It's the Saturday before Easter, and minister Johnny Jeremiah, otherwise known as former crack dealer Johnny Binder, is doing the Lord's work in a big, loud way. Everything about Binder -- his bald black head, his two gold teeth, and especially the small diamond mounted between those front teeth -- seems to glisten under a bright midday sun on this cool spring day. He appears less a man of the cloth and more of a game-show host as he hands out flyers promoting an AIDS awareness march to anyone who passes by Joy Tabernacle Baptist Church.
Located on Griggs Road, Joy Tabernacle is situated in the heart of the area known as Sunnyside in southeast Houston. Sunnyside is a predominantly African-American, low-income neighborhood and, according to the city health department, has one of the fastest-growing rates of HIV infection in Houston. Binder's message, which he takes from church to church, is an important one; it is the bedrock message of his fledgling non-profit foundation. Unfortunately, it is somewhat obscured by Binder's long-cultivated, over-the-top style of calling attention to himself, while calling out other, more traditional ministers.
"We need to stop the Sunday mornin' disco and star shows, and the political centers and stop playin' games," says Binder. "Our people are dyin'. And I'm not comin' to play with none of them [other preachers]. Everybody's walkin' around thinkin' they're a player. They think they ballin'. No, they fallin'. They think they cool. No, they fools. We're puttin' our children in clubs. Puttin' them in front of the TV. Hell-a-vision. We need to be teachin' them prevention and intervention. Rubbers ain't safe. God's safe. Rubbers leak."
As he gives his impromptu sermon, Binder forces flyers on passing motorists on Griggs. He even boards a bus briefly, much to the displeasure of the Metro driver. He barks out orders to others preparing for the afternoon march. He conducts the funk band playing outside the church. He dances with a little girl. Flashing his infectious jeweled smile, he is simultaneously charming and obnoxious, engaging and overbearing. The routine is vintage Johnny Binder.
In 1987, Binder, along with co-defendant Martha Marie Preston, was indicted on federal drug kingpin charges, the end to what had been a flamboyant life. He had a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce and lots of expensive jewelry. He owned a nightclub and was often seen with his formidable entourage making a grand entrance into the Summit just prior to the tip-off of Houston Rockets games. Binder was acquitted of charges that would have sent him to prison for life, but a jury did find him guilty of selling cocaine and maintaining a dope house, and he was sentenced to 40 years in prison. He was paroled in September 1998 after serving ten years. During that decade behind bars, Binder says he found God, which may be so. But he never lost the flash that characterized the old Johnny.
"I'm like Moses," says Binder, revving back up in front of Joy Tabernacle. "I ain't going to plea bargain with them. I come with the rod in my hand. Y'all wanted me over here. So, now I'm over here. And we're going to shake up God's world. We're going to take it to the next level. We ain't going to play church. It's going to be a real church."
Binder founded his non-profit WBD, Save the Children's Lives shortly after his release from prison. The WBD, as Binder always explains, stands for "wonderful, beautiful and dedicated." The second part is, of course, very similar in name to the international organization, Save the Children. While Binder may have the best of intentions, he is also is prone to exaggeration and grandiosity. He also seems completely unqualified to achieve any of his organization's numerous goals -- such as opening a facility to house hundreds of AIDS patients. For example, when asked recently what the foundation's annual operating budget is, he replied, "I don't know," and seemed perplexed that anyone would bother -- or dare -- to ask such a question. The success of his organization, he says, depends on his ability to find a generous millionaire to bankroll the operation while he finds matching funds through some sort of federal grant.
"God is going to send me a millionaire to help save these children," he insists.
In the meantime, he hustles to come up with enough money to pay the rent for a suite of upscale offices near the Galleria -- far from the site of his AIDS awareness march -- but remains true to his trademark ostentatious nature by driving a fully loaded 1999 Lincoln Navigator.
But if Binder is getting over, then he is getting over on some of the city's most noted and powerful players. Among those whom Binder can count on for support are the Reverend William Lawson, one of the most respected clergymen in Houston and who, according to a spokesperson, believes the new Binder and his foundation are for real. Also in Binder's corner is U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, who spoke at the conclusion of his pre-Easter AIDS walk. Binder, Jackson Lee told the two dozen or so marchers, "has a vision." Still, some of his staunchest supporters acknowledge that Binder can't so easily put his criminal past behind him; they also acknowledge that Binder's all-consuming need for attention may be an obstacle to realizing his personal and professional goals.
"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.
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.
"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.
"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."
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 got to 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.
Shortly after his parole from prison, Binder launched WBD, Save the Children's Lives. It's a 501(c)(3) non-profit foundation registered with the state of Texas. Binder is listed as the chief executive officer. Among the board of directors are the Reverend Williams of Joy Tabernacle Baptist Church, as well as Binder's oldest son, Aaron, who is a minister at Mount Hebron Baptist Church. GuideStar, a Web site that offers information about non-profits, shows Save the Children's Lives as having 35 full-time employees. But on a recent visit to the foundation's $7,500-a-month offices in the Mesa Building on Richmond at Fountainview, fewer than a half dozen workers were on hand, and those present did not seem especially busy.
Rebuilding his image is obviously a high priority for Binder. On his own Web site, he includes a letter of support from Howard E. Jefferson, president of the Houston chapter of the NAACP. And Binder's promotional packet includes a short message to "Minister Jeremiah" from Mayor Lee Brown.
"Just a brief note to say it was certainly my pleasure seeing you the other day," writes the mayor. "Also, I extend my best wishes for your continuous success in your important work. It was good visiting with you and hope to do so again some time soon."
