charm and intelligence and his story, which at that time consisted of little more than a family court judge conspiring with his ex-wife to take most of his property and keep him from his two children.

Born on the 4th of July, 1951, Johnson earned two degrees from Arizona State and worked as a police officer in Phoenix, including a stint with the SWAT-team equivalent, the Special Assignments Unit. In late 1988, he was fired for driving his pickup truck with an illegal license plate. (He says he was set up because of his involvement in a high-level drug bust.)

Johnson moved his family to Houston, but the change of scenery didn't improve his circumstances — his wife soon filed for divorce, which became final in November 1989. (Johnson says his ex bribed the judge so she would get the bulk of their estate.) Johnson had no place to stay and no money to support himself. "He was broke," Ranly says. "He was cold, hungry."

So Ranly, a real estate broker who also ran a small ad agency, put him up at her home. She fed him. She paid his $800-a-month child support.

She also gave the unemployed Johnson an office in her suite on the Southwest Freeway. "He said, 'Look, all I'm asking is, if you'll give me a telephone and a corner of a desk, I'm a survivor,'" she recalls.

Johnson soon parlayed the desk and phone into a network of foreign and domestic corporations registered in Colombia, Panama, Guatemala, the Cayman Islands, Texas, Arizona. Each had one or two bank accounts, stocked modestly by Ranly, an address, and little else. On September 18, 1990, the two signed a partnership agreement that split all joint investments 50-50.

Her new partner had an ambitious, if somewhat nebulous, business plan. They would try to broker deals for multi-million dollar construction and manufacturing projects, mostly in Central and South America. Johnson's qualifications as a business executive were hardly clear, but Ranly was convinced that big bucks awaited. "I believed this was a great opportunity," she says.

Still, Ranly has a hard time defining the strategic focus. "The business venture was to make money in any legitimate way possible in any country," she says.

Johnson had an objective that was easier to conceptualize: peddling machine guns and semi-automatic weapons to law enforcement agencies and security groups in the United States and Third World countries. He could do it legally, using a federal firearms license he'd gotten as a Phoenix cop. With a $10,000 loan obtained by Ranly from West University Bank, Johnson bought a few dozen "dealer samples" from several manufacturers and put together an impressive catalog that included guns as well as helicopters, grenade launchers and other heavy hardware.

To enhance their prospects, Johnson induced Phoenix Police patrol sergeant Harvey Miller (his former supervisor) to take early retirement and move to Houston. As incentive, Johnson promised Miller a $50,000 annual salary as well as a hands-on introduction to the freewheeling world of global capitalism. In particular, Miller would provide tactical training for police departments in Latin America.

When Miller arrived in 1990, he learned that the $50,000 salary figure was overstated — by $50,000. "They told me that I had misunderstood, that it was straight commission," Miller says. Johnson claims Ranly promised the salary but reneged; Ranly says she never knew of Miller's existence until he showed up in the office one day.

They also teamed with Bob Ellis, a small-time commodities broker with family connections in Guatemala. "I was actively trying to develop more import-export business with Central and South America," Ellis says.

Johnson worked feverishly, spending weeks putting together proposals and flying to Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia to meet with potential investors and government officials. He suggested building wind turbines in Argentina and Ecuador. He pitched a trucking company in Russia. He drafted a plan to distribute diesel fuel in Guatemala.

He concentrated efforts in Mexico, where he and Ranly developed proposals to build a $16.7-million factory to produce juice concentrates in Oaxaca; a $24-million housing project in Puebla; a $63-million pier and resort in Cozumel; a $54-million regional bus operation complete with 220 luxury coaches and seven terminals; a $131-million polystyrene plant in Matamoros; and a $327-million resort complex in Bahia del Carmen featuring a "fantasy village" with restaurants, nightclubs, meeting and commercial space.

In addition, Johnson and Ranly tried to leverage loans or letters of credit by manipulating a complex chain of banking transactions. Several involved a series of negotiable, government-backed GNMA securities obtained from a Panamanian investor. The biggest of the securities had a value of $51.7 million, although a recent check with Bloomberg Information Services indicates that it may be fraudulent. No one but Ranly and Johnson seemed to understand how the financing was supposed to work. "It sounded like a something-for-nothing scheme to me," Miller, the former Phoenix patrolman, says.

