On a nice, quiet street in a nice, quiet neighborhood just north of Houston lives a nice, quiet man. He is 54 years old, tall but not too tall, thin but not too thin, with short brown hair that has turned gray around the sideburns. He has soft brown eyes. He sometimes wears wire-rimmed glasses that give him a scholarly appearance.
The man lives alone with his two cats. Every morning, he pads barefoot into the kitchen to feed his cats, then he steps out the back door to feed the goldfish that live in a small pond. He takes a few minutes to tend to his garden, which is filled with caladiums and lilies, gardenias and wisteria, a Japanese plum tree, and rare green roses. Sometimes the man sits silently on a little bench by the goldfish pond, next to a small sculpture of a Balinese dancer. He breathes in and out, calming his mind. Or he goes back inside his house, where he sits in his recliner in the living room and reads. He reads Shakespeare, psychiatrist Carl Jung, and Gandhi. He even keeps a book of Gandhi’s quotations on his coffee table. One of his favorites is “Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.”
He is always polite, his neighbors say. He smiles when they see him, and he says hello in a light, gentle voice. But he reveals little about himself, they say. When he is asked what he does for a living, he says only that he works in “human resources” at a company downtown. Then he smiles one more time, and he heads back inside his house.
What the neighbors don’t know is that in his bedroom, next to his four-poster bed, the man has a black telephone, on which he receives very unusual calls.
“We’ve got something for you,” a voice says when he answers. “A new client.”
“Okay,” the man says.
The voice on the other end of the line tells him that a husband is interested in ending his marriage or that a wife would like to be single again or that an entrepreneur is ready to dissolve a relationship with a partner.
The man hangs up and returns to his recliner. He thinks about what service he should offer his new client. A car bombing, perhaps. Or maybe a drive-by shooting. Or he can always bring up the old standby, the faked residential burglary.
As he sits in his recliner, his cats jump onto his lap. They purr as he strokes them behind their ears. The man sighs, then he returns to his reading. “Always aim at complete harmony of thought and word and deed,” wrote Gandhi. “Always aim at purifying your thoughts and everything will be well.”
The man’s name is Gary Johnson, but his clients know him by such names as Mike Caine, Jody Eagle, and Chris Buck. He is, they believe, the greatest professional hit man in Houston, the city’s leading expert in conflict resolution. For the past decade, more than sixty Houston-area residents have hired him to shoot, stab, chop, poison, or suffocate their enemies, their romantic rivals, or their former loved ones. He has met with housewives who tell him they cannot spend one more day on this earth with their adulterous husbands, and he has met with husbands who say they cannot survive any longer with their nagging wives. He has met with ex-wives who are angry that their ex-husbands left them with so little in their divorce, and he has met with ex-husbands who are furious that their ex-wives got so much. He has been asked by employees to kill their bosses, and he has been asked by bosses to kill their employees. He has been hired by scorned lovers, broke businessmen, and teenagers who are mad at their mothers or fathers. He has even gone to the county jail to visit inmates who tell him they have been unfairly arrested and that their only way out is for him to shoot the witnesses scheduled to testify against them at their upcoming trials.
To his clients, he is like something out of a movie: the lone vigilante, the mysterious gun for hire. Whatever he is asked to do, he simply shrugs and says that he can handle it. His work, he tells them, is like science: a matter of proper observation, correct instrumentation, and exact coordination. He does not ever let emotion get in the way of his job. And when the time comes for him to make his move, he promises that he will dispatch his targets quickly and then disappear so that the police will never be able to learn who he is.
Actually, the police know all about him. They like to drink coffee with him. Gary Johnson is not a hit man. He is a staff investigator for the Harris County district attorney’s office who is on call, night and day, to play the role of the hit man for police departments in and around Houston. Whenever the police learn through an informant that a person wants to hire someone to knock off someone else, they cannot just go out and arrest that person. To get the proper evidence to win a conviction, they need to catch that person ordering the hit and then paying for it. That’s where Johnson comes in. The police have their informant introduce Johnson to the person looking for a contract killer. Then it’s up to Johnson, who is wired for sound, to get that person to say that he wants someone murdered and then to pay Johnson to do the job.
