Falling Through the Cracks
Given his immediate charm, it wasn't surprising that Christopher Lance Johnson sold cars for a living.
In fact, that was how he and Betty got together. She wanted a black Mustang convertible. Chris, a good-looking, smooth-talking 21-year-old she met through a friend, found her one. The romance was soon off and running.
Betty admits she was naive about men. Twenty-five years old and a small-town girl from Oklahoma, she had been raised with Midwestern values--church on Sunday, trust people, meet a nice boy someday and settle down.
In 1994, Betty moved to Denver and met Chris. He was the sort of guy who'd pull over to help a complete stranger whose car had broken down. A guy who opened car doors and brought flowers. Particular about his own cars, he even insisted on washing and waxing her Mustang. Several times when her tires seemed to have a slow leak, he'd come over and inflate them for her. "To tell you the truth," she says, "he was the nicest guy I ever dated."
Chris stood 6-3; he told Betty he'd been a police officer in New Mexico, where he was raised. His grandfather had been a judge and his father a cop, and they'd pulled strings to get him on the force when he was only eighteen. His career in law enforcement, he said, had ended when he was shot in a gun battle. He was only wounded, but he'd had to kill two of the bad guys.
"I guess, looking back, I was pretty gullible," says Betty. "But he was such a good storyteller. He had scars where he said he was shot, and he took me to New Mexico and showed me where it happened. It all seemed to fit."
Betty wouldn't learn Chris's stories were lies until much later. By then it was already too late.
The couple dated for a year. Betty moved in with Chris, who lived in a condominium owned by his parents. Everybody liked him. Her friends. Her parents. Even her grandmother. They were all thrilled when the couple announced their engagement.
But a year later, Betty called it off.
It wasn't that he was physically abusive, but little things about him had begun to trouble her. He was big on putting her down--belittling her job, knocking her friends.
If Betty said she was going out with her friends, Chris would suddenly find something he wanted her to do with him instead. If she did go out, he'd give her the third degree when she returned.
Betty found herself increasingly isolated. "After a while, your friends stop asking," she recalls. "Then I'd catch him hitting 'redial' [on the telephone] to see who I'd called, or *69 to see who was calling me. He always said it was by accident."
Once while they were arguing, Chris went into the bedroom and got out his handgun. "My gut told me to go," Betty says. "So I left and went to stay with a girlfriend."
The next day Chris called her at work. "Where'd you go?" he asked lightly.
"You scared me with the gun," she recalls saying.
"I was just going to clean it," he said, as if exasperated. "I would never hurt you."
Betty's mind told her that he was lying, that he'd brandished the gun as a threat. But the longer he talked, the more foolish she felt. Her heart still told her that Chris would never hurt her.
After breaking off the engagement, Betty didn't move out right away. She wasn't sure she wanted to stop seeing Chris; she just needed some time to sort out her feelings and regain the independence she'd known before they started dating. She started by re-establishing her ties with her friends.
Chris seemed to take it fairly well. He'd still interrogate her when she came home after being with friends, but it seemed more out of curiosity than jealousy. Until one night when she returned from a shopping trip to the mall with her friends at 10 p.m. and he exploded.
"Where have you been?" he demanded. "Who were you with?"
Betty told him and showed the shopping bags to prove it.
"No, you weren't," he replied. "I don't believe you."
"I told him to call my friends," she remembers, "but he just said, 'My friends would lie for me, too.'"
Betty didn't want to argue. She had to get up early to go to work, so she went to bed.
Dinner went fine at first, then rolled swiftly downhill. He had a margarita but wasn't drunk when he began to question her again about where she'd been the night before.
It wasn't long before Chris was screaming at her in front of everyone in the restaurant. He was sure she was seeing another man. "Where were you?" he yelled. "With who?"
"I was embarrassed," Betty recalls. "I told him it wasn't the time or the place and left the restaurant." In the parking lot, Chris kept yelling, then got in his truck and drove off.
Betty was stranded. Her keys were in his condo and her car in his garage. She was walking to a telephone to call a friend when he came roaring up behind her, the tires screeching when he hit the brakes.
"Come on," he said, "I'll drive you home."
Betty thought for a moment, but then got in the truck. She knew the relationship was over, but she needed her things and still didn't believe Chris would hurt her.
He drove like a madman down C-470 toward the neighborhood where they lived. Again and again, he demanded to know where she had been and with whom. Finally she stopped answering him. "Nothing I said was going to make him less angry," she says.
Although nervous about his breakneck driving, Betty wasn't alarmed until Chris drove past the exit that would have taken them east to his condominium. Instead, he drove on to another exit, which he took to the west.
"Where are we going?" Betty asked, now frightened.