The weapons offered another market niche with excellent profit potential. A "company history" of the firm Al Johnson International states that "it became a major supplier of police weapons to personnel of numerous law enforcement agencies in the southwest United States. Since its start it has expanded to supply police supplies, training, security consultation and construction of security facilities throughout the world."

But no deals ever seemed to materialize. One convoluted scheme to arrange letters of credit totaling $2 billion fell through when John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co. allegedly failed to live up to its end of the bargain. Johnson and Ranly sued for $50 million in lost commissions and damages; the lawsuit still languishes in federal court.

The distinctly unprofessional look of the proposals may have had something to do with their lack of success. Johnson's letter to the Argentine consulate offering to build a wind turbine, for example, included a warning: "This facility would require government or other arranged security of the site, as it might be a target for terrorist activity." A draft joint venture agreement for a manufacturing plant lists the product as "monofuament basalt fibre."

More alarming to potential investors might have been the grandiose status Johnson assigned his companies. A "general information" sheet about Condor Texas Ltd. references its "many syndicates of investors throughout the world," and notes that "The combined financial worth of our investors exceeds $500 million in Financial Instruments, and $100 million in real estate investments."

Johnson insists that his representations were, in fact, accurate. But he offers no names of investors, no evidence of any company assets, no contracts, no nothing. All stolen, he says. But even the records in the possession of his adversaries offer no indication that negotiations for any deals went past the preliminary stage.

After about a year of futility, Miller finally gave up and went back to Phoenix. All he had to show for his efforts was a couple of thousand bucks' commission for arranging a sale of used copiers to Poland. "I wasted a year of my life," he says.

Ranly, on the other hand, had squandered several hundred thousand dollars flying Johnson around the globe, footing his bills and personal expenses and paying the freight for the many companies. It took almost three years before she finally cut him off. "I never understood [why she waited so long]," says Miller. "I believe she bought into the fact that he was gonna make her millions."

Bob Ellis fondles his Mac-11, a weighty slab of steel with final authority. He snaps into place a 30-round clip that would be illegal if it hadn't been grandfathered in when the weapons law changed. In his collection of about two dozen guns, the Mac-11 is one of his favorites. Though he could convert the weapon to be fully automatic, he sees no need for bells and whistles. "One shot, one kill," he says. "That's all that's necessary. I don't need all that other stuff."

Ellis hardly looks the part. A wiry man with gray hair floating generously over his shoulders and a perpetual cup of coffee in tow, he fits well against the backdrop of sand and surf at his South Padre Island home. But then he shows off the bullet holes in his beat-up Land Rover or discusses the joys of hanging out in the woods with a gun — whether he fires it or not. "Hell," he says, "I've always just enjoyed my guns."

Ellis says he can clear up some of the confusion about names, dates and places that keeps the truth about Al Johnson at arm's length. He'll have two suitcases of documents overnighted from Guatemala. He'll ship the contents of a computer that Johnson used as soon as he gets someone to download them. None of it ever arrives.

A few specifics in the many narratives do match up to give a clue about the events that would shape Johnson's future. While negotiating contracts to import coffee and other commodities from Central America in the early 1990s, Ellis spent a fair amount of time with Johnson. He describes a kind of mercenary salesman, sample case in hand, schmoozing shadowy characters in cantinas. "He could sit down at a bar and capture the attention of the entire bar," Ellis says. "He was real good at setting things up so people thought he was right on the verge of a closing."

That's often as far as it went, Ellis says, because he could pique the interest of his contacts, but he couldn't deliver the goods. He periodically managed to get himself in trouble: On one occasion in mid-1992, Ellis and Ranly had to bail him out of a tight spot after he ran up a $5,000 tab at a Peruvian hotel and was unable to pay the bill (Johnson says Ranly gave him a credit card that wouldn't work). "It's a wonder he didn't get killed down there," Ellis says.