Although plenty of cops have pretended to be hit men in undercover murder-for-hire investigations, Johnson is the Laurence Olivier of the field. In law enforcement circles, he is considered to be one of the greatest actors of his generation, so talented that he can perform on any stage and with any kind of script. If he is meeting a client who lives in one of Houston’s more exclusive neighborhoods, he can put on the polished demeanor of a sleek, skilled assassin who will not sniff at a job for less than six figures. If he is meeting a client who lives in a working-class neighborhood, he can come across like a wily country boy, willing to whack anyone at any time for whatever money he can get. He leads some of his clients to believe that he’s connected to the mob; with others, he hints that he is a retired marksman from the U.S. Army’s Special Forces who has never lost his appetite for action.
“He’s the perfect chameleon,” says prominent Houston lawyer Michael Hinton, who during his days as a Harris County prosecutor served as one of Johnson’s supervisors. “Gary is a truly great performer who can turn into whatever he needs to be in whatever situation he finds himself. He never gets flustered, and he never says the wrong thing. He’s somehow able to persuade people who are rich and not so rich, successful and not so successful, that he’s the real thing. He fools them every time.”
In his most publicized case so far, Johnson recently fooled one of Houston’s wealthier women, a 38-year-old beautiful blonde named Lynn Kilroy, the former vice president of the Houstonaires Republican Women, who is married to Billy Kilroy, the heir to a vast oil fortune. Last year, during her evening walks with a close friend through Houston’s wealthy Tanglewood neighborhood, Kilroy had begun talking about how much she disliked her husband, to whom she had been married for only a year. She told her friend that his behavior had become so infuriating that she had considered covering the floor of his shower with baby oil in hopes that he would slip and crack his head open. But she was afraid of divorcing him because she thought he would try to get full custody of their infant child and also try to keep her from getting any of his money. She then reportedly said she wished there was some way she could have her husband killed. Weeks later, she met a man with whom she began an affair and reportedly asked him if he knew of someone who could do away with her husband.
Soon, word of her alleged conversations got to the police, and a sting was arranged. Kilroy was told by her friends that someone who specialized in such matters was waiting for her in room 1008 at the Doubletree Hotel at Post Oak. When she walked through the door, she saw a pleasant-looking man in nice slacks and a button-down shirt. He was not carrying a gun. Johnson (whom she knew as “Chris”) stood up, shook her hand, and said with a friendly smile, “Come on, sweetheart. I’ll take the pressure off.”
Johnson seemed so self-assured and so relaxed, that she started smiling too. He acted just like any guy from the country club. With a wink, he asked, “You’re not gonna drop me in the grease?” She said, as if aghast at the idea, “Oh, no. Absolutely not. . . . I will never come back on you.”
In a chillingly calm voice, Johnson then began to talk about what he was going to do to her husband. “I’m not here to beat him up. I didn’t come down here to scare him,” he said. “I just want you to understand how serious this is.”
She could not take her eyes off him. She began telling him that he could find her husband at a trendy cigar bar, where he often went to drink. Getting to him at home, she said, could be dangerous because of the security system. The way she talked, she seemed to be plotting not the death of her husband but the itinerary of a fabulous trip. Johnson sat back on the couch and listened, nodding his head, never looking at the television set where a hidden camera was videotaping the conversation. He asked her what her husband looked like and what kind of car he drove. Then he asked her what she planned to give him as a down payment. Kilroy removed about $200,000 in jewelry that she was wearing, including a wedding ring and an engagement ring with a total of ten and a half carats of diamonds and a pearl necklace. “Do what you need to do,” the socialite said to him.
