Going Legit: The Road to Redemption is Never Straight or Easy

I’ve come a long way since I decided to stop breaking the law.  Anyone who has seen one of my presentations, read or listened to an interview, or talked with me knows my journey to becoming legal was not an easy one.  Nor was it a straight one.

My family, specifically my mother, was always involved in some type of fraudulent activity:  Burning homes and cars for insurance money, faking accidents, benefit fraud, forging documents, stealing coal.  From stealing a Caterpillar D9 Dozer weighing in at over 100,000 pounds, to faking a fall in a grocery store, to buying empty medicine capsules and filling them with inert powder to sell to ignorant druggies as speed—no crime was too big or too small for Momma.

My Mom was an abusive parent.  Not physically, but emotionally, verbally, mentally.

 Negligent as well.  She would tell me and Denise, my sister of a year younger, that she regretted having us, that she was going to leave and never come back, that she was going to commit suicide.

First memory?  I’m around 4 years old.  We are all riding in the car.  Mom is screaming at Dad.  She lunges across the car and grabs the steering wheel trying to wreck us, screaming “Are you ready to die, you Son of a Bitch?” 

Another time Mom called me and Denise into the living room.  She has two chairs set up facing one another, inches apart.  She is sitting in one.  She tells Denise to sit in the one opposite.  I was 9.  Denise 8.

“I’ve sold my soul to Satan,” she said.

Denise looked at me, wide-eyed.  I didn’t know it at the time, but that was Denise’s “Oh, Shit!” look.

“Look at me Denise.  The Lord Satan has agreed to let me live long enough to see you and your brother through college.  I love you that much.  But you and your brother must be worthy.”

Denise was scared to death.  Me?  I’m thinking this is some creepy Exorcist-level shit.  I’m expecting fog to start rolling into the living room and Mom’s head to swivel.

“It’s important you don’t blink, Denise.  You must keep eye contact with me and not blink.  Im going to let Satan come out through my eyes and he is going to try to enter you through your eyes.  So you must think only good thoughts so Jesus protects you.”

Denise looked like she was about to cry.  Iwas too much a coward to say anything.  What could I say?  What can a 9 year-old say to their mother?

“Do you understand, Denise?”

“Yes, Momma.”  Denise whispered the words.

I don’t know how long that lasted.  Seemed like it was several minutes.  I don’t know if Denise blinked.  I know that Mom looked like she hated my sister, like she wanted her dead.

“That’s good, Denise,” Mom Said.  “You are worthy.”

Then it was my turn. 

There were countless nutty things like that.  Dad wasn’t abusive.  He loved me and Denise. 

But he loved Mom more.  He sat by and let it go on.  He’d beg her to stop, to calm down, but he never took steps to stop it.  He just sat there and let it happen.  I remember her calling me and Denise into their bedroom.  Mom called us around to her side of the bed.  She always smoked these really long More brand cigarettes. 

“Carolyn, please stop” Dad said.

“Shut up, Ray Gene.  They are my children.”

Mom looked at us.  “Brett, Denise.  I love you more than anything, you know that?”

“Yes, Momma” we both said.

“You know I would do anything for you, right?”

“Yes, Momma.”

“Carolyn, Please Stop,” Dad said.

“Shut up, Ray Gene.”

Me and Denise didn’t know what the hell is going on.

“I’m going to show you how much I love you.” 

Mom took the More cigarette and pretended to burn herself.  She held the cigarette close to her arm and started making these screaming noises.  I was looking at the cigarette.  It was obvious she wasn’t  burning herself.  The cigarette was too far away.  What does a nine year old think about it?  That she must not love us very much because she isn’t really burning herself.

It was always something like that.  I remember one time she called me into the bedroom and made me undress in front of her and Dad.  Then they talked amongst themselves about how bad my body looked. 

Dad took part in that.  Usually he would just beg her to stop, but that time he took part.  I don’t know why.

Like I said, most the time Dad just let it go on.

Not that Mom didn’t abuse my father.  She did.  She would bring men home in front of him. 

One time she found him asleep and woke him up with a knife to his throat telling him he was a dead man.  She told him all the time she just wanted him to die.  She told him she would drive him to suicide.  He was so crazy over her, he let her do whatever she wanted until one day she left him.