"We're going to the mountains," he replied. "I'm going to make you tell me where you were. You're not coming back."
As he said this, she recalls, he lifted the console between their seats and glanced in at the contents before slamming the console shut. "That's when I knew he was going to kill me," she says. "That's where he always kept one of his guns."
Fear made Betty sick to her stomach but also gave her an idea. "Chris was fastidious about his cars," she says. "I knew he wouldn't want me to throw up in one, and it would be evidence if the police questioned him. I told him, 'I'm going to be sick.'"
Chris looked at her and swore before pulling off the road. When he stopped, Betty grabbed her purse, jumped out of the car, and took off running back down the road.
Chris followed, attempting to block her retreat with his car, but she kept running around him. Other cars came up the road, catching Betty in their headlights as she waved and screamed for them to stop, but no one did, so she kept running.
Then she saw the headlights of two more cars. "I ran into the middle of the road," she says. "They were going to have to stop or hit me."
They stopped. It turned out to be a young man moving his possessions to a town in the mountains, followed by his girlfriend in the other car with the rest of his things. "I thought he wouldn't want this hysterical woman getting into his car late at night, so I asked him to go to the next town and call the police," she says. "But he had a cell phone and stayed with me while he called."
Chris took off. Betty told her story to the Jefferson County sheriff's deputies who responded to the 911 call. Then they took her to a friend's house, where she stayed that night.
After Chris got home, he returned a message that had been left on his answering machine by a deputy. He said that Betty got it wrong. For no apparent reason, she had gone "nuts" while they were driving in the mountains. She had leaped from his car and started running.
The deputy asked him: If Betty had gone nuts, why did he leave her on a dark mountain road? He said he was drunk at the time and didn't want to be arrested for DUI when the police arrived. He denied owning any guns, though later investigation showed he had a concealed-weapons permit.
The deputy told him to leave his condo unlocked the next morning when he went to work so that Betty could retrieve her keys, car and other personal items. She was going to court on Monday to get a restraining order, the officer said. In the meantime, he warned, "don't try to find her. Don't try to call. Just leave her alone."
But even though Betty had told the officers that she feared for her life, no warrant was issued for Chris's arrest. If it had been, authorities in Jefferson County would have discovered that Christopher Lance Johnson had a criminal record as long as his arm.
On Monday, Betty went to the Jefferson County courthouse and asked for a temporary restraining order. The judge granted it and told her that if she wanted to make it permanent, she should return in two weeks to argue her case.
Chris violated the restraining order for the first time when he called her to complain about it. "He was furious," she recalls. But for two weeks he did nothing, perhaps because Betty had moved into an apartment complex on the other side of town from his condominium. Her mother had also come from Oklahoma to stay with her.
Betty went back to court to get the order made permanent. She was surprised to learn that Chris had been told about the hearing and that, unlike the hearing for the temporary order, he had a right to argue against it.
Betty testified about why she feared for her safety. "He said I wasn't coming back," she told the judge.
Then Chris got up. He said he was mystified as to how Betty had come up with such an incredible tale. He repeated his version of how she'd "gone nuts."
"The judge kind of lifted his eyebrow and asked him sarcastically, 'So she goes running down mountain roads in the dark often, eh?'" Betty recalls.
The judge asked Betty if she had any questions for Chris. She remembered Chris's account of the New Mexico gunfight and the scars. By that time, she knew that the part about being a cop was a lie, but he certainly had a number of guns, and she wondered if the part about killing two men might be true. She asked.
Chris shrugged. "There was an incident. I was involved," he said mysteriously, smiling at Betty.
The judge granted the permanent restraining order.
Two days later, Betty left her apartment and got in her car. As she left the parking lot, she drove past a black Saab like the one Chris drove sitting at the intersection of a cross street. But the windows were tinted and the driver was facing the other way so she couldn't see him.
You're being paranoid, she told herself. How could he have found you? By the time she arrived at work, she'd convinced herself she was being silly. She got out of the car and walked toward the office building before turning back to engage the car's alarm. That's when she saw that someone had splashed white paint on the passenger side of her black Mustang.
Betty remembered the black Saab on the corner and immediately thought of Chris. He must have followed her. She was still running through the possibilities in her mind when he called her at the office, in a clear violation of the restraining order.
"What's wrong?" he asked innocently when he caught her tone.
She told him what had happened and about her suspicions. "It wasn't me," he said. "I love you. Why don't you come over tonight? I'll make dinner, and you and your car can be safe."
By the time he finished talking, Betty was convinced that he couldn't have damaged her car. But she didn't go over to his house. Instead, she reported the incident to the Denver police.
Two days later Betty went out to her car only to find it vandalized again. Frightened, she went to work and called the police. Then she got another call from Chris, who again asked her what was the matter.