Though he challenges much of Ellis's account, Johnson agrees with him on that point. The Shining Path guerrillas did try to kill him, he says, but only managed to off one of his associates.

After Peru, Johnson set up shop in a Guatemalan hotel. His new plan, he says, involved setting up a couple of banks to manage government pension funds and help the military build low-income housing for indigents. In addition, Ellis says, "He was going to sponsor or establish a whole new orphanage system" to fix the problem of black market adoptions there. With the help of attorney Charles Hancock (who also served as Johnson's lawyer in his ongoing divorce battle), Johnson apparently tried to use the GNMA securities as collateral for the venture.

By September, however, relations with Ranly had become severely strained. She stopped paying his child support, and they stopped communicating. They've been fighting ever since, engaging in a brutal he-said, she-said war. He says she's a Mafia-connected money launderer who consorts with drug dealers and killers; she says he's a delusional, violent alcoholic who should be institutionalized.

Oddly, though, neither seemed in any hurry to dissolve the companies they'd formed and go their separate ways. Without Johnson's knowledge, Ranly negotiated a $1.3 million contract with the Mexican prison system for drug and explosive detection devices, using the name Al Johnson International. Johnson and Hancock hooked up with Texas investor Gary Wadkins (recently convicted in a wire-fraud and money-laundering scam) and pursued the Guatemalan enterprise — also under the Al Johnson International banner.

On December 18, 1992, Johnson wrote a letter to Hancock suggesting that their partnership be terminated. Two weeks later, on New Year's Eve, he wrote Ranly the first in a series of letters accusing her of undermining his personal and professional life, with multiple vague references to past arms deals, ongoing negotiations and "unsavory associates." Ranly responded in kind.

When he returned from Guatemala in February, Johnson found his office in disarray and he accused Ranly of looting his possessions, including his 18 machine guns. They had a screaming match and physical contact. Ranly filed an assault charge that cost Johnson a conviction and $500 fine.

The following month, Johnson contacted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the FBI, stating that Ranly had stolen his weapons and asking for help in recovering them. His pleas were ignored. Meanwhile, Ranly had packaged the guns in boxes marked "parts" and brought them to the Mail Center on Westheimer, from where they were to be shipped to an Arizona address formerly used by Johnson. He learned the location of the guns from Ellis and contacted authorities, and the DA's Office confiscated them on March 18.

The next day, a grand jury indicted Johnson on a bad check charge. It was all downhill from there.

If Al Johnson is right, Shelby Ranly has the power of God, or at least one of the archangels. Through her connections in the DA's Office, he says, she arranged to have the weapons seized to put him out business. She conspired to have the bad check indictment brought against him, then notified his Latin American contacts that he'd been charged with a felony, killing the deals he was about to close. She forged documents to make it appear she had the right to do business as Al Johnson International, then made off with a pile of cash from the detector deal in Mexico. She sabotaged his visitation rights, destroyed his second marriage, ultimately worked her black magic to have him jailed for non-support.

Johnson knows it sounds overstated, but he won't budge from the story, which became the basis for a slew of court actions. Though he's been ridiculed and punished for his stance — one judge wrote in an opinion that his allegations "border on the delusional and the paranoiac" — he still refuses to back down.

He may not have the documents, but Johnson does have a few facts on his side. The bad check charge, for example, was brought by Gail Czernohus, a contractor who claimed he'd bounced a $50,000 payment for building inspection services in 1990. That Czernohus had no record of payment to the subcontractors who'd done the work and had waited three years to file the charge was suspicious enough. That she worked for Ranly might have tipped the prosecutors that something more was involved.

In fact, on March 2, Ranly had written a letter to an assistant DA, urging her to proceed with the case. "Please put this on the 'Hot Priority' list if you can. Mr. Johnson plans to leave the country."

Ranly first denied having anything to do with the bad check charge. Asked about the letter, she waffled. "I don't remember writing that," she said. "I'm not saying I didn't."

