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A few weeks ago, Rob Halligan was driving down S Street NW when he spotted an old acquaintance near the 14th Street thoroughfare. Halligan, a public-safety activist who lives near Dupont Circle, might never have noticed the familiar face of Nathan Johnson if the man weren’t also in a familiar position: up against a police cruiser. The last time Halligan had seen Johnson among a swarm of cops, the 46-year-old habitual thief had just broken into a car near 20th and S Streets NW.
“I was a little surprised and a little annoyed,” Halligan says of the latest encounter. Surprised because Johnson had been banned from the neighborhood many times before and annoyed because, after a two-year hiatus, Johnson appeared to have returned to his trade of choice: breaking into cars (“Good Thief, Bad Thief,” 3/25/05).
On Nov. 5, Johnson was rearrested for stealing a 1998 Toyota Corolla, marking at least his 11th lockup since the turn of the millennium. A cop found him inside the car, which had been reported stolen two weeks earlier, “with all of the glass windows fogged up” and a key in the ignition, according to a police report.
Sgt. Brett Parson, who’s arrested Johnson in the area before, says of Johnson’s return to the neighborhood, “I’m glad to hear he hasn’t lost his touch.”
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Among Dupont-area cops and informed citizens, Johnson is regarded as a smash-and-grab artist nonpareil. He’s been described by various police officers as “ridiculous,” “a career criminal,” and “his own crime wave.” After one of Johnson’s many arrests in the area, the chair of the local advisory neighborhood commission went so far as to write a D.C. Superior Court judge to explain that Johnson is “a recidivist who has caused significant harm to residents of Dupont Circle. To protect neighborhood residents, he should not be released from custody.”
But Johnson is usually prosecuted on low-stakes charges such as second-degree theft or destruction of property—hallmarks of a car break-in—and he typically serves monthslong bits at the D.C. Jail until he’s released and returns to the neighborhood. Prosecutors have tried to keep him from the area with a heap of stay-away orders, but their efforts have proven redundant to the point of absurdity. Johnson has amassed nearly a dozen such orders around the city to date, many of them with overlapping blackout zones. The stay-away order for his Nov. 5 arrest, for instance, bans him from the area north of Dupont Circle, where he’s been banned before. In August 2004, he was banned from the District of Columbia in its entirety.
“If we need to pass a Nathan Johnson Law then we should,” Halligan writes in an e-mail.
According to court documents, Johnson studied electrical engineering at George Washington University and led a productive life until his 18-year-old son was robbed and killed while visiting a friend in Pasadena, Md., in 2000. Johnson’s scrapes with the law appear to have started shortly after his loss, and he’s occasionally wound up in drug-treatment programs mandated by the court. His most recent case was assigned to Superior Court’s “drug court” program, where offenders often elude jail time by agreeing to undergo substance-abuse treatment.
Johnson, however, doesn’t appear to be interested in any drug programs. He was released on the car-theft charge on personal recognizance, and on the morning of his Nov. 16 hearing, his court-appointed lawyer was walking the aisles of Courtroom 202, asking the defendants who were waiting to go before the judge if any of them happened to be Nathan Johnson. They all said no.
After two defendants walked cheerily out of the courtroom with certificates marking their completion of the drug program, the judge called Johnson’s name. His lawyer stepped alone to the dais, and to the collective head-shaking and tsk-tsking of the crowd of defendants, the judge ordered a bench warrant for Johnson’s arrest.