Johnson stood up, shook her hand again, and said, as if congratulating her, “You’re going to be a widow.” The next day, Houston society was stunned to learn that Lynn Kilroy had been arrested for solicitation of capital murder. The case is scheduled for trial this month.
Kilroy claims she never intended to solicit her husband’s murder. Her attorneys plan to argue that she was unlawfully enticed into the plot during a period in her life when she was emotionally distraught. Some attorneys who have gone against Johnson in court have also claimed that he maneuvers his “clients” into saying things they don’t really mean or that he cleverly twists the conversation to make it appear they are asking him to commit murder. Other attorneys have declared that he intimidates his clients so thoroughly that they feel they have to say what he wants them to say. “Let’s imagine you’re really upset with someone, and you’re told that there is this hit man out there who will work for you,” says Dan Cogdell, one of Houston’s more seasoned defense attorneys. “You agree to meet him out of some morbid curiosity, but once you’re there, you realize that this is not what you want to do. But then you start thinking that if you back out of the meeting, this stone-cold killer might take you out because now you know who he is. So out of fear of retribution, you mumble something about him doing his job, and then you get the hell out of there, hoping to forget the whole thing.”
But Harris County juries have yet to buy that argument, especially after they hear the tapes of a defendant’s conversations with Johnson. He invariably gives people the opportunity to reconsider their requests. “You know this is your last chance to get out,” he likes to say. “Otherwise, when I leave here, your little friend will be dead. I don’t want to hear you complaining later that you never meant to go this far. So, are you sure this is what you want?” And almost every time, his clients nod their heads and say yes.
How, I wanted to know, does the cat-loving, garden-tending Johnson manage to convince people that he is their one best hope for a better life? “What I’m really there to do is assist people in their communication skills,” Johnson tells me one afternoon, sitting on his recliner in his living room. “That’s all my job is—to help people open up, to get them to say what they really want, to reveal to me their deepest desires.”
Although the professional hit man is a staple of detective fiction, no one is really certain if there is someone in this country who makes a living as a hired gun. Organized crime families and drug syndicates have employees who will do whatever their bosses tell them to do, which often includes firing machine guns at certain rivals or burying them in cement. And there are the occasional wannabe mercenaries who take out ads in the backs of military magazines claiming that they will do anything asked of them. But they almost always turn out to be frauds. If there are highly qualified triggermen making their talents available to ordinary citizens, says Johnson, “then they don’t advertise very well. They certainly aren’t advertising in Houston. I’ve never heard of such a person.”
Nevertheless, the myth remains intact among a certain subset of Houstonians that if they just hunt hard enough, they will find that special someone willing to murder a complete stranger in cold blood. They typically first make contact with people they assume know the ins and outs of Houston’s underworld—private investigators, bail bondsmen, tow-truck drivers, topless dancers, unshaven men who have served time in penal institutions—and they ask if there is anyone who can help them. Some are so anxious for help that they say they’ll take a young gang member or a pistolero from Mexico.
There was a time when murder for hire was an exotic concept, confined mostly to ruthless rich people willing to pay large sums of money to persuade a third party to end another’s life. (In Houston’s infamous Blood and Money case in the early seventies, oilman Ash Robinson was suspected of hiring a hit man to murder his son-in-law, John Hill, after Hill’s trial for the murder of Robinson’s daughter ended in a mistrial.) The regular Joe, if he was not willing to take things into his own hands, basically resigned himself to fantasizing about his wife hurtling over a cliff in a flaming car or his boss being stabbed in the back on his way to the dry cleaners or his loudmouthed neighbor down the street being suffocated with Saran Wrap.
