Earl L. Johnson appeared to be the ideal face for a broad effort by current and former service members to clean up his troubled East Baltimore neighborhood of Oliver. The charismatic veteran told stories of serving for years with the elite Army Rangers, fighting in Bosnia and Iraq.
Problem was, his stories turned out not to be true. Johnson, 32, now acknowledges that he significantly exaggerated his military resume, in part to conceal his criminal past.
The recent revelations have split the community of volunteers in Oliver, one of Baltimore's most persistently crime-ridden areas. To many veterans, there are few sins worse than lying about one's military service. But Johnson says he lied only because he thought he could help his neighborhood and give himself a fresh start.
"It's painful," he said. "It didn't start out like this. It kind of snowballed."
Under pressure, Johnson resigned this week as a board member of The 6th Branch, a community service group working in the neighborhood.
"We're a veteran-led organization. This guy lied about his military record. We can't do that," said Rich Blake, chairman of the organization. He said a "third party" told him about Johnson's record.
While some have expressed shock and disappointment after Johnson's disclosures, others have spoken of the important role he has played in a neighborhood that many see on an upswing after years of gun violence and drug-fueled deterioration.
He'll stay on at Operation Oliver, the community initiatve he helped found, and keep his seat as executive director of the Come Home Baltimore Foundation, which works to attract new residents to the area.
Johnson's story is as much about redemption as deception, his supporters say — a narrative they say that many in Baltimore will be able to relate to.
David Borinsky, CEO of the Come Home Baltimore Fund, a for-profit building company that works with the foundation, said he and Johnson spoke about how best to move forward and determined that having Johnson stay with the foundation is in the best interest of the neighborhood.
"Crime is way down, the whole feeling of the neighborhood is different, and he gets more of the credit than anybody else," Borinsky said. "The idea that this would change how we work together would be to sacrifice utility for the sake of purity."
Johnson moved to Oliver with his wife in 2010 and first got the attention of veterans working in the neighborhood with the Pat Tillman Foundation. Johnson seemed like a community member who cared. He swept his street and talked with other residents about leaving crime behind and improving the neighborhood, leaders have said.
As the other veterans increased their focus on Oliver through The 6th Branch, they began featuring Johnson's story and partnering more with Operation Oliver. Johnson joined the board.
But through it all, Johnson was hiding a darker history. He'd arrived in Baltimore after a futile search for work along the East Coast. He was a felon, he said, convicted of violating a restraining order in a former relationship and placed on probation. Public court records were not available in the case.
Over the years, he's run into other problems, including a robbery charge that he said stemmed from allegations that he stole from a restaurant where he worked. He was found not guilty.
Johnson now says he indeed served in the Army, but the stint only lasted a year. He says he served one tour in Afghanistan as an infantryman in 2002 but was dropped from military rolls after violating orders. Army officials could not immediately verify his account.
When Johnson reached Baltimore, he wanted to start fresh.
"I was determined not to be that black guy that's a felon, that everyone prejudges," he said.
Johnson's claims about his service have appeared in The Baltimore Sun, and his fabrications were featured on the website of The 6th Branch, which said he had served between 1999 and 2008.
"It's an integrity violation that we just can't look past," said Dave Landymore, the group's executive director. "But the work is still here. We don't care about Oliver any less. We take it in stride; we move forward."
Misinformation about military service has become a national issue in recent years, pitting free speech ideals against the nation's regard for veterans.
In 2006, a law called the Stolen Valor Act made it illegal to claim military decorations or medals that hadn't been earned. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the law last year, saying the Obama administration had failed to show such claims undermined the system that grants such awards.
Blake said The 6th Branch decided to distance itself from Johnson, a decision he announced in a blog post on the group's website on Thursday, to protect the organization's reputation.
"Our hope is that we'll be able to continue serving and that our standing as a good organization doing good work in Baltimore isn't going to be damaged in any way by this," he said in an interview.
He said he also felt personally "betrayed" by Johnson, whom he considers one of his best friends.
Johnson said he is extremely sorry for his actions and has spent the past few days having conversations with city leaders and other community members to come clean about his past — an experience he said has been emotional, in part because of the acceptance people have shown him.
"I guess Baltimore is different," he said choking back tears. "I guess Baltimore is different because nobody cared about my record. They understood."
He said he's excited to move forward with Operation Oliver and the Come Home Baltimore Foundation with the deception finally behind him.
"I feel as if I can actually do my job," he said.
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