July 2, 2022
by Carla Hay
“Carol & Johnny”
Directed by Colin Barnicle
Culture Representation: Filmed in 2021 in Washington state, Texas and Nevada, the documentary “Carol & Johnny” features an all-white group of working-class and middle-class people discussing estranged spouses Carolyn Marie “Carol” Wlliams and John Madison “Johnny” Williams Jr., who famously went on a bank robbery spree from 1986 to 1994 (in Texas, California and Washington state), were sent to prison, and were eventually released from prison.
Culture Clash: After being released from prison, Johnny has trouble adjusting to his new life in Seattle, and he wants to get back together with Carol, who is living in Texas and has to decide if she wants to reunite with Johnny.
Culture Audience: “Carol & Johnny” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in stories about true crime and dysfunctional couples.
The absorbing true crime documentary “Carol & Johnny” keeps viewers guessing until the very end if two estranged spouses, who went on a bank robbery spree, will reunite after the husband gets out of prison. It’s a story that isn’t just about their crime spree, because the movie raises provocative questions about forgiveness and if ex-convicts can be redeemed after getting out of prison. Directed by Colin Barnicle, “Carol & Johnny” had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.
The two people at the center of the movie are Carolyn Marie “Carol” Williams and John Madison “Johnny” Williams Jr., who robbed 56 banks in Texas, California and Washington state, from 1986 to 1994, the year that they were arrested. It’s believed that the stolen money from these robberies totaled $879,357. At the time of their arrest, Carol was 34, and Johnny was 43. They have been married since 1979, and they have no children together. Carol and Johnny were both convicted and sent to prison for 27 of the 56 robberies. The other robberies were past the statute of limitations to be prosecuted.
Carol (who was born in 1960) got a lighter prison sentence of 20 years, because she was just the getaway driver in these robberies. Carol was released from prison in 2011. Johnny (who was born in 1951) was the one in this bank-robbing duo who actually went into the banks for the armed robberies, so he was sentenced to 92 years in prison. However, he got an extremely lucky break and was released in 2021, because his health issues put him at a more likely risk of getting infected by COVID-19. If not for the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s probable that Johnny would have spent the rest of his life in prison.
The filmmakers of “Carol & Johnny” wisely chose to interview only a small number of people for the documentary: Carol, Johnny, Helen Williams (Johnny’s stepmother), Cindy Hawkins (Carol’s sister) and former FBI agent Don Glasser, who worked in the Seattle area during the period of time that Johnny and Carol went on their crime sprees. The reason why it was necessary for the documentary to avoid being overstuffed with too many talking heads is because too many other people being interviewed would have been distractions to the “he said/she said” way that the movie is structured. Glasser, Hawkins and Johnny’s stepmother Helen provide their own perspectives, but the two people who inspired the title of this documentary are the main focus and get most of the screen time.
The beginning of “Carol & Johnny” (which was filmed in 2021) shows Johnny living in Seattle, not long after he has been released from prison. His entire family has disowned him. His stepmother Helen doesn’t mince words when she talks about Johnny: “He’s spent his whole life with his hand out, wanting something.” She adds that “he’s not welcome” in her home.
The movie shows Johnny living in a halfway house for ex-convicts called Pioneer Fellowship House. Just like any halfway house for former prisoners, Pioneer Fellowship House has strict rules for the residents, such as curfews and not doing anything that would violate their paroles. During a documentary interview, Johnny gets a phone call from his parole officer (a woman named Jennifer) and he’s seen briefly talking with her on the phone.
In a documentary interview, Johnny comments on his life out of prison: “I’m trying to put my life together. I’ve been separated from society for so long.” Johnny is still learning how to use a cell phone. He also mentions that he wants to go to a vocational school for computer technology. Considering that he has a prison record for felonies, he has health problems, and he’s at an age when most people have retired, Johnny is going to have major obstacles if he plans to look for a job.