Her self-injection in that case continued through December, when she wrote a letter to prosecutor John Boone asking that Johnson's bond be revoked. According to Ranly, he had shot two holes in her front door, stolen her computer and stock certificates in Al Johnson International (which she claimed were worth $150,000) and engaged in bribery with the Mexican government. "Mr. Johnson is armed and dangerous," she wrote.

The day before, Johnson was jailed on a contempt charge for failure to pay child support. His bond was revoked on January 27, 1994, and he served eight months before his release. During that time, the bad check charge was dropped because the case was too weak to prosecute.

Ranly again compounded Johnson's legal woes in October 1996. She wrote the state Attorney General's Office suggesting that Johnson had access to $51 million in GNMAs "to finance his various offshore investments in Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Peru." She also stated that Johnson had received income for legal work he'd been doing.

Johnson's assets were especially relevant by then, because he'd been booked the previous month on a felony charge of criminal non-support. Ranly's implication was clear: Johnson could afford to make his child support payments, but wasn't.

Several of Johnson's other accusations appear to have some basis in reality, or at least offset those of his chief adversary. He has affidavits from two former Ranly employees who back his assertion that she forged company documents and generally threatened to bring Johnson to his knees. And a court in Mexico ruled that the deal she swung for drug and explosive detection devices in Mexico was borderline enough to dismiss a lawsuit she filed against her Mexican representatives.

Not that Ranly didn't have cause to be miffed with Johnson. He's sued her, filed a claim against her with the Texas Workforce Commission for back wages (though he'd never been an employee), written all kinds of nasty things about her into the permanent record and thrown a wrench into her effort to collect money on the contract in Mexico.

"I wanted the District Attorney to put him in jail," she confesses, bristling at the allegations of criminal activity he spouts at every turn. "It's that kind of stuff, and it's the constant harassment of me personally. It's the thousands that he's cost me, the fact that he mooches off of others and then he screws you."

Since his world went bust in 1993, a host of others have joined the Get Johnson society. Like a New Age support group, they meet at the courthouse, at attorney Tom Fillion's office or around a meal, dishing dirt on their favorite target. And the target gets bigger by the day.

Cheryl Yates, Melinda Honerkamp, Scott Myers and Diane Higgins crowd around a kitchen table and rag on Al Johnson. All four have crossed paths with him; all four have switched from sympathizers to ostracizers. Honerkamp has a place of honor on Johnson's Web site as a co-conspirator. Higgins got legal aid from Johnson in her custody fight until they fell out. Yates is an ex-girlfriend.

Myers had the closest encounter with Johnson. They met in jail in September 1995, when both were doing time as deadbeat dads. Johnson told his story; his cellmate could relate. "He was like a friend of mine," says Myers, his bangs curled around his forehead like a pair of empty parentheses. "I really believed at the time that he was being screwed by the system."

After their release, they took an apartment together. Johnson made Myers a vice-president of Al Johnson International, which had a small office in a stale building downtown on Fannin. The company was still trying to swing deals for weapons and low-income housing in Mexico. Myers saw his chance to carve himself a slice of the American dream. "Al was gonna give that to me: the chance to make real good money, to drive expensive cars, to have unlimited expense accounts, to travel a lot," he says. "I'm a pretty stupid business guy, I guess."

Faxes flew back and forth to Johnson's old Mexican contacts, but no contracts emerged. Nothing came of the plan to build a firing range in Houston and train police officers there, either.

Soon Johnson came up with a new brainchild: a company that would tape video depositions, deliver subpoenas and do other paralegal work. They convinced mutual friend Craig Harrington to invest a drip of startup capital, and Harrington Legal Services began doing business in mid-1997.

Johnson did most of the work, though just how much remains a point of contention, since the financial records (according to Johnson) were stolen. But files from Johnson's computer disks show billings of more than $25,000 over a two-year period. Myers, a carpet layer by trade, kept himself afloat with odd jobs. Harrington bailed after a few months, signing over his interest to Johnson for $10.

While engaged with his business and legal entanglements, Johnson met Cheryl Yates — he was doing legal work for the attorney representing Yates in her own bitter divorce. They became friends, then lovers.