The fact that the district attorney needs a Gary Johnson speaks volumes about how the murder-for-hire climate has changed. Johnson estimates that he has investigated some three hundred murder-for-hire allegations since the late eighties. Although most of them turn out to be unfounded (“We get a lot of calls about a guy who was drinking too much in a bar and talking about a certain son of a bitch he wished was dead,” Johnson says), his undercover investigations have led to more than sixty arrests. There is obviously no shortage of residents coming up with reasons others should die, ranging from the bloodcurdling to the positively nutty. If you thought Wanda Holloway’s notorious 1991 attempt to find someone to kill the mother of her daughter’s cheerleading rival was an aberration, then you apparently missed the story of William Keen Perry, a Houston-area used-car salesman who liked going to work dressed as Elvis Presley, sporting muttonchop sideburns, a pompadour, and a belt buckle emblazoned with a big E. His budding career as an Elvis impersonator came to an end when he was arrested in 1998 for trying to find a hit man to kill his wife. His wife, he explained, had been verbally abusing him.
“Except for one or two instances, the people I meet are not ex-cons,” says Johnson. “If ex-cons want somebody dead, they know what to do. My people have spent their lives living within the law. A lot of them have never even gotten a traffic ticket. Yet they have developed such a frustration with their place in the world that they think they have no other option but to eliminate whoever is causing their frustration. They are all looking for the quick fix, which has become the American way. Today people can pay to get their televisions fixed and their garbage picked up, so why can’t they pay me, a hit man, to fix their lives?”
If you saw Johnson at the district attorney’s office, you would probably mistake him for a low-level clerk. He spends most of his days in a little room filled with video- and audio-recording machinery, where he duplicates or enhances tapes (such as a videotape shot on a department store camera of a shoplifter or an audiotape made of a criminal’s confession) for prosecutors to use in their various court trials. He is a precise, fastidious man. He is the kind of person who likes to eat lunch every day at the same small Mexican restaurant near downtown. On his way there and back, he listens to classical music on his car stereo—in particular, he likes Wagner operas—and he taps his fingers against the steering wheel in time to the music. Sometimes, if he’s tired of classical music, he listens to books on tape such as Carl Jung’s autobiography about his life in psychiatry, Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Then, at around five-thirty, he heads home to feed his cats (whom he named Id and Ego), check on his goldfish, tend to his garden, and meditate, read, or watch documentaries on the Discovery Channel about animals becoming extinct.
Two nights a week he teaches courses at a local community college: On Mondays he teaches human sexuality and on Tuesdays he teaches general psychology. His students, no doubt, think of him as just another mild-mannered professor, albeit one who has a tendency to drone on in his lectures about human beings’ lack of coping skills during times of stress. Occasionally he goes out to a nearby sports bar, where he drinks a light beer and talks to women, using his old line about working in human resources.
Although women are drawn to Johnson—they think he is that rare male, a good listener—he is not exactly adept at maintaining long-term relationships. He has been married and divorced three times. “The true essence of Gary is that he is a loner,” says his second wife, Sunny, who remains a friend. “He’ll show up at parties and have a good time, and he’s always friendly, but he likes being alone, being quiet. It’s still amazing to me that he can turn on this other personality that makes people think he is a vicious killer.”
Raised in Louisiana—his father was a carpenter and his mother a housewife—Johnson says he lived a quiet, rural life (there were twelve students in his senior class in high school), then spent a year in Vietnam working as a military policeman overseeing convoys. Returning home, he worked as a sheriff’s deputy in a Louisiana parish, then he moved to the Port Arthur police department in the mid-seventies, where he did some undercover work, playing a doper who wanted to make drug buys. He was good at what he did. “I don’t think the drug dealers ever suspected I might be a cop because my personality was so weird to begin with,” he says. But he didn’t have any particular ambition to continue a law enforcement career. His dream was to teach psychology in college. He thought he would be happiest analyzing human behavior from a safe, academic perspective. He took courses at night at McNeese State University, in Lake Charles, Louisiana, eventually receiving a master’s degree in psychology. In 1981 he moved to Houston in hopes of entering the University of Houston’s doctoral program in psychology. When he wasn’t accepted, he took a job as an investigator for the district attorney’s office. He worked for various prosecutors, gathering physical evidence and finding witnesses for upcoming trials. He tracked down stolen automobiles and assisted in stakeouts. Except for receiving wounds to the left leg and foot when he was shot during an arrest in 1986, which kept him out of work for a week, his career was uneventful.