He knows it too, which is why his experience of life after prison is much more difficult than an ex-con who is still young enough to have a better chance of being employed. Someone like Johnny might be less motivated to find a job with all these odds stacked against him. But does that mean he’ll return to a life of crime? It’s a question that will linger in a lot of people’s minds when watching this movie. When “Carol & Johnny” director Barnicle (who’s not seen on camera) asks Johnny if he’ll ever rob a bank again, Johnny has this response: “Oh, fuck no!”
As for Carol, the beginning of the documentary shows her living in her Texas hometown of Dallas and being a live-in caretaker for her 93-year-old aunt, who has dementia. Carol is living rent-free in her aunt’s home, but Carol would rather have her own home. She also says that she doesn’t like living in Dallas. But just like Johnny, Carol is considered “unemployable” by a lot of people. It’s implied that Carol and her aunt are living off of government benefits, including disability income.
That’s because Carol, whose nickname was Mad Dog when she was in prison, got a brain injury as a prisoner. As she explains it, she was given too much water to drink in prison. Water intoxication (also known as hyponatremia) results in low sodium levels in the body. Carol says the prison treated this condition by giving her sodium, but the sodium levels were too high, which resulted in her brain injury.
Carol’s hesitant and stuttering speech patterns are indicative of someone with a brain injury, but she is still articulate enough to formulate her thoughts and communicate. She also has vivid memories of her time with Johnny, whom she hasn’t seen in person since 1995. What’s interesting is how Carol and Johnny clearly remember dates, places and times of milestones in their relationship.
When an estranged couple has spent decades living apart from each other, those memories usually tend to fade. But not for Johnny and Carol. Johnny remembers the last time he saw Carol in person was January 20, 1995, before they were sent to their respective prisons. “There wasn’t much to say,” Johnny remembers. “I just told her that I loved her and that I was sorry.”
For most of the documentary, Johnny and Carol act like a couple whose relationship was put on “pause” because of the time they spent in prison. They are still legally married. And the reason why they haven’t gotten divorced becomes obvious after seeing this movie: They say that they still love each other. Now that he’s out of prison, Johnny wants to get back together with Carol, but she isn’t sure if she wants the same thing.
In the beginning of the documentary, Carol says, “I love John. That will make some people angry, but I can’t help how they feel. I’m not responsible for anyone’s feelings but my own.” In other parts of the documentary, the filmmakers show Carol and Johnny photos of what Johnny and Carol currently look like. Carol’s reaction: “He looks much older, but so do I. Does he still cry a lot?” Johnny does cry a little in the documentary, but is he crying for himself or for Carol?
Carol says she wasn’t prepared for Johnny to ever be released from prison. She never visited him in the 10 years when she was out of prison and he was still incarcerated. She doesn’t want to visit him where he’s living in Washington state. She expects him to come visit her in Texas. Will Johnny do it? And why does Carol insist that Johnny go to her?
It’s not really said out loud, but viewers can see it has a lot to do with the dynamics of their relationship before they went to prison: Johnny was the pursuer, the one to take the lead, the one to come up with all the ideas and plans on how their lives would be. Carol wasn’t completely passive in their marriage. In the documentary, she says several times that she takes full responsibility for her own decisions and her own actions.
However, as Johnny and Carol tell their stories about their respective childhoods, and how they met, fell in love, and got married, it explains a lot about how they ended up in a relationship that turned out to be unhealthy and dangerous for both of them. It’s almost a cliché of a “good girl” who fell hard for a “bad boy.” But there’s more to it than that.
It has a lot to do with how childhood abuse can have long-lasting effects on someone’s self-esteem and the choices they can make in life. It also has to do with how people can meet each other, fall in love, and make completely different choices about the relationship, depending on what stage of life they’re in and what they want to get out of the relationship. All of these factors are part of Carol’s and Johnny’s life stories.
