It’s been about a week since 60-year-old Mary “Kelly” Johnson was arrested and put into the county jail - and she’s still trying to figure out why the simple act of trying to buy some pancakes could land the great-grandmother in an orange-and-white striped jumpsuit and behind bars.
In a tearful jailhouse interview earlier this week, Johnson said the only reason she can come up with is vindictiveness on the part of the management of the Waxahachie Senior Citizens Center, where she was a former part-time employee and member.
Johnson said she was friends with the former director at the center and that problems began when the new director, Cindy Schneider, came on board. The two disagreed about how the center should be run, Johnson said, saying she was vocal about how she felt Schneider could do a better job.
Johnson said she tried to support Schneider at first but disagreements over policies and procedures led her to resign from her part-time position to be just a member.
“What happened to free speech?” asks Johnson, who said she’s outspoken but that she never threatened or harassed Schneider, only questioned her over what she saw as inconsistencies in how matters were handled at the center. “I believe she knows that I know what I’m talking about. … I just think it’s a shame we had a difference and she had to carry it so far that she had to make me look like a criminal.”
Johnson said other seniors have told her they agree with her but are afraid to say anything because of possible repercussions.
“This is a free country. You can’t tell me to limit what I say,” she said she told Schneider, and adding that Schneider “never respected me as an employee and never respected me as a member.”
The center’s board president, Paul Stevens, who also is Waxahachie’s city manager, confirmed Johnson’s expulsion to the Daily Light, saying the board voted to revoke her membership because of disruptions.
Johnson provided the Daily Light with a copy of Stevens’ July 27, 2006, letter, which reads, “As a result of your past behaviors and continued disruptions while attending the activities hosted by the Waxahachie Senior Citizens Center Inc., the board of directors have determined that your membership and participation in said activities is detrimental and contrary to the mission of the center. The board has determined that your membership fee shall be reimbursed to you and your membership privileges shall be revoked. Please find enclosed a check from the Waxahachie Senior Citizens Center Inc.
“You are no longer entitled to attend those activities which the Waxahachie Senior Citizens Center Inc. provides for its members,” the letter ends, with Stevens signing in his capacity as board president.
The letter also included a $10 refund check for Johnson’s membership, which Johnson showed to the Daily Light and said she has never cashed, saying she felt the center needed the money.
Johnson said she understood — based upon Stevens’ letter’s wording — the expulsion was from any of the 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday activities at the center, located on Patrick Street.
The center also hosts public functions for the community, such as pancake breakfasts, which Johnson said she thought she could attend. She can’t recall the date but said she attended a pancake breakfast where she visited with people, bought some pancakes and left with no problem. She said she tried to attend another pancake breakfast but was stopped at the door by Schneider and hasn’t been back since.
“Cindy told me to leave and I left,” said Johnson, who said she found herself in handcuffs late evening June 30 after she was pulled over by a Waxahachie police officer who informed her she had a warrant out for her arrest on a criminal trespass charge, a class B misdemeanor. The officer also told her she had several unpaid traffic tickets, which Johnson told the Daily Light she thought she had taken care of.
Johnson said Municipal Judge Sylvia Beaver told her during her arraignment she could have “time served” on the tickets but that she was assessing a $4,000 bond on the misdemeanor charge.
“She said because it was criminal trespass, this is what we’re going to have to do,” said Johnson, who remained in jail until Monday evening, when family members were able to make bond for her.
Arrest’s financial impact
Johnson, who has diabetes and several other serious health ailments, is fretting over how she will pay all of the costs she has incurred out of her disability income of less than $900 a month and the limited amount of money she’s allowed to earn from a part-time position. There’s $600 for the bond plus she’s looking at attorney costs, whether retained or court-appointed. She also could have court costs of about $250.
“I’m struggling every month,” said Johnson, whose case would be heard in Ellis County Court at Law No. 2, Judge Gene Calvert Jr. presiding.
Her daughter, Tiffany Acuna, said she persuaded her mother to move to Waxahachie several years ago from Dallas so she could be near family.
“I get her to move here and look what happens,” Acuna told the Daily Light.
Johnson now worries she’ll be hauled back to jail plus she has to remember to call the bond company every week to report in until her case is heard. She’s also concerned this incident will impact another activity she’s in volunteer training for, that of ombudsman for nursing home residents.
