Menace or nuisance? Repeat offender’s latest arrests incite anger among his victims

nophillips@thestate.comAugust 25, 2013 

Richland County repeat offender, Frank Johnson, has incited anger among his victims. Johnson's alleged criminal history mostly involves property crimes.

— For the residents of College Place neighborhood, the name Frank Stephone Johnson is very familiar.

Perhaps notorious.

But those residents thought Johnson, a career criminal whom neighbors suspected in multiple burglaries, was out of their lives for a while after he was sentenced in February to three years in prison after he was caught stealing an air conditioner.

So they were surprised – and angry – on Tuesday, when the Richland County Sheriff’s Department announced Johnson was a suspect in a burglary at a Parklane Road deli.

No one was more incensed than Tiffany Hevel, who said it was her air conditioner that Johnson stole to earn his last trip to the S.C. Department of Corrections.

“He didn’t pay me anything for what he stole and he didn’t have to even serve his time,” Hevel said.

To make matters worse for Hevel, Johnson had been arrested Aug. 12 for unlawfully transporting metals and released on a personal recognizance bond, meaning he did not have to put down money to be released from the county jail.

Frustration over bonds for suspects in violent crimes has simmered all summer, after 33-year-old Kelly Hunnewell was killed July 1 while working alone in a bakery. Two of the three teenagers arrested in connection with her death were out of jail on bond while awaiting trial.

Those who commit lesser, nonviolent crimes typically have lower bonds and shorter sentences – even with repeat offenses. But their victims argue those repeat offenders are menaces who need to be dealt with more severely. Now, some crime advocates and law enforcement officials are trying to find ways to better control those petty, repeat criminals.

In Johnson’s case, his 11-page rap sheet is filled mostly with arrests for larceny and nonviolent burglaries. Those who follow bond issues say his case is just one more example of the criminal justice system favoring the offenders, not the victims.

But defense attorneys say that is more of a perception than reality.

Everyone deserves a bond and judges are tough on criminals, said I.S. Leevy Johnson, a Columbia defense attorney who is not related to Frank Johnson nor representing him.

“When he goes to jail he is paying his debt to society in full,” Leevy Johnson said. “There is not a system that will guarantee a person will not commit a crime while on bond or prevent them from committing another crime when they get out.”

In Johnson’s case, he had been held in a jail for months while awaiting trial for stealing Hevel’s air-conditioner. When he was sentenced in February he was given credit for 599 days – or 19 months – that he already had served at the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center.

If he had served the full amount of time remaining on his sentence, his release date would have been in the summer of 2014. But the S.C. Department of Corrections gives inmates credit for various things such as good behavior, attending school or drug rehab programs, said Clark Newsom, a department spokesman.

“According to our inmate records, Inmate Johnson only had to serve three months here because he had served over 599 cumulative days of time at the county detention center and then behaved himself while here,” Newsom wrote in an email.

Hevel said she agreed to a plea deal at the recommendation of a prosecutor in the 5th Circuit Solicitor’s office. At Johnsons’ plea hearing, he and his attorney said he had entered a drug rehab program and indicated he was remorseful, she said.

Now, she regrets supporting the deal.

“I was against my better judgment as he had a history of being a nuisance and committing crimes in our neighborhood (even being so bold as to brag about his criminal activities) but I also wanted to give him the opportunity to rehabilitate and he did sound sincere at the time,” Hevel wrote Thursday in a letter to a county magistrate to urge a bond denial for Johnson after she learned from a friend of his most recent arrest.

Sheriff Leon Lott, whose deputies have arrested Johnson off and on for years, said he will never be rehabilitated.

Johnson is savvy about the criminal justice system, Lott said. For example, Johnson tried to claim he had a staph infection in his foot on Thursday because he knows the jail won’t take him if he truly had one.

Johnson also intentionally stays away from big crimes that carry long sentences, Lott said.

“We know as soon as he gets out he’s going to do the exact same thing,” the sheriff said. “He’s known one life, and that’s to steal. He’s back on the merry-go-round again.”

It was unknown Friday who was defending Frank Johnson on his latest charges, and efforts to reach the 5th Circuit Public Defender’s Office were unsuccessful.

Johnson was released from state prison in May, after serving his time for stealing Hevel’s air conditioner.