But in 1989 he found his true calling. That year a 37-year-old lab technician named Kathy Scott contacted a bail bondsman who was a former high school classmate. One thing led to another, and Scott told him she was planning “an elimination” of her husband and needed someone to carry it out. Their four-month marriage, she said, had collapsed. He had been complaining about her spending and had gone so far as to remove her name from the checking account. She felt she deserved better. It is also possible that she felt she deserved the $50,000 insurance policy, $47,000 in retirement benefits, and two houses worth an estimated $175,000 that would go to her if her husband died.
The bail bondsman called the police, and the police then called the special-crimes division of the DA’s office to ask if it had anyone who specialized in murder-for-hire cases. There was Johnson, sitting at his desk. “Gary, you’re our hit man,” his bosses told him.
Suddenly, even if it was only for one evening, Johnson had a chance to live another life. He came up with the name Mike Caine and decided to look like a badass biker. He wore jeans, an old shirt, and a chain around his neck with a little silver human skull attached to it. He agreed to meet Scott at a Houston bowling alley, where she was bowling for her company team. He was standing at the bar when Scott sashayed up in a black jumpsuit with a pink belt. Her skin was beautiful, her makeup carefully applied. The sexual chemistry was instant.
When they went outside to sit in her car, Johnson planned to speak to her in as gruff a manner as possible. But as he stared at her, it occurred to him that there was no need for him to act like a thug. What Scott wanted, he realized, was someone to talk to, someone who would understand her pain, someone who would see her as a damsel in distress. He gave her a soft, sympathetic look. She looked him up and down with her dark green eyes. She then handed him her husband’s picture, talking about his cruel nature and saying that “the perfect spot” for him to die would be in a black neighborhood that he had to drive through on his way home from work. “It’s a drug haven,” she said. When Johnson asked about his fee—he wanted $2,500, half up front and half on completion—she told him she had only $100 to give to him as a down payment, but she agreed to later put the rest of the money in the Yellow Pages in a public phone booth.
Johnson was stunned. He had barely had to say a thing. He had only needed to be a sympathetic listener. He rubbed his chin with the ball of his thumb. “Are you sure you want this sucker killed?” he finally asked.
“Yeah,” she purred. A couple minutes later, here came the cops.
At her trial, Scott insisted she didn’t want her husband to die. She had gotten carried away, she said. Besides, it was unfair for some undercover cop to show up and “bat” his eyes and encourage her to talk about murder. Unimpressed, jurors sentenced her to a staggering eighty years in prison.
Suddenly Johnson was the rising new undercover star in Houston-area law enforcement. The constable’s office in Galveston County called to ask if he would handle one of their cases. A 31-year-old oil rig worker named Roberts Holliday had been telling a woman, a former topless dancer who had a variety of tattoos decorating her body, that he wanted full custody of his children and the only way to get it was to kill his wife, who had left him for another man. Holliday thought the dancer might know of a club patron who liked dabbling in murder. Instead she called the authorities.
Once again, Johnson dressed like a biker and called himself Mike Caine. Once again, he gave Holliday that same empathetic look he gave Kathy Scott. And once again, the ploy worked. At the Galveston motel room where they met, Holliday gave Johnson a photo of his estranged wife and a hand-drawn map to her home. He then said he wanted Johnson to drive over there, slit his wife’s wrists, and hold her until she bled to death. Holliday explained that a few weeks earlier he had filed a mental-health warrant against his wife describing her as suicidal, but she had been quickly released from the hospital because doctors could find nothing wrong with her. If Johnson killed her in a way that looked like suicide, then Holliday would not only be able to collect on a $10,000 life insurance policy but also be able to sue his wife’s doctors for malpractice for failing to treat her. The murder had to take place that week, he added, while he was out working on an offshore oil rig, so he could have an unassailable alibi.
