Wheeler Dealer

How Minnesota cops and the war on drugs made a successful entrepreneur out of a small-time hustler and snitch named Michael Felix

Danny Johnson's neighborhood used to be quiet. Made up of modest working-class houses and mature trees, it was located right in the heart of Detroit Lakes, about 45 miles east of Fargo. Johnson, a janitor at the county courthouse three blocks away, and his wife Patty, who also worked for Becker County, could run home for lunch. The house was kitty-corner from an elementary school.

One day in the summer of 2000, Johnson came home to discover Police Chief Kal Keena nosing around the vacant house across the alley from his. Keena would later deny saying it, but Johnson swears the chief told him he was looking for a place for his daughter to rent.

In any case, Keena's daughter never materialized. Instead, a man named Michael Felix moved in with his wife and three kids. Fiftyish and short, Felix stood out in the town of 7,500. He was missing many of his front teeth, had a pointy little beard, tattoos on his neck, and growths on his face. Neighbors say he looked a bit like a troll.

It wasn't long before trouble started. When he came home for lunch now, Johnson would later testify in court, he'd watch a long line of cars pull up at the Felix household, or sometimes around the corner in front of Johnson's house. The cars would hover for a few minutes and then leave. During the hour he'd spend at home, Johnson would count 10, 12, sometimes 15 cars, often carrying several teens. Sometimes the people would go into the house, while other times Felix would come out, stick his head in the car window, and then go back inside.

Suspecting Felix was selling drugs, and scared for his own teenaged son, Johnson testified that he and his wife placed the first of at least 150 calls to the police. Occasionally the police would come out, but they never did anything but ask questions, Johnson says. "They'd say, 'Yeah, yeah, we'll think about it,'" he complained later. "'We'll call 'em and check on 'em.'" After a while, they would just ask the Johnsons to take down license plate numbers.

Adding to their troubles, the Johnsons and other neighbors testified, the times the police did come out were enough to make the new neighbor angry, but not enough to stop him from threatening people he suspected of ratting him out. According to court documents, Felix and his oldest son threatened the adults in the families of Danny Johnson and a neighbor, Jeff Johnson (no relation), as well as Danny Johnson's teenage son.

"You were scared to go out of your driveway," Danny Johnson would later testify. "My wife was threatened by Mr. Felix and a son that was there at the time when I wasn't home, swore at her and whatever. I mean, it was a scary place. And we had to come out of that driveway every single day, every time we left our house."

Other neighbors were frantically dialing 911 too. Jo and Jeff Johnson's backyard backed up to Felix's. Jeff Johnson testified that he smelled marijuana coming from the new neighbor's place. He was forced to stop his kids, ages two and six, from using the side of the yard that abutted Felix's because he kept finding glass, eating utensils, and garbage thrown over the fence.

Eventually, Danny Johnson started calling a sheriff's deputy by the name of Patrick Johnson (again, no relation). Both men had worked in the courthouse for a while, and Danny Johnson knew that the deputy was a narcotics investigator. For a while, he didn't get anywhere complaining to the deputy, either. But then, in April 2001, according to both men's testimony, the deputy told Johnson a secret: Felix was an informant buying drugs for a big undercover operation the deputy had set up. The constant parade of cars was people selling methamphetamine to Felix, who was being paid a fee to buy it.

Far from being relieved, Johnson was enraged. Over the previous nine months, the sting had turned his neighborhood into a slum. "What if a deal had gone bad?" he rages. "What if someone found out he was an informant and got angry? Those kids are out there on the playground [across the street] every day. What if something went bad? What if some grade-schooler got shot?"

Two months later, Michael Felix moved out. According to testimony, he left several months' rent unpaid. The house itself was uninhabitable. The floors needed replacing and the walls were pocked with holes. Closet doors had been torn down and nailed to walls on the first floor to keep the family's animals downstairs. There was dog and cat shit everywhere. A contractor who came from Fargo estimated it would cost $34,000 to make the house livable. The landlord didn't have it, so he and his brother gutted the house and fixed it up themselves.

The damage to the neighborhood proved impossible to fix. Jeff Johnson's family moved out a while back, and one by one, the other neighbors up and down Willow Street and Summit Avenue have sold, too. Danny and Patricia Johnson are moving in the spring. "I don't want anything to do with this city now," he complains.

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