Mom’s grandfather had died at his home in Hazard, Kentucky.  Yep, Hazard, like the “Dukes of Hazzard” except minus the comedy, the Dodge, and the hot girl in short shorts.  This was Eastern Kentucky. 

Eastern Kentuckians are a hard-working, proud people.  They do the best they can with what they have.  They don’t have much.  The area is extremely poor.  Education is substandard. 

When coal is booming, the economy is merely OK.  Most the time coal isn’t booming.  If you aren’t lucky enough to have a job or get a government check, it’s hard to survive.  Many people use drugs, many people are engaged in crime.  Mom told me, Denise, and Dad we were going up there for the funeral.  It took a few weeks for us to figure out we weren’t going back. 

Mom didn’t work.  She was a licensed nurse, but she never held a job long.  She liked to party too much.   Me and Denise presented a bit of a burden.  Sometimes she would take us and leave us in the living room while she disappeared in the back with whatever fellow she was dating.  Most the time she would just leave us alone at the house. 

I got scared when Mom left us.  I was the kid that thought Mom might not come home.  I’d stay up late waiting for her, constantly look out the window to she if she were coming home, walk out into the street to she if she were driving down it.  Denise?  She just got angry.

I was 10 years old when I committed my first crime.  Mom had been gone a few days. 

Denise walked in the door carrying a pack of pork chops.

“Where’d you get those?”  I asked?

“I stole them.” 

I looked at her a minute.  “Show me.”

We started shoplifting food.  Eating pretty good, too.  Steaks, Pork Chops, Chocolate Milk, we filled up the refrigerator. We hadn’t had that much food in a while.  Across from the grocery store was a K-Mart.  I walked in there one day, gwent back to the clothing section, put a hoodie on, and walked out.  Ok.  Now me and Denise could get some clothes.  Turns out K-Mart had a lot more than clothes.  They had toys, books, videogames, music—we took it all.  I’d wear that stolen hoodie in, stuff the items under it, and walk out.

Mom came home.  I’m not sure what she noticed first:  The food, the clothes, the intellivision, or the music blaring. 

“Where did all this stuff come from?” She asked.

“We found them.”  I said.

“No, no you didn’t find this stuff,” Mom said.

Denise, half pissed off, half proud, said, “We stole them.”

Mom?  “Show me.”

Not only did she join up with us, she went and got her mother to join up with us, too.

That lasted several months until Mom and Granny got caught at JC Penny stuffing jewelry into bags.  We had taken a road trip to Kingsport, Tennessee to the Fort Henry Mall.  I went to Dalton Bookstore to steal books.  Mom, Granny, and Denise to JC Penny.  We were to meet back at the car in 2 hours.  I got to the car and no one was there.  I wait a while and finally decide to walk into Penny’s to find them.  As I’m walking in, two security guards are standing by the door.  I hear my name come over one of their Walkie-Talkies.

I stopped and looked at the guard, “Hey, that’s me.”

“You’re Brett Johnson?”


“Come with us.”

They took me upstairs to the security room.  Mom and Granny are huddled in a corner, crying and screaming into each other’s arms.  They kept telling the JC Penny guy they had never done it before and how sorry they were.  Denise?  Denise was sitting as far away from them as possible in the opposite corner.  She wasn’t crying.  She was just mad.  Denise was looking at Mom and Granny like she could kill them.

The JC Penny guy didn’t buy Mom and Grandma’s story.  He thought they were full of shit. 

But he felt sorry for me and Denise.  If the adults went to jail, where would we go.? So, no jail for the adults.  They still had charges filed against them, but they let us all go home that night. 

Mom, Granny, and Denise never shoplifted again.  Denise never broke the law again after that.  Denise left home as soon as she could.  She went on to become a respected teacher, a great mother, and a wonderful sister.  She hasn’t spoken to Mom in years.  Me?  Not so much.  As I got older, I became more and more involved in the types of crime Mom was committing.  It was expected of me.  Don’t think I’m blaming my Mom for my breaking the law.  I’m not.  Lots of people had worse upbringings than me and ended up just fine.  When I became an adult, it was my choice to break the law.  Growing up, though?  Not much choice.