Johnson didn’t blink. He assured Holliday that when he got back to shore, he would have a brand-new life. All it would cost him was a $100 down payment on a $2,500 fee. They shook hands, and a few moments later the police busted through the motel room door. For a moment, Holliday seemed perplexed, as if he could not understand why they were there. Then he put his head on Johnson’s shoulder and said, as if he were talking to his priest, “Mike, what should I do? What should I do?” It had not occurred to Holliday that Johnson was, in fact, his Judas.
When the prosecution of Channelview’s Wanda Holloway, the pom-pom mom, nearly fell apart in 1991 because the undercover hit man had failed to get her on tape making a specific reference to wanting a murder done, more police departments began asking for Johnson. The word was that he knew how to get people talking. Once, when he asked a man what he wanted done to his enemy, the man ran a finger across his throat—which would not have gotten him convicted in court. “Look, there’s got to be some trust between us,” Johnson said, as if he was an old friend slightly offended by the man’s gesture. “You want him killed? Then you’d better tell me. Come on, let’s not beat around the bush here.” The man started talking. When the Houston Police Department asked Johnson to talk with 32-year-old Katherine Beisel, who had been looking for a hit man after being spurned by her married lover, she told him at their first meeting that she only wanted her lover threatened. Maybe you could break his legs, she told Johnson. Maybe you could also slip into his office, upend furniture, and spray-paint the walls. Instead of trying to push her more, which could have made him look bad in court, Johnson just gave her his phone number. “I don’t beat up people,” he said with a gentle smile. “If you want the real thing, you call me sometime.”
A few weeks later, Johnson’s black phone rang beside his bed. “Hi,” said a sultry voice. “Do you remember me?”
Johnson, thinking it was someone he had met at the sports bar, said, “I sure do.”
“You still want to do it?” she said.
“Okay,” Johnson said hesitantly. Then he realized to whom he was talking. They met again, and this time Beisel was all business: the real-life version of Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction. Her married lover, she said, deserved to be punished for leading her on and for not leaving his wife. She told Johnson she wanted him shot to pieces.
It had to have been the most seductive of experiences. For a few precious moments, Johnson was able to take off his wire-rimmed glasses and turn into evil incarnate, the remorseless giver of death. With each case, he kept getting better. He added nuances to what he called his “I-don’t-give-a-shit, give-me-the-money, tough-guy act” that he used on certain men, and he improved the empathetic approach that he used on certain women. “It got to a point where I would be transcribing a tape of one of his murder-for-hire conversations, and I could not tell it was Gary on the tape,” says Esmeralda Noyola, a secretary in the DA’s special-crimes division. “Gary was that good at changing accents and disguising his voice.” There was one instance when a potential client realized Johnson was a decoy and backed away from a contract. “That was because the informant, feeling guilty about giving up a friend, told the man who wanted to hire me who I really was,” Johnson says. Furious that he had been exposed, Johnson paid an unannounced visit to the informant and to the would-be murderer and told them in no uncertain terms that they had better not go looking for another hit man. He would be watching them, he said. (So far, the men have taken his advice.)
By the mid-nineties Johnson’s performances were getting buzz in the local media: The Houston Chronicle regularly ran stories about his cases that contained both his name and the occasional quote from him. One would have thought that someone looking for a hit man might have read stories about Johnson and been concerned about running across him. Yet the clients kept arriving, ordinary men and women embracing what Johnson’s beloved author Carl Jung once defined as their “shadow side.” Some of them came to their meetings already having concocted murderous scenarios that could have been lifted straight out of a bad cable-television movie or a Mary Higgins Clark novel. A bookkeeper met with Johnson to outline her plan to have him blow up the home of her employer, a well-known Houston surgeon, with the surgeon in it. For her down payment, she offered Johnson a luxury motorboat. A chemical plant worker, who believed his daughter was being poorly treated by his ex-wife’s new boyfriend, wanted Johnson to throw the new boyfriend down an abandoned water well. When Johnson suggested they meet at a Denny’s to discuss the details of the murder—defense attorneys say Johnson is so fond of meeting his clients at Denny’s that the restaurant should name a plate after him—the worker wanted them to have a secret code to recognize each other. When the worker saw Johnson sitting at the counter eating pie, he would say, “That looks like good pie.” Johnson would reply, “All pie is good pie.”