But he was arrested again by Richland County sheriff’s deputies Aug. 12 for unlawfully transporting metals. He was released on bond.

Then 10 days later, on Tuesday, the Sheriff’s Department named Johnson as one of two men wanted in connection for stealing air conditioning units, a walk-in cooler and a walk-in freezer from a deli along Parklane Road. When deputies arrested Johnson on Thursday at a recycling center, they also accused him of stealing copper from air conditioning units from five other Parklane Road businesses.

Johnson was charged with eight counts of injuring property to obtain nonferrous materials, one-count of second-degree burglary and one-count of malicious injury to animals.

This time, his bond was denied after the College Place community joined business owners to protest a bond, and the 5th Circuit Solicitor’s Office sent a prosecutor to the hearing.

“He has proven that he will continue to commit the same crimes and pile up more victims,” Hevel, who now lives in Tennessee, wrote.

Fifth Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson and his spokeswoman, Nicole Holland, were not available last week to discuss Frank Johnson’s case, but his executive assistant, Dawn Sloan, said the attorneys understand everyone’s concerns. Frank Johnson is of no relation to Dan Johnson.

“The thing about his crimes, though, is they’re not necessarily horrible or as horrible as other things we have going on,” Sloan said. “We’ve certainly got victims who are hurt financially by him.”

Johnson can appeal the bond denial. But if he stays in jail and eventually is convicted on the charges, he will get credit for time served. And, once again, his sentence is likely to be shortened.

Sentences are spelled out in S.C. law and judges are bound by those laws, which do not carry lengthy sentences for what society considers minimal crimes.

In South Carolina, the three-strikes laws are reserved for violent crimes and serious drug offenses, said Laura Hudson, executive director of the S.C. Crime Victims Council. So, Johnson’s string of lesser crimes will not qualify him for that penalty.

But efforts are under way to better monitor repeat offenders such as Johnson.

Richland County law enforcement is trying to implement a program that will allow judges to order more electronic monitoring for suspects out of jail on bond, Lott said.

It’s expensive to keep someone incarcerated, Lott said. More electronic monitoring would allow bondsmen and cops to keep an eye on criminals without paying to have them behind bars, he said.

Hudson said she would hope that the next prison sentence for Johnson would include electronic monitoring once he serves his prison time.

And Hudson said a bill pending before the S.C. General Assembly would tack on a mandatory, additional five years to any sentence after a bond is violated. If that law was in place now, then Johnson would be facing a mandatory five years on top of any other sentence if he were convicted, she said.

“The question is, ‘Do we lock this guy up for a long period of time or do we try to manage him?’” Hudson said.

The latest alleged crime spree

Thursday, Richland County sheriff’s deputies found Frank Stephone Johnson, 47, sitting in a car with stolen copper at a recycling plant, according to a press release.

Johnson and an accomplice, Larry Hudson, are accused of stealing three air conditioning units, a walk-in freezer and a walk-in cooler from Albert’s Deli along Parklane Road. The deli owner told deputies he saw the two men loading the stolen property into a pickup truck. Another witness took pictures of them with his cellphone, an incident report said.

Johnson was charged with eight counts of metals/injury to property, fixtures or improvement to obtain nonferrous metals, one count of second-degree burglary and one count of malicious injury to animals.

The Albert’s Deli heist was one of six property crimes that Johnson has been accused of this month. The other five are:

• Between Aug. 5 and Aug. 6, vandalizing four air conditioning units and stealing copper at a strip mall on the 7300 block of Parklane Road. Damage was estimated at more than $12,000.

• Between Aug. 13 and Aug. 17, vandalizing and stealing copper from an air conditioner at a hair salon on the 7400 block of Parklane Road. Damage was estimated at $1,050.

• Aug. 14, dismantling and destroying four condenser units and stealing copper components at an office building on the 7300 block of Parklane Road. Damage was estimated at $12,000.

• Between Aug. 21 and Aug. 22, stealing the coils from an air conditioning unit at an insurance office on the 7400 block of Parklane Road. Damage was estimated at $8,000.

Aug. 22, stealing copper from an air conditioning unit from a real estate office on the 2100 block of Cresthill Drive. Damage was estimated at $4,000.

Source: Richland County Sheriff’s Department

Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.

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