Looking back, I can see I’m a mixture of both my Mom and Dad’s worst traits:  I inherited my Mom’s criminal mindset and the willingness to break the law.  From Dad, I inherited the willingness to do whatever it took to keep loved ones from leaving.  Both helped instill that fear of abandonment in me.  For most my life, my being in a relationship meant me doing all the work, the cooking, cleaning, everything.  I insisted on it in an attempt to show my mate I was worth their love.  I would try to buy their love with expensive gifts.  It wasn’t enough to say I loved someone, I had to put a dollar amount to the words.

Cybercrime for me grew into building Shadowcrew.  The precursor to today’s darknet markets.  The foundation of modern financial cybercrime and identity theft.  Before us, cybercrime wasn’t really organized.  After us, nothing would ever be the same.  I ran the group for a while, partnered with Ukrainian hackers and elements of the Russian mafia, refined or developed many of the types of fraud still being committed today.  I was the guy who came up with the idea for tax return identity theft.  At one point every single business deal went through me.  I learned the intricacies of every fraud imaginable.  I stole a lot of money.

Shadowcrew made the front cover of Forbes in August, 2004.  October 26th, 2004 the United States Secret Service arrested 33 people in 6 countries in under 6 hours.  I was the only higher up to get away.

I was picked up four months later running counterfeit cashier’s checks in South Carolina by the FBI and the Charleston, South Carolina police.  Within 45 minutes the USSS came in and took over the case.

They offered me a job.  I took it.  Why did I take it?  Not to avoid prison.  I took it because of Elizabeth. 

My wife had left me.  We were married for nine years and she finally had enough of my lies and my law breaking.  That drove me into depression.  The fear of being abandoned had become reality.  I didn’t understand that is was all because of my choices.  I had lied to everyone including myself.  I had always justified my crimes by saying I did it to survive, or for my sister, or wife, or whatever.  I even convinced myself of those lies.  My first wife, Susan, left.  I became so depressed I called a psychologist crying, begging for help.  The psychologist had me come in that day.

I told the Doc everything.  She tried to help.  And I think she did.  Until one night I decided to visit a strip club.  I’d never been before.  I was lonely.  What more can I say?  I was a criminal.  Criminals can’t really have normal relationships.  I was lonely.

Elizabeth was the first girl I laid eyes on.  I talked to her the rest of the night.  A week later I walk back in and ask her out on a date. A month later I move her into my home.  There were problems.  I found out after she moved in she was addicted to cocaine.  I had never used drugs.  Mom always used drugs and I was scared I would turn out like her.  Then I found out Elizabeth had been selling herself to support her coke habit.  She didn’t like to be touched.  She couldn’t be intimate unless she was drunk.  I guess I thought I could save Elizabeth. 

Maybe if she got ok we would both be ok.

The Secret Service offered me a job.  My answer?  “I’ll do whatever you want me to as long as I can get back to Elizabeth.”

I sat in the county jail for three months before the Feds got me released to start work.  The night I got out?  I started breaking the law again.  Tax fraud. 

To this day, I’m unsure what Elizabeth thought of me.  I simply don’t know if she loved me, or if I was just a means for her to escape the life she had, or if she just used me.  About 3 months into working for the Secret Service she looked at me one night and said she thought it would be funny if I started sleeping with other women.  For me that was the “Aha” moment.  I broke up with her within a month.  When I broke up with her, I remember Elizabeth acted exactly like I did when my wife left me.  She walked around in a daze, cried, told me she loved me.  But it was too late.  I still wonder, though.

By this time, Denise had disowned me.  She couldn’t stand the thought of me dating Elizabeth and hadn’t spoken to me for months.  I didn’t have anyone.

I kept breaking the law.  Often from within USSS offices.  Why not?  I didn’t think I had anything left to lose.  I just didn’t care.  I started dating all sorts of strippers, drinking.  It took 10 months for the Secret Service to find out I had been screwing them over. 

I went on the run, stole around $500k from ATMs, was placed on the US Most Wanted List, was captured, sent to prison, escaped prison, captured again, sent to prison again.

Denise came back in my life after my escape.  Dad came to visit me at the county jail they were holding me in.  He asked if he could do anything for me.  I asked him to call Denise and tell her I loved her.  Denise got in her car, pregnant and drove 7 hours to come see me for 10 minutes.  After that I’m sent to solitary confinement for 8 months because the escape and then sent far enough away I didn’t see Denise for another 5 years.

