the Marcus Johnson Files, The Gifted Grifter

Share this:
February 26, 2002 // UPDATED 1:14 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Ellen Nigon
Ellen Nigon

He doesn't act like a criminal. He doesn't look like a criminal. He doesn't speak like a criminal. He is polite. He is well-dressed. And his grammar is good. However, for at least the past five years, Ben Harris, a.k.a. Marcus Johnson, has been Downtown's most successful and elusive scam artist. Read how he does it -- and how he has remained at large.

For five years, Ben Harris -- or is it Marcus Johnson? -- has played victims' heartstrings, pocketed their cash... and gotten away scot-free

"He's getting paid better than I am," quipped Julie Kearns, a Downtown resident and victim of a Johnson scam. "He's clearly working the entire area."

Harris is so omnipresent Downtown, so brazen, that within a month Kearns ran into him again -- attempting to victimize someone else.

Minneapolis Police Crime Prevention Specialist Luther Krueger said Johnson is a slippery criminal to apprehend because victims often don't report him. "The victims don't think it's worth their time to prosecute," Krueger said. "Would you sit there and wait four hours to be heard in court over $50?"

A gift for grifting

Donna Porfiri's experience typifies Johnson's gift of grifting. One afternoon Porfiri was walking to her car, parked near the Metrodome, when she was approached by an African-American man who was approximately six feet tall, had close-cropped hair, a pocked face, and was wearing blue warm-up pants.

"He asked me if I could tell him where the Dome was," said Porfiri.

She obliged, pointing out the Dome to the man who introduced himself as Ben Harris. Harris/Johnson (no one is sure if either is his real name) didn't really care about the Dome's location. This was a way for him to initiate conversation with his victim.

"He asked me what this 'Minnesota Nice' was all about because he'd just arrived in town and he hadn't found that the people in Minnesota were very friendly," she said.

Porfiri apologized for her fellow Minnesotans. Johnson explained that he had parked his car on Hennepin Avenue, because in Los Angeles, where he claimed to be from, anyone can park on the main street. His car had been towed and all of his money was in the glove compartment.

"Then he asked me if I was a Christian," Porfiri said. "I said, 'Well, I try to be.' He asked me that a couple of times."

Johnson explained that he had just been transferred to Minneapolis by UPS and that he had a high-paying job as a night supervisor. He said that he had tried to call his new boss when his car was towed, to no avail. Johnson also stressed that he was a college graduate and a professional man.

"He needed some money to get to his car so that he could get it out of the impound lot. Basically what he was asking me for was a loan that he would pay back with interest," she said.

Johnson first asked Porfiri for $38 because he had the rest of the money he needed to get his car out of the impound lot. Porfiri did not carry that much money, so Harris asked if she could withdraw it from an ATM machine.

"I put myself in his position and thought what would that be like to be in a new city and not be well-treated," Porfiri recalled. "Particularly, I thought I should take a chance. I believed him. I believed he was all the things that he said he was."

The two went to a cash machine to withdraw the money and Johnson said that he would need more money to take a cab to the impound lot. Porfiri ended up giving him $100 in exchange for Johnson's work, home and cellular phone numbers.

"Of course when I called, none of those numbers were working numbers," Porfiri said.

Realizing she'd been scammed, Porfiri described how she felt: "I felt really violated. I felt stupid. I thought I should have been smarter than that. I think when you think you're being kind and it is thrown back in your face, you feel really foolish."

Dja fool

Julie Kearns was fooled once, but not twice.

During the first incident, Kearns was leaving her building on a February day. When she walked out the back gate, Johnson approached her and gave her the same story about having just moved to Minneapolis and his car had been towed.

"This was the craziest, longest story," Kearns remembered. "His lead in was, 'Do you believe in 'Minnesota Nice'? Because I haven't been treated nicely by anyone, including the police."

Then Johnson pulled the race card.

"He said, 'Young lady, I need you to know that not all black people are the same.'"

Finally, Johnson used religion on Kearns, telling her that he was a praying, God-fearing man.

"I never give money to these folks. I made an exception with this one," Kearns said.

This time, Johnson was only asking for $18. Kearns gave him a twenty. She refused to take the phone numbers he offered so she could be paid back.

Even though she didn't want to be paid back, Kearns thought about the incident the next day and decided she'd been conned. "At the time it sounded pretty good. In retrospect, I thought I got taken. That was confirmed the next time I ran into him," she said.

Three weeks after Johnson had approached her, Kearns saw him trying the same con outside of Kinko's, 80 S. 8th St. She overheard Harris using the same story on an unsuspecting man.

"I was like, I'm going to bust this guy," Kearns said. "I don't know why I did it. In retrospect it was one of the most dangerous things I could have done."

Kearns interrupted the con, saying to Harris: "That's the same thing you told me three weeks ago."

Johnson denied having ever met Kearns and said to her, "Ma'am, all black people don't look the same."

Kearns's ride had come, so she ended the conversation. "I've joked since then that if I see him a third time, I'm going to ask for my money back," she said.

Minneapolis police specialist Krueger said Kearns's decision to stop the con was actually a good idea. "Most of the guys who are scamming don't want the attention," Krueger said. "The likelihood of being hurt is very small. At least that one person will be saved $50 or $100, and maybe be a little wiser."

No fool

Kearns's friend and neighbor, Anne Lockner, was a bit luckier when she ran into Johnson last summer near 9th Street and 5th Avenue. Lockner tried to direct Johnson to the impound lot but refused to give him money.

"I stopped doing that when I was living in Washington D.C. You were constantly coming across people begging for change," said Lockner.

According to Lockner, Johnson was angry when she refused to give him money. Then, like Kearns, Lockner saw Johnson again about two weeks ago. "I was walking through the skyways in the old Piper building and I saw him doing his whole shtick to someone there, too," she said. "I had a good song on my radio, otherwise I thought about saying something to him."

Groovy tunes aside, Johnson won't stop victimizing others until victims report him. Krueger recommends that if Ben Harris, Marcus Johnson or any other potential con artist approaches you, do not give them money, and call 911 immediately.

"The 911 call gives us the right to stop and identify him," Krueger said. "Maybe then we can do something about him."

Other repeat Downtown scams

The Window Washers

Two men claiming to be from a legitimate window-cleaning business walk into a restaurant and say that they need a $60 deposit before cleaning the windows. After taking the curtains down, the men leave, saying that they need to go to another job and will return. They never come back. According to one Downtown restaurateur, this happened to four eateries this winter.

Fuse Box Repairmen

A male enters a business talking on a walkie-talkie and walks to the rear to the fuse box. He acts as though he's repairing the box. The suspect then approaches an employee and asks to speak to the owner or manager by name. The suspect feigns a phone conversation with the owner or manager and tells the employee that the manager has agreed to a cash payment for the fuse-box repair. The employee pays the suspect cash. The suspect then leaves the business.