"Al is exceptionally suave," Yates says, relating how he used to drive her car down the street from the office to avoid steep parking fees, then walk back. "Just about the time you think chivalry is dead, here comes this guy who's gonna walk 10 blocks to park your car."

In December 1998, Johnson moved in with Yates. Five months later, they had an abrupt split. Johnson says she wanted to marry him, and when he said no, she vowed revenge. Yates says she kicked him out when she became concerned about his drinking and violent temper. They accused each other of assault.

Myers, who had remained at the legal service, severed his ties with Johnson after Yates told him that his partner was a liar and a thief. The two soon found themselves working toward the same end: Myers gave hard copies of Johnson's computer files to Tom Fillion, who represents Johnson's ex-wife. Yates scored a box of files from the office that eventually found its way into the DA's hands.

It didn't take Yates long to gain a measure of revenge. On June 15, Johnson was arrested after the DA's Office was handed an audio tape — recorded by Yates — in which Johnson seems to be preparing to flee to Costa Rica.

The plan, as prosecutors understood it, was for Johnson and his new girlfriend to pack up a U-Haul and drive to Central America, thereby escaping from his non-support indictment. The assistant DA also believed that Johnson would take with him $51 million in negotiable securities (probably the elusive GNMAs) he was stashing in the office. "My investigators were led to believe from his business partners that he had access to money," says Cindy Merrill, who directs the DA's Family Criminal Law Division.

Just why someone with $51 million would drive a U-Haul to Costa Rica was evidently beside the point. Johnson was jailed for the sixth time in six years. As before, he posted bond and went back into the ring.

If his clients paid him for the countless hours he's spent in meetings, filing motions and appearing in court, Tom Fillion could make a career out of Al Johnson. A combative lawyer whose bushy eyebrows and red face give him the jagged appearance of a retired prize fighter, Fillion cultivates the image. "I know how to hurt a person quick," he says. "Real quick."

His first encounter with Johnson came when Fillion represented Johnson's ex-wife in her attempts to get some of the money Johnson owes in back child support, which has escalated over the years to more than $135,000. Fillion's roster now lists the panoply of Johnson foes, including Ranly, Myers, Higgins and Yates. "The time that I've spent on this thing is unbelievable," Fillion says.

His anger at Johnson is transparent. "I got mad when he filed a grievance on me [with the state bar]," Fillion says. "I got mad when he filed two lawsuits against me."

Fillion is probably also mad that Johnson posts a reminder on his Web site that the attorney was reprimanded twice by the State Bar of Texas in the 1980s for bilking clients. He's upset that Johnson continues to survive with no apparent assets and no income, living off the generosity of those who believe his story. He's furious that Johnson's knowledge of the legal system has enabled him to clog the courts with lawsuits, resulting in huge costs to himself, his clients and the state — but none to Johnson, who represents himself pro se.

And he can't be too pleased that as often as he seems to have Johnson pinned to the ropes, he wiggles free. Fillion filed a food stamp fraud charge with the state, which has been dropped. He's succeeded in getting Johnson jailed, only to see him make bond or win a reprieve in court. He's tried without success to prove Johnson has money, which he still believes. "We're gonna prove Al is a wealthy man," he says.

This time, though, Fillion thinks he's got Johnson in his sights. "I'm gonna pull the plug on him," he says.

After a March hearing on the child-support case, Fillion detected several instances in which Johnson's testimony contradicted itself. He handed the material to assistant DA Craig Goodhart, who gained a perjury indictment against Johnson. The prosecutor tried to get his bond revoked, but Johnson lucked into a lenient judge. He was released the next day after a friend loaned him the money to post the $30,000 bail.

Of all the wrongs Johnson may have committed, the perjury charges seem irrelevant and trivial. They center on Johnson's novels, thinly veiled versions of his conspiracy theory titled To Beat the Border and The Baca Files. Written in an impenetrable, choppy potboiler style, it's hard to imagine them generating much interest from a publisher. Chapter titles include "You fuck with me or my investigation and I'll cut off your balls" and "Let me show you how the game is played, bitch!"