When she confronted him about the vandalism, he denied it. "I'd never do that to you," he said. Again, he suggested that if she came over to his condominium that night, she and her car would be safe.
Two nights later, Betty and her mother watched to see if the vandal would return. Peering out the window of her third-floor apartment, Betty saw a man approaching her car, which was parked across the street. His face was briefly illuminated by a streetlight. It was Chris.
Betty called for her mother as the man bent over and slashed a tire. Her mother couldn't see his face, but she noted that his height and build were the same as Chris's. The man ran off.
The police responded to Betty's call. It's dark, one officer said when she identified the tire-slasher as Chris. How do you know it was him?
"I told them I saw his face," she says. At last a warrant was issued for Chris's arrest.
Officer Bruce Vander Jagt, who would lose his life two years later when he was gunned down by white supremacist Matthaeus Jaehnig, was one of the cops who responded. "He was the first cop who took me seriously and acted like he cared," Betty recalls. "He said they'd have somebody go get Chris. Then he waited in his car in front of the apartment until he heard they had Chris and came and told me."
Told that he was under arrest on a domestic-violence charge, Chris said he had an alibi. He was at a bar with friends--a bar just a block from Betty's door and many miles from his usual haunts. But, hey, it was a free country, wasn't it?
Chris went to jail for the night. A victim advocate called Betty and told her that her former fiance would be arraigned the next day. Betty decided to go.
Chris was there, dressed in a bright-orange jail jumpsuit like the other prisoners. "He was laughing and joking with them," she recalls. "He only looked at me once and gave me this sort of 'I gotcha now' smile.
"Then I knew I was in a lot of trouble. I was the one who got him served with a restraining order. I was the one who got him arrested and made him spend a night in jail."
Afraid, Betty went back to Oklahoma but returned after two weeks. "Denver was my home," she says. "It's where my job was, and I had bills to pay." Her mother insisted on coming back with her.
It wasn't long before the incidents involving her car resumed. Betty reported the vandalism. On the bottom of the complaint form, she wrote, "I know it's him. Please help me."
Vander Jagt came by once to check on her. But no one else seemed to care.
Except Chris. He cared a lot. He called her repeatedly, in violation of the restraining order. The police told her to dial *57 after the calls and that the telephone company would make a record. She did, but she never heard what became of the records.
Chris was everywhere. He would suddenly pull up alongside her as she drove down the highway. Or she'd see him at the gas station across the street from her apartment complex.
Once she got an officer to speak with Chris at the gas station. "He came back and told me that Chris was there waiting to meet with a mortgage lender," she recalls. "I was in tears, and he told me, 'Ma'am, why are you getting so upset? He hasn't done anything.' He told me to quit calling unless I had something real to report."
But Betty kept calling. And finally, when she again saw Chris across the street, two officers responded who were more understanding.
The cops went to confront Chris, who claimed that he had a restraining order against Betty and that she was stalking him. The officers, however, had seen Betty's paperwork and arrested Chris for violating the restraining order.
Later one of the officers called to say that he had pulled up Chris's record. It was two pages long. Chris had been arrested in New Mexico for impersonating a police officer; he'd stolen a police car and gone for a joyride with the lights flashing.
He'd never been an officer, but he'd once worked as a police dispatcher in Gallup. Late one night when he was bored, he'd walked outside and shot at the building where he worked when no one else was around. Then he put out a call for help, saying he was under fire.
Chris spent another night in the Denver jail, but he didn't stop stalking Betty. Seven more times, Betty reported that her car had been vandalized. "I was sure that when he got tired of messing with my car, he was going to kill me," she says.
Chris was charged with a misdemeanor for violating the restraining order, but time after time, he managed to get his trial postponed. He called once to tell Betty that he was seeing a therapist. "She's afraid I'm going to kill myself," he warned her.
Finally, someone took notice. Sergeant John Burbach of the Denver Police Department Domestic Violence Unit called. He said he was concerned about Chris and had assigned two detectives to look into her case. "But they couldn't send an officer to stay with me 24 hours a day," Betty says.
Betty tried to carry on as best she could, knowing that Chris was likely to show up anytime, anywhere. Still, she didn't expect to see him when she went to a park on Easter Sunday.
The two detectives assigned to her case "said they believed me, which was real important right then."
The detectives found one of Chris's co-workers, who told them he'd gone with his friend to the park that day and that he knew they were there to find Betty. The detectives tried to get Chris's misdemeanor bumped up to a felony stalking charge by combining the charges to show a pattern of harassment and intimidation. But the district attorney wouldn't accept the case.