Denise coming back, more than anything, is what caused me to take responsibility for my actions and understand the harm I had caused.  It took about 24 months, but I got there.

I left prison late 2011 with no desire or intention of breaking the law.

People are released from prison with the same tools in which they went in.

I couldn’t get a job.  I had job offers from Deloitte, Knowbe4, a few others.  I couldn’t take them because I was under three years supervised release and couldn’t touch a computer during that time.  I tried to apply for fast food jobs.  Nope, the cash register is a computer.  A waiter’s job?  Nope.  That’s a computer and credit cards, idiot.  The only job I could find was manual labor, pushing a lawn mower.

Before that?  Nothing.  I was bumming money from my Dad and sister.  I had a room mate taking care of half the rent.  I was on food stamps so I could eat.  It got to the point I didn’t have any money.  I had a little cat.  Had enough money to buy the little guy some food.  Not enough money to buy toilet paper.  I went to the dollar store and bought cat food.  On the way out, there was a kiosk that had toilet paper on it.  I shoplifted toilet paper.  That was the first crime I committed after my release.  I didn’t want to go back to cybercrime.  I didn’t know what else to do.  Cognitive Dissonance at its best.

I was lucky that Michele found me at almost the same time.  I didn’t find her.  I had a buddy of mine post a profile of me on a dating site.  Michele responded and we began dating.  I moved in with her a couple of months later and then got the job mowing grass.  I worked my ass off.  10 hours a day, $400 a week.  I’d come in from work, pass out, wake up the next morning, shower and go at it again.  I was happy, though.  It felt good.

But you can’t mow grass all year.  It turned cold, mowing season ended, and I was out of a job.  Michele was the only one working and that fear I have of losing someone popped back up.  I had to do something.  I had to provide.  I had to show her I was worth her love.

I figured I could at least provide food.  I got online, bought stolen credit card data, and started ordering food.  I got caught.  I was sentenced to one year in prison for the violation.  My probation officer asked that the sentence be changed to 12 months plus one day so I could get the good time and get out in 10 months.  He told the Judge he thought it was a one-time thing on my part.  The prosecutor agreed.  Michele was there and begged for leniency.  The Judge listened and amended the sentence.

Michele stuck by me the entire time.  She never wavered.  There was never a doubt from her.  And I found out something.  I found out that Michele needed me for me, not for what I could give her.  I had never had that before.

I got out 10 months later.  We were married shortly after that.  Of course, I still had the same problem of getting a job.  No one would hire me.  I knew how that story would end.  I told Michele one day to let me see what I could do.  I signed up for Linkedin and messaged Keith Mularski of the FBI.  Mularski is basically the Robocop of Cybercrime.  He has been involved in many of the biggest cybercrime investigations.  He was involved in arresting many of the people I worked with.  I messaged him and told him I thought the job he did was great and I had a lot of respect for the work he and the FBI had done.  I also told him I would like to do things legal and asked for advice.  Mularski had no reason to respond or give advice, but I guess he believed me.  He gave me advice and even spoke to potential employers about me.  I like to think of it as he took me under his wing.  From there, Neal O’Farrell of the Identity Theft Resource Council took me under his wing.  Then Karisse Hendrick of gave me my first paid speaking job as Keynote for their conference. 

I’m fortunate.  All those people took me in and gave me a chance to do good.  Today, I speak all over the world.  I’m giving a TED Talk in Paris in two weeks.  I consult with consumer groups, businesses large and small, law enforcement agencies, financial institutions, security companies, ICOs, and more.  I’m scheduled to keynote over 30 conferences this year.  I’m getting ready to launch a personalized dark web monitoring service aimed at SMBs.  I’m currently working on two books, one with Karisse Hendrick.  Karisse and I are also launching a fraud -related podcast on July 4th.  There is talk of a potential miniseries or something more.  Today, I’m considered one of the leading authorities on cybercrime, online fraud, and identity theft. 

I guess I am an authority.  I’ve a better grasp of the subject than most people on the planet.  The knowledge I have is from hands on experience, as a student, leader, and teacher of online crime.  At one point in my life I thought all I would ever be was a criminal.  It is still sinking in that I have been given an opportunity to do good with my knowledge, insight, and understanding.  I’m grateful to live a legal life.  And I grateful to be able to help instead of harm.

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