Charity Johnson refused to act her age. The older she became, the younger she pretended to be. By the time she was 34, she was masquerading as a 16-year-old sophomore at New Life Christian School in the town of Longview, Texas. And her act was so believable that her teachers and fellow students had no idea she was a fully-grown woman.
“She was always scheming,” Ray Ward, a 66-year-old resident of Longview, told BuzzFeed in 2014. “She tried to read you. You’re not even thinking about her reading you like that, not a 14- or 15-year-old. She was doing what a grown woman would do. But we didn’t take her to be no grown woman.”
In fact, Charity was a serial con artist. From Texas to North Carolina, Maryland to New Jersey, Charity reeled in scores of unwitting dupes before finally getting caught in May 2014. But despite her long record of deception, students at New Life hold no grudges against her. Instead, they miss her company…
Born on November 20, 1979, Charity Johnson – who also went by the name of Charite Stevens – never had much of a chance in life. Her father, Larry Johnson, is a convicted murderer who was serving jail time. And her mother, Shirley Anne Burton, was a drug addict and paranoid schizophrenic.
Disturbingly, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) looked into numerous reports that Burton had inflicted physical and emotional abuse upon Charity. For example, she allegedly whipped her daughter with a belt and told her terrifying lies. Nonetheless, she remained Charity’s primary caregiver until 1994. Then, she completely abandoned Charity, who was just 14 years old at the time.
After a spell at a group foster house, Charity moved in with an older sister, Melissa, and her family. It didn’t work out, though. Melissa’s husband, Barry, claimed that Charity was badly behaved. Charity, meanwhile, alleged that Barry sexually abused her. She later retracted her claims, however, and a DFPS investigation concluded that no abuse had taken place.
By the time that Charity was 23, she was living with an allegedly violent couple called Karen and Dave Stevens. “They yelled and screamed and slapped her and always treated her like a stupid little kid,” Tamara Tolbert, a former family acquaintance, later told BuzzFeed. “Maybe they brainwashed her. When I saw her in the news, I was like, ‘Does she even know who she is?’”
Charity, meanwhile, began connecting with older, maternal women, especially religious types, on social media. One of them, Daphne Fortune, the director of a Maryland youth advocacy of group, took Charity under her wing in 2011. Charity had told her that she was a homeless 15-year-old. But Fortune eventually learned the truth and put Charity on a bus to Texas.
Next, Charity latched onto a pastor and his wife, Robert and Rosalind Brown, residents of the small Texan town of Marshall. “She said she missed out on a childhood since she was raised on the streets, went from house to house and experienced abuse.” Robert told BuzzFeed. “She knew exactly what to tell us.”
Nonetheless, the Browns had their suspicions, and they discovered the truth after messaging some of Charity’s Facebook friends. Charity, meanwhile, moved on, eventually ending up in a shelter near Longview called House of Hope. There they asked few questions about her past, and she was consequently able to play the role of a rebellious teenager unhindered.
Then in the spring of 2014 Charity moved in with a work colleague, Tamica Lincoln, a 30-year-old McDonald’s manager. Lincoln had had her reservations about the move, though. Her apartment was small, and she was very busy with a second job. Nevertheless, believing that Charity was a vulnerable teenager, she took her in.
Charity had enrolled at New Life during the previous fall, telling the school that she had been abandoned by her biological parents and abused by her foster family. There was no record of her education, she said, due to her having been home-schooled. In fact, though, Charity had already graduated from Garza Independent High School at the age of 23 while she was living with the Stevens family.
Then on Mother’s Day in 2014 Charity traveled to Dallas to see Osarieme Obaseki, a 40-year-old director of a religious non-profit organization for girls. The two had forged a deep bond on Facebook. “Our connection was all-consuming,” Obaseki – who had been abused as a child and then converted to Evangelicalism later in life – told BuzzFeed. “It took over my everyday life.”
But when they finally met in person, Obaseki could not quite believe that Charity was the 14-year-old girl whom she said she was. So Obaseki contacted her “guardian,” Lincoln, who in turn accessed Charity’s employment details at McDonald’s. According to the company’s records, Charity’s year of birth was 1979, which made her 34 years old – four years older than Lincoln.
Lincoln consequently called the police and waited outside her apartment while they confronted Charity. The officers asked her for identification – but Charity repeatedly lied to them, so they arrested her. She subsequently confessed to the misdemeanor charge of failure to identify herself to a law enforcement officer and spent almost a month in jail before leaving town.
“I cried and cried,” Lincoln told BuzzFeed. “To be honest, I wanted to fight her, but I’m not a fighter. Why did she have to lie like that? All she had to do was tell me the truth, and I would’ve let her stay.” After learning the truth, Lincoln initially couldn’t even bring herself to return to the home that they had shared. “It felt evil in there,” she said.
Obaseki, meanwhile, was more philosophical about Charity’s deception. “She finds damaged people,” she told BuzzFeed. “This is what I want you to understand: a ho know another ho, a lawyer know another lawyer, a crack kid know another crack kid. It was just there: the connection, the energy. People know people. We knew each other.”
But apparently even Charity’s then-boyfriend, 23-year-old Rickie Williams, was stunned to discover that he had been dating a woman in her 30s. Saying that he’d believed she was just 18 years old, he claimed he had only learned the truth after her arrest. “I was shocked,” he told KLTV.
Charity herself spoke to the media on one occasion, too. Appearing on KETK, she said, “I’m just a normal person. Like any other normal person, trying to pursue her education, get her education and make it through life… and be a better person… I guess you can say I was looking for love…”
“Charity wanted to be wanted; she wanted someone to love her unconditionally, like a mother should love her child,” Obaseki eloquently explained. “She’s not a con artist for money; she’s a con artist for love.” And it is for this reason, perhaps, that her former classmates at New Life miss her rather than hate her.