Betty had about given up. Then, in April 1997, she read a story in Westword about Dana Garner, who'd been stalked for more than a year by her former husband. He was let go by the police several times despite restraining-order violations and outstanding warrants for his arrest. He'd killed himself after shooting Dana in the back of the head; she miraculously survived.
There was much about Dana's story that Betty could identify with. But what caught her eye was the mention of Stalking Rescue, a group Dana had started with a man named Michael Newell.
Newell was a former Denver cop and a personal security analyst. He talked about victims "stalking the stalker" to build a case to force the system to act.
Betty decided to call him.
At their first meeting, Newell drew concentric circles on a piece of paper. "The outside circle was property damage, what Chris had done to my car," she recalls. "The inside part of the circle, the bull's-eye, that's when he would go for me."
Newell asked her a series of some forty questions to determine what he called Chris's "lethality."
"There were only eight he did not check off," she says. "At the end, he asked me, 'What do you think he's going to do?'" she recalls. "I said, 'He's going to kill me.'"
But Chris wasn't going to murder anyone yet--although his apparent willingness to do so had landed him back in jail.
In early April, Chris was arrested by agents of the West Metro Drug Task Force after accepting $2,500 as half-payment to murder the fictitious wife of an undercover agent. A confidential informant had told police in March that the big-talking Johnson claimed to be a hitman. The undercover agent set up a meeting with Chris, who claimed that he'd killed before. He agreed to shoot the agent's wife for $5,000. He was to make the hit that week.
Chris was arrested and charged with solicitation to commit murder and booked into the Jefferson County Jail. "He told the police that he needed the money to pay his attorney fees for my cases," Betty says.
A couple of weeks later, one of the detectives assigned to her case called her. "He said he'd received a tip that Chris's dad was putting up everything he owned to get Chris out. Then he called again and said a bondsman had called him from the jail, that Chris was doing the paperwork and would be out in half an hour."
Terrified, Betty called Newell. "He told me to leave my car and get a friend to drop me off where he could meet me," she says. "For the next few weeks, I went underground."
Betty lived with Newell and his family. He drove her to work in the morning and picked her up at night.
Meanwhile, Newell stalked the stalker. He began following Chris and his family. It was their turn to get paranoid. He introduced himself to Chris's brother, who seemed almost relieved to finally know who the silver-haired man in the big car was.
Newell asked for a meeting with Chris. "When they met, Michael let him know, 'Anything happens to Betty--I don't care if it's your fault, someone else's fault or her own fault--I'm coming after you," Betty recalls.
Newell now says he tape-recorded Chris confessing to vandalizing Betty's cars. More frighteningly, Chris admitted that before the relationship even started, he was letting the air out of Betty's tires just so she would call him to come fix them. "He was creating a dependency, which is classic for these guys," says Newell.
The meeting with Newell seemed to shake Chris, but only for a week or so. Then one day Betty looked in her rearview mirror and saw that he was following her. She called Newell at home. "I said, 'He's right beside me,'" she says. "Michael asked where I was and said, 'I'm on my way. Bring him to me.'"
She led Chris to a parking lot where Newell confronted him. "Let's just say Michael put the fear of God in him," she says. "I mean, I had friends who said they would go after Chris, but Michael was the first one who actually did anything to stop him.
"The police didn't scare him. The system didn't scare him. He knew how to lie and how to use the system...But Michael scared him, you could see it in his eyes."
Newell did more than try to intimidate Chris. He met with prosecutors and finally persuaded them to combine the misdemeanor cases to charge Chris with felony stalking.
"Michael knew what buttons to push," Betty says. "He made it work like it was probably supposed to work in the first place."
Betty concedes that Newell, who drives a car with EQLIZR license plates, is "eccentric."
"He told me once, 'I'm the only one who'd take a bullet for you,'" she says. "But he was also the only one who did what he said he would do."
Chris was found guilty of the solicitation-to-murder charge and sentenced to six years in prison; if he gets time off for good behavior, he'll be released sometime in the year 2000. He then agreed to plead guilty to the felony stalking charge in exchange for a deferred sentence and two years' probation.
Newell says Johnson has already written and called him several times from prison. "He just wrote saying I'd be 'proud' of him because he just got married in prison," Newell says. "It only tells me two things: He's found a new victim and he wants to convince me he's no longer a predator. I don't believe it."
Betty says she can only hope that when Chris gets out, "he'll have moved on with his life. But I'm worried that he's just sitting in there plotting how to get me.
"The way he thinks, it's because of me that he needed money for an attorney and got into trouble. It will be all my fault."
If Chris hasn't moved on, Betty knows who she'll call. "The system failed me," she says. "Michael Newell didn't."
Coming next week: Alan Prendergast on the state's byzantine treatment system for offenders; Christine Brennan offers a victim's-eye view of domestic violence.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.