When contacted by the Houston Press, a spokesperson for the mayor attempted to downplay the chummy tone of the letter. Although as police chief, Brown testified at Binder's drug trial back in 1988, the spokesperson says that the mayor did not know that Jeremiah was Binder when he sent the letter, which was basically a courtesy note. The spokesperson also says that Binder must have been part of a large group when he most recently visited the mayor.
Also included in Binder's promotional material and on his Web site (www.wbdsavethechildren.org) is Binder's lengthy wish list of ambitious projects. At the top of that list is a "transitional living facility" for people suffering from HIV and AIDS. Despite being cash poor, Binder is convinced he can obtain enough grant money or latch on to a wealthy benefactor to fund the facility, which would provide a place to live for those too sick to work as well as resources to help them get on with their lives once, and if, they recover. Binder claims to have had serious discussions with the Houston Department of Housing and Community Development about the project. However, in a letter to the Press, HCD director Margie Bingham says that after searching the department's files, her staff could find no record of any negotiations between Binder and the city. Additionally, several people whom Binder says are supporting his new cause, and whom he suggested the Press contact, did not return calls from the paper. The list includes Monica Lamb of the Houston Comets, the Reverend Kirbyjon Caldwell of Windsor Village United Methodist Church and the Reverend James Dixon of Northwest Community Baptist Church.
Since WBD, Save the Children's Lives' annual income is less than $25,000, the organization is not required to file an annual 990 informational return with the Internal Revenue Service. Thus far, most of Binder's budget is the result of a loan from an old friend, Jeanette Huff, the owner of A Splice of Hair, a beauty parlor in Greenway Plaza. Shortly after Binder was released from prison in 1998, Huff lent Binder's foundation $20,000 in start-up funds. Some of it also went toward Binder's Lincoln Navigator. Huff doesn't regret her decision but says Binder is easily distracted by women looking for a man.
"He has a bad problem with that," says Huff. "He'll find somebody that's a con artist -- someone who can talk just as fast as him -- and he'll go with them rather than staying rooted. It's a learning phase for him. I was very angry at first. He's wasted a lot of time and a lot of money I've invested."
However, Huff also believes Binder is becoming more focused, and she is convinced that Binder is a changed man, a spiritual man.
Binder was sentenced to 40 years, says Huff, then "all of sudden he comes up (for parole) in ten years and gets out. Well, apparently something must have taken place."
Before the new sentencing guidelines were enacted in the late 1980s, it wasn't uncommon to release prisoners after serving only a fraction of their sentences. But the fact that someone as notorious as Binder would get out after serving only ten years on a 40-year sentence also raised eyebrows in the law-enforcement community.
In November 1998, two months after Johnny Binder was paroled from federal prison, Houston police officer Cedric Rodgers and Stevon McCarter, an employee of Rap-A-Lot Records, were arrested and accused of stealing $30,000 from two men on their way to make a drug buy. Three other men with connections to the Houston-based record company were also later indicted along with Rodgers and McCarter. During McCarter's trial, Binder's name surfaced -- not as a drug dealer, but in connection with how the defendant was busted.
During cross examination by defense attorney Randy Schaffer (Kent's brother), government informant Phyllis Conner testified that, until recently, she had been employed by Binder to do marketing and promotions for his foundation. As he continued to question Conner, Schaffer attempted to suggest that Binder had been involved in setting up the defendants.
Q: Did Johnny Binder help set up this deal?
Q: When was the last time you talked to Johnny Binder?
Q: Really. When?
A: He called me last night.
Q: Did he know you testified yesterday?
Q: Did you talk about the trial a little bit?
A: Not really. Not into depth or anything.
Q: So Johnny Binder's monitoring the progress of this trial, isn't he?
A: No, he isn't.
Q: He just happens to go calling you the night you testify?
A: He calls me almost every day. He called me last night because he had heard.
Q: I didn't ask you that. So you will be talking to Johnny tonight, I guess?
A: I don't know.
Q: Please give him my regards when you do, okay.
Binder certainly has little regard for Schaffer, however. When asked about the courtroom debate, Binder vehemently denied working as an informant on the McCarter case, or any other case for that matter.
"Hell no!" says Binder. "Double hell no. I ain't no snitch. Hell no. I would never snitch. I did ten years."
Binder also says he is considering filing a slander suit against Randy Schaffer and his "low-down Jewish ass."
Schaffer responded by saying only, "That's not a very Christian attitude for a self-proclaimed man of God."
On a recent Wednesday evening, members of the Christian Rescue Mission Baptist Church in the Third Ward gather for their mid-week services. In a meeting hall adjacent to the church itself, Johnny Binder -- looking like a million bucks plus change in a dark, pin-striped suit -- stands before a dozen or so black teenage males. Battling to be heard above the church choir rehearsing in the next room, Binder starts strong and works himself to a fever pitch that frightens some of the boys, and amuses others.
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"Talk to me black man!" shouts Binder. "I want to teach you how to be the master instead of being mastered! We're hollering 'Jesus,' but we're acting like niggers. You're not cool, you're a fool. How do I know? Because I was one."
Binder proceeds to deliver his sermon on AIDS awareness to the youngsters. Later, in the church, he is greeted like a returning war hero, someone who has seen the worst and has come home to tell about it -- and how to avoid it. He also manages to get a plug in for his foundation, and how he wants every member of every congregation in the city to contribute a dollar to help him save the children.
It's all good for Binder right now. And he'll keep rolling until his money or his charm runs out. Today, like any celebrity, he likes the attention. Like a Hollywood star with a high-powered PR agent, he also likes to control the public images. The underlying message is clear: Pay attention to me and my causes, but just don't look too closely.
E-mail Steve McVicker at firstname.lastname@example.org.