Johnny remembers the day that he met Carol was August 8, 1979. Carol says they met in Dallas, at the apartment that Carol’s sister shared with a boyfriend, who was a friend of Johnny’s. Johnny describes this fateful meeting with Carol: “I was 11 months out of prison, and she was 15 months out of high school. And it was like being turned loose in a candy story as a kid. It was fantastic.”
At 28 years old in 1979, Johnny was by, his own admission, a thief since childhood. When he met Carol, he was on parole for armed robbery of a convenience store. Carol knew all of that soon after meeting Johnny, and they quickly began dating each other. Her parents disapproved of the relationship.
Carol says of her relationship with Johnny at that time: “I was happy.” But there’s more to the story. Carol describes having a domineering mother who repeatedly told Carol that she “wouldn’t amount to anything.” Johnny says that when he and Carol eloped, it had a lot do with Carol wanting to get away from Dallas. The elopement was the first time that Carol really defied her mother.
Carol’s sister says of Carol’s decision to marry Johnny: “She could’ve done a hell of a lot better—trust me—but she had no self-confidence.” Carol says of her parents’ feelings about Johnny: “They learned to love him, until all that ‘other’ happened.” That “other” was the life of crime where Carol willingly followed Johnny.
Johnny’s childhood was much more chaotic than Carol’s childhood. Johnny was born in Waukegan, Illinois, and his mother gave him up to live in a Catholic group home when he was 5 months old. His maternal grandmother and her second husband then took custody of him in California and raised him in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Johnny barely knew his father, whom he describes as a deadbeat dad and a gambling addict.
“I was raised by old people,” says Johnny. “They believed in whippings and retribution.” His maternal grandmother’s second husband was named Claude Havens, who was an ex-deputy sheriff. “He was a salty cuss, and he wore me out with a razor strap,” Johnny remembers. “I always got whipped for stealing, but I kept on doing it.”
Johnny’s grandmother and her second husband got so fed up with raising Johnny, they sent him to live with the grandmother’s ex-husband. Things weren’t much better in this living situation. Carol has this to say about how Johnny’s abusive childhood had this effect on him: “He was numb to sensitivity to other people’s feelings.”
It sounds a lot like being a sociopath. And when you hear about the highly manipulative things that Johnny did to get Carol to do what he wanted, you don’t have to be a psychiatrist to reach that conclusion. Carol says that during their marriage, before they got arrested, “I was completely under his spell.” She also says that Johnny frequently got his way with her because he threatened to hurt her family if she ever left him.
These threats made Carol feel a warped sense of loyalty to Johnny. She explains her mindset at the time: “Protect my husband. Protect my spouse. That was my man, so that was my mission.”
In 1981, Johnny and Carol were working as independent carpet cleaners. In 1983, Johnny fell asleep behind the wheel of his truck, crashed it, and fractured his skull. After this accident, the couple couldn’t pay the rent where they lived. And it wasn’t long before Johnny decided to go back to stealing to get money.
In October 1985, he went to a library to read books about bank robberies. On April 3, 1986, the bank robbery spree began in Plano, Texas, with a robbery haul of $10,000. But there was a dye pack in the cash. The duo’s next bank robbery also had a dye pack in the stolen haul. By the third bank robbery, Johnny shot a bank manager, who fortunately survived. Johnny says the shooting was an “accident.” In 1987, during a bank robbery in Solano, Beach, California, he shot near a bank manager intentionally when she wasn’t moving quickly enough for him.
Carol says of the partnership that she and Johnny had in their crimes: “He’s the star. I’m just the associate. I was a damn good getaway driver.” Johnny and Carol got away with these bank robberies so easily, it became addicting to them. Johnny and Carol could steal more cash in a few minutes than what most people could make in a few months of doing honest work. Carol and Johnny eventually left Texas and moved to California. They decided early on in their crime spree that they wouldn’t rob banks that were very close to where they lived.