Things devolve into the depths when Johnson tries his hand at erotica. "Finally Alex could stand no more. With a deep final thrust which caused both of them to scream out in pleasure, Alex collapsed on top of the woman who in reality, really was the 'girl of his dreams.'"

Johnson wrote the books under the pen name B.F. Flemming. A letter he wrote seeking an agent to market the books explains that he used a pseudonym "because I am a federal witness in various illegal arms transactions involving various criminal groups at this time, and until this matter is finalized by the U.S. Government, it is vital that I keep a very low profile, and my location is not disclosed."

The perjury indictment arises in part because Johnson has also testified in court that B.F. Flemming is a real business associate who lives in Mexico City and now controls most of his assets. He is also accused of lying in testimony that he never tried to sell the books, and that he doesn't have any of the manuscripts. The assistant DA says Johnson signed a contract with his second ex-wife last year to market the books, drafts of which he supplied.

Johnson may have trouble in front of a jury, especially if asked to prove the existence of Flemming or his other phantom associate in Mexico City, Steve Bristol. But the jury may turn off to the attempt to nail Johnson on those particular points, especially since more egregious cases of perjury occur daily in the courts without consequence. "It does concern me that there seems to be such a strong desire to see Al take a hit on something," says Jim Mount, his court appointed attorney.

Mount, a former assistant DA who has a hard time accepting that his former colleagues are involved in a far-flung conspiracy against Johnson, nevertheless sees problems with the way the case is being handled. "I think they're spending a lot of time and effort on bullshit," Mount says.

The jury may also question the appearance that the case is primarily being driven by a collective desire on the part of Fillion and others with an agenda. "I guess you can draw a cause and effect if you want," says the source, "but it isn't necessarily so.

"The day before his grand jury hearing, Johnson sounds bad. He slurs his words and seems unable to gather his thoughts. "I've been up for the last 48 hours," he explains.

He's also having a memory lapse. According to his resume, Johnson currently serves as "an executive officer in positions ranging from CEO to vice-president, on the board of various Central American and Guatemalan corporations."

But Johnson says he can't remember the names of any of his Central American and Guatemalan corporations. Then he says the positions are mostly honorary. Nor can he recall any details of his millions of dollars in government contracts. The South American turbine deals are real, he says slowly, emphatically. "That was being done with another government," he says. "Actually, it was Red China."

But they fell apart at the last minute, Johnson says, because "the Chinese government wouldn't deal with Shelby Ranly."

That the walls he has built may finally be closing in doesn't phase Johnson in the least. "I'm innocent," he says. Undeterred, he's plowing ahead with plans to sue the DA and others again in federal court, this time for violating his First Amendment rights by stealing his book manuscripts. A lack of cash isn't a problem, either, since he's starting a legal defense fund, and besides, Steve Bristol will soon send money to cover his living expenses and bail money, should he need it again.

It looks like he will. Even if he dodges this latest bullet, a barrage will surely follow from an increasingly irritable army of anti-Johnson partisans. "I am outraged that he has gone this long without paying child support," says assistant DA Merrill, one of Johnson's milder critics.

And knowing Johnson, he'll give them plenty of ammunition. Though he appears to have been flat broke for years, living off the generosity of others, his many claims of Texas-size deals have convinced everyone that he's got a bundle squirreled away somewhere. "What Al gets stuck on is, he ends up hoisted on his own petard," says an attorney familiar with Johnson's case.

Johnson remains convinced that one way or another, everything will work out fine. He's passed along his story to the Justice Department and the FBI, and he expects that the Mexican government will soon hand down indictments against Ranly and DA Johnny Holmes. And once the truth emerges, he can start wheeling and dealing. "As soon as I'm done with this shit, I'll make money again," he says. "I've gotten a lot of requests in Mexico and South America that I do business down there."

I'll probably do another business someplace and start my banks again," he concludes, then decides to offer a parting shot. "Preferably outside Johnny Holmes and the document fabrication factories in Harris County."

E-mail Bob Burtman at bob_burtman@houstonpress.com.


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