Sharles Johnson was on the phone with his mother when the doorbell rang at his home in Bolingbrook, Illinois. It was a Tuesday afternoon, and the stay-at-home dad was tending to his four youngest kids while the other two were finishing the school day and their mother was working at Target. He went to the door and saw three cops standing on the porch. One was holding a photo that looked like a blown-up version of Sharles's Colorado driver's license.
"Are you Sharles Johnson?" the cop asked. "There's an arrest warrant out for you in Colorado."
Sharles didn't have to hear the charges — felony theft and three felony counts of forgery — to know where they'd come from in Colorado: Jefferson County. Four years earlier, his kids had been taken away by the Jefferson County Department of Human Services — and even though he'd been vindicated in that case, Jeffco Human Services was soon alleging that Sharles's family had collected $5,000 in Medicaid, food stamps and other benefits that they didn't deserve. The county had recently sent him a promissory note that laid out a payment plan: $150 a month for three years, and if he missed a payment by ten days, his bill would be sent to collections.
But now, on February 26, 2008 — the day after the first payment was due — police were at his door with a warrant dated three weeks earlier, alleging that Sharles Johnson had stolen that $5,000 in benefits. Sharles quickly got off the phone with his dumbfounded mother — who oversees agents for the IRS — and called his wife, Rebekiah, telling her to get home as fast as she could. Officers with the Bolingbrook Police Department knew of the Johnsons: Rebekiah had just finished their citizens' police academy, because she and Sharles wanted to teach their kids that not all cops were bad, that they could trust authority again. Sensitive to what the family had been through in Colorado, the officers waited the hour it took for Rebekiah to get home instead of calling a caseworker to the house.
Sharles spent the next ten days in the Will County Jail — without bond.
Rebekiah told eight-year-old Sheyenne and seven-year-old Shakiah that Daddy had to go back to Colorado to fight the mean people. Sheyenne sent her father a drawing of him as Superman. "I miss you," it said. "And you gotted us back from the mean people and loved us very much and I'm like you. And you are the greatest superman." Shakiah wrote his father a letter listing all of his siblings' names and ages, and asking him not to forget them.
On March 6, two Jefferson County sheriff's deputies arrived to fly Sharles back to Colorado. Humiliated, he tried to make it look like his handcuffed hands were just in his pockets as he was led through Chicago Midway Airport and onto a Frontier Airlines flight. He spent one night in the Jefferson County jail before his bond hearing the next morning. The judge saw that a $10,000 bond had been set when the case was filed, and the prosecutor argued that it should remain. But Bob Gunnett, Sharles's former neighbor, a 77-year-old retired teacher and Army veteran who'd become an advocate for the family, had brought a copy of the promissory note to court, as well as a receipt for the first payment. The judge asked Bob if he'd be willing to pay a $1,000 bond for Sharles, and Bob said he would.
"The bottom line is that he's alleged to have stolen government benefits," the prosecutor argued. "Apparently, he's agreed that he stole government benefits or there wouldn't be a note to pay them back. We extradited him from Illinois to bring him back here at taxpayer expense. Without sufficient surety, there's no assurance that he's going to appear in court. So coupling that with his felony history here, we ask the court to leave the bond as set."
But Sharles doesn't have a felony history — in Jefferson County or anywhere else, as he and Bob were quick to point out.
"Bond is $100 cash," the judge ruled. Bob paid it, and Sharles was free. For now.
Sharles Johnson grew up in Flossmoor, a Chicago suburb, across the street from Muhammad Ali's former wife Khalilah and their children, in a house with a maid and a nanny. His mom worked for the IRS; his dad owned gas stations. He was close to both, even after they divorced when he was twelve. They were one of very few black families in a white neighborhood, and Sharles's mom, Curcelia Johnson, says the only time Sharles ever got into trouble was when he stood up to someone picking on his little sister. "He's always loved kids," she says. "When I got married again, my stepson was eleven, and he would come get him and take him to work. He always loved being around kids, mentoring kids."