Some of his client meetings almost reached the level of farce. In 1996 he met the churchgoing 61-year-old Patsy Haggard, who so despised her husband that she once burned down the kitchen of their house just to irritate him. Still not satisfied, she asked a young woman from the neighborhood who once had run-ins with the law over her drug use if she knew of a hit man. Horrified, the young woman called the police, who called Johnson, who began meeting Haggard in the parking lot of a barbecue restaurant. Each time they met, she searched him to see if he was wired, occasionally brushing her hand over his private parts. She never found the wire—it was hidden in his clothes—but she did eventually become so infatuated with Johnson that she suggested they perform a certain sex act on the hood of her Cadillac. He politely declined, but he did agree to her request to shoot her husband.
Most client meetings, however, were textbook studies of the banality of evil. A Houston teenager named Shawn Quinn, a brilliant kid with an IQ of 131, gave Johnson seven Atari computer games, three dollar bills, and $2.30 in nickels and dimes to kill a male classmate he thought was trying to win the affection of a girl he liked. “If you drive back on the toll road, you won’t need to get change,” the boy casually told Johnson. Bobby Wigley, an employee at an Eckerd drugstore, told Johnson he wanted him to saw through the brake cable of his wife’s car and then make sure his wife and their baby were killed in an automobile accident so that he could collect on a life insurance policy and start a new career as a private detective who travels the world solving crimes. Wigley hocked his own pistol to get the money for Johnson’s down payment. Houston police officer William Peoples, a highly regarded eleven-year veteran of the force, decided his ex-wife should die because she was costing him too much money in child support. He hired a convicted murderer on parole to do the killing, but then that man got cold feet, started looking for a subcontractor, and came across Johnson. He offered Johnson $10,000 to carry out the hit. When the police officer was convicted of solicitation of capital murder, he wept as he embraced his parents. Like so many others Johnson had caught, he had apparently returned to his senses, but by then it was too late. He was off to the joint for a ten-year sentence.
In almost every case Johnson worked on, defense attorneys argued that these clients were not diabolical but were just letting off steam during a particularly stressful period in their lives. They would never have followed through with their murder plots if a “professional hit man” hadn’t happened to show up, the attorneys said. In fact, many of them got probation or minor prison sentences, especially if they arrived at the courtroom with their victims, who had agreed to testify that all was forgiven. (After a young woman hired Johnson to kill her brother because he had received a larger inheritance than she had, the entire family, brother included, showed up in court and asked the judge that she receive probation, which he granted.) “I admit, a lot of people who have come to see me will probably never get in trouble again,” says Johnson. “But all I can tell you is to listen to the tapes of those conversations I had with them at that time. Their cognitive reasoning was so far gone when I met them that they were not going to back down. They were not going to be talked out of it. And if they had not found me, they would have found someone else to do their killing for them—and that’s what is so scary.”
In the late nineties, however, fewer people were looking for a hit man, a phenomenon that Johnson attributed to the economy. “When the economy is good, as it was then, people don’t get so frantic,” he says. “But when it starts going bad, as it’s doing now, everyone gets a little bit crazier and starts thinking about knocking someone else off.” Sure enough, in the past twelve months, his workload has returned to normal. One of his more recent clients was a sixty-year-old used-car salesman in the town of Tomball who reportedly was not happy about the idea that his wife, the owner of a beauty shop, would get half of their community property in their upcoming divorce. According to the police version of events, the salesman asked a neighbor across the street to send her on to the next world, but he made it clear he would pay for the killing only when he saw evidence that his wife was dead.