In their documentary interviews, Johnny and Carol say that they believe that they got away with their bank robbery spree for so long because they didn’t leave fingerprints at the crime scenes, because they meticulously planned everything, and because of Johnny’s signature bank robbery move of shooting his gun in the air immediately when he was in the bank. By shooting the gun right away, frightened potential witnesses would be more likely to avoid looking at the bank robber during the robbery, out of fear of getting shot.
The detailed planning included choosing banks that weren’t in crowded areas, finding out what time of day was the least-busiest when the targeted bank was open, and calculating the exact time each possible scenario would take to rob the bank and get away. Carol says that they always preferred a bank where the getaway car could be parked in a place nearby that was as hidden as possible, to make it less likely that any witnesses could describe the car. In the documentary, Carol describes each bank robbery as a “job” that she and Johnny took as seriously as a real job.
Because of Johnny’s tactic of scaring potential witnesses and averting their eyes by shooting a gun in the air as soon as the robbery started, witness descriptions of him varied wildly in the first few years of the robbery sprees. There were some images of him captured on surveillance cameras during robberies, but these images were often blurry, and he always disguised himself. The media came up with different nicknames for him, including the Bang Bandit, the Shootist, the Bang Man and the Lincoln Bandit.
As outlaws, Carol and Johnny used the stolen money to travel a lot, gamble, and dine in upscale restaurants. Carol says that before becoming a bank robber, “I never traveled very much.” She comments on all the vacation trips that she took: “It was fun. It was a learning experience.” She later says of this life of leisure funded by stolen money: “I got spoiled.”
During one of their vacations, Carol and Johnny went to White Sands National Park in New Mexico. It’s against the law to steal any of the white sand in the park, but chronic thief Johnny wanted to steal some sand anyway. Carol says she remembers feeling very nervous about stealing the sand. “It was against the law!” she says with horror. Oh, the irony.
And during this period of time of being an outlaw, Johnny actually made money by entering bowling tournaments. He created a fake identity for his life as a competitive bowler: Robert James Hall. If people asked Carol and Johnny where they were getting the money for their lavish spending, they would say it was through the bowling tournaments. And sometimes, Johnny would say to certain people that he was a drug dealer. Johnny’s stepmother Helen says, “We knew he was up to something, but we never dreamed it was robbing banks.”
The good times for Carol and Johnny didn’t last forever. By 1994, Carol says she was ready to quit robbing banks, but Johnny didn’t want to stop. And he got careless with his double life as a bowler. Someone called in a tip to law enforcement about Johnny using a fake name for his bowling tournaments. And that’s what led to him getting on the radar of law enforcement and his eventual arrest.
It’s not mentioned in the “Carol & Johnny” documentary, but according to a New York Post interview, Johnny says that the informant was a former acquaintance named Bob. According to Johnny, Bob was in talks with Johnny to do a home invasion of a bank manager’s home. The idea was to force the bank manager to give up security information that Johnny could use while robbing the manager’s bank. The plan for the home invasion fell through. Johnny says that Bob then turned on Johnny by telling law enforcement about Johnny’s secret life as a bank robber.
As one of the FBI agents involved in the investigation, Glasser comments, “I felt like I was a lucky guy to have that case.” Johnny and Carol were put under surveillance. Glasser says that Johnny and Carol were arrested without incident at a motel in Bothell, Washington, where they were staying after a bank robbery in Kirkland, Washington. Carol and Johnny paid for the motel room with a credit card with Johnny’s real name, which is how law enforcement found them. Once in custody, “Johnny confessed immediately” to the bank robberies, says Glasser.
Johnny and Carol don’t talk too much in the documentary about what their lives were like in prison. Instead, the biggest question that the documentary asks and what viewers will want to know is: “Will Carol and Johnny get back together?” There are a few twists and revelations in the movie, but they’re not too surprising. What makes “Carol & Johnny” fascinating to watch is it will also make viewers ask another question: “Should Carol and Johnny get back together?”