Named January 2007 “Friendliest Employee” by the Waxahachie Chamber of Commerce, Johnson said she tries to be as involved as she can be and particularly enjoys working with seniors. Her prior work experience includes serving as a business officer director for several nursing homes and 6-1/2 years as an activity director for a senior program at a YWCA in Dallas. She’s a member of the local Coalition of Senior Partners group and AARP and has served as a precinct judge and clerk.
Open Records requests
The Daily Light filed an Open Records request July 2 with the Waxahachie Police Department for any available information from the case, with Police Chief Chuck Edge saying that request has been forwarded to the Ellis County and District Attorney’s Office, which he said would be the prosecuting agency. As of Saturday, none of the materials requested had been released to the Daily Light.
The Daily Light was able to obtain a copy of the arrest warrant and affidavit from the office of Justice of the Peace Curtis Polk.
The Waxahachie Police Department affidavit references a November 2006 offense report that itself references a July 27, 2006, letter.
“This report indicated that on 07-27-06 the director of the Waxahachie Senior Center, Cindy Schneider, sent a certified letter to Mary Johnson advising her she was no longer welcome on the property and that returning to the property would constitute criminal trespassing. The letter was signed for by Johnson on 07-27-06.
“According to the report, on 11-18-06, at 0900 hours, Schneider observed Johnson on the senior center property talking with multiple people. On 03-09-07, I (detective Sgt. Keith Putman) received a signed statement from Schneider confirming she personally observed Johnson on the property after being warned not to return,” the affidavit continues.
Johnson said the only certified letter she ever received was the July 27 one from Stevens, which she notes makes no reference to criminal trespass and the possibility of being arrested.
“I never received a letter from Cindy Schneider saying I was criminally trespassed,” Johnson said.
The Daily Light talked with officers with several law enforcement agencies, with all indicating a “preferred” — and most often used — way of handling criminal trespass is to have the complainant deliver the warning in person to the subject and in the presence of an officer as a witness.
The different agencies said the law allows a certified, return receipt letter to be sent, but each said the letter should include specific language warning the subject and informing him or her of the possibility of arrest.
After receiving the July 27 letter from Stevens, Johnson said she told him in person she wanted to appeal her expulsion and also sent him a letter Oct. 2 asking for permission to speak to the board.
On Oct. 16, Stevens sent Johnson a reply letter, which reads, “At the Oct. 11, 2006, Waxahachie Senior Citizens Center board of directors meeting, the board did consider your request for a formal hearing. The board voted to uphold your revocation of membership to the senior citizens center hearing. The board did however vote that they will consider your reinstatement in July of 2007.”
In late June and prior to her arrest, Johnson said she called Schneider asking to be reinstated but was told the board had voted again and had made the expulsion permanent. Johnson said she told Schneider she had received no notification about that.
“She said the board voted in May and said I was to never come back, according to her,” Johnson said. “She told me I wasn’t sent anything because, ‘We just didn’t feel like you needed it.’
“I told her I would like it in writing and she told me she didn’t think that was necessary,” said Johnson, who still has not received any communication from Stevens or the board.
A message left Friday afternoon on an answering machine at the center by the Daily Light was not returned. Attempts to reach Schneider at home Friday and Saturday were unsuccessful.
Would like to go back
Through several interviews, a tearful Johnson has repeatedly told the Daily Light she only feels she was exercising her right to free speech in disagreeing with the way she says the center is run. She said she doesn’t understand why she has been denied an opportunity to tell her side to anyone — the board members or the police — before she was arrested.
“I think if Paul Stevens would have let me come before the board this would not have snowballed the way it did. I just wanted to be heard and to be able to explain things,” said Johnson, who said she doesn’t understand why Stevens and Schneider went so far as to allow her to be arrested and put in jail.
“I’ll apologize to Cindy, I’ll sign any waiver they want me to, I’ll just keep my mouth shut,” she said. “I just want to be able to be back at the center with my friends and my boyfriend.
“It just breaks my heart that I can’t go to the center,” she said. “I would be willing to do anything they want at this point.”
E-mail JoAnn at firstname.lastname@example.org