Deciding that he just wanted a finder’s fee, the neighbor went looking for a real hit man, met Johnson, and outlined the deal. Johnson and the other Tomball police officers involved decided they had no choice but to visit the wife. They waited until she had finished her last customer’s permanent at her beauty shop, then they stopped her as she was leaving to go home. They told her that her husband had taken out a $20,000 contract on her life. “Good God almighty,” the woman said. “How can you live with somebody this long who can hate you so much?”
They persuaded the wife to be photographed while lying “dead” on a tarp. To add realism, ketchup was poured over the back of her head, ruining her pretty hairdo, and her hands and feet were bound with duct tape. When the neighbor told Johnson that the used-car dealer didn’t want to pay even after seeing the photo, Johnson, turning on his mean-as-a-snake persona, said, “Listen, motherf—er, if I don’t get my money, that woman’s body will be in your driveway the next morning and the cops will be called.” Frantic, the neighbor went to confront the used-car dealer, and the two of them started yelling, throwing punches, and apparently trading gunfire. When the cops roared up in their squad cars, the salesman was found sitting on the tailgate of his pickup, bleeding from a gunshot wound in his right shoulder. “Just when you think you’ve seen it all,” says Johnson, “here comes another case.”
As much as Johnson thrives on his double life, he is not sure how much longer it can last. Someday, he knows, a client is going to look at him and say, “You’re Gary Johnson, aren’t you?” There is also the question of the long-range psychological effect on a person who continues to do something that gives him, as Johnson himself puts it, “a rather depressing outlook on the human condition.” One day I ask Johnson if he thinks his hit man job has anything to do with the fact that he doesn’t have long-term relationships. “Doing what you do,” I say, “it’s sort of hard to trust people, isn’t it?” He pauses. “I think it would be fair to say that I don’t let many people get too close,” he tells me in a masterpiece of understatement. On another afternoon, we are eating lunch at his favorite Mexican restaurant, and I notice him looking around. Around him are Houstonians of every stripe—businessmen in coats and ties, blue-collar laborers, office workers from the nearby downtown skyscrapers. For the moment, everyone is congenial, sharing tables, swapping stories. His brown eyes, like little concealed cameras, go back and forth across the room. “You’re looking to see who might be your next client, aren’t you?” I ask. He gives me an enigmatic smile.
What Johnson knows, perhaps better than anyone else, is the capability of people, given certain circumstances, to do absolutely savage things to each another. It’s a good bet that someone in that restaurant with us that day was probably wishing someone else was dead. Perhaps it was the drab little man in the corner. Or maybe it was the slightly overweight woman sitting at a table with friends. “I am always here for them,” says Johnson. “I am always here to wait for their calls and listen to them tell me their dark secrets.”
But not long ago Johnson did something out of character for him. He got a call about a young woman who had been spending mornings at a Starbucks in Houston’s Montrose area, talking to an employee there about the cruel way her boyfriend had been treating her. There was no way to escape him, she said. Her only hope was to find someone to kill him. She asked the Starbucks employee if he knew someone who could help. The employee called the police, who put him in touch with Johnson.
But before Johnson contacted her, he did some research into her case. He learned that she really was the victim of abuse, regularly battered by her boyfriend, too terrified to leave him because of her fear of what he might do if he found her.
Instead of setting up a sting to catch the woman and send her off to jail, he decided to help her. He referred her to social service agencies and a therapist to make sure she got proper help so she could leave her boyfriend and get into a women’s shelter.
“The greatest hit man in Houston has just turned soft,” I tell Johnson at the Mexican restaurant.
“Just this once,” he says, giving me his same enigmatic smile. Then his eyes glance around one more time at the room, at various people picking up forks and knives and stabbing at their food. “Just this once,” he says again.