Crime

She hoped burned boy would 'have a chance at life.' 29 years later, he sits in jail

The headline described a man arrested for shooting a woman, but the photo of that man, Johnny Anthony Carter, conveyed a memory of a little boy, badly burned and struggling to heal.

Johnny Anthony Carter was 7 years old when he was playing with a cigarette lighter in his family's station wagon. The lighter had run out of gas and been tossed. Still, it created a spark.

The spark ignited a fire in a milk jug his father had filled with gas for his lawnmower. The jug disintegrated. There was an explosion. Johnny's father escaped from the driver's seat. In back, Johnny was badly burned.

Doctors later determined that he suffered second- and third-degree burns over 80 percent of his body, the most severe from the waist up.

His family allowed a Sun Herald reporter and photographer to follow Johnny as he underwent painful surgeries followed by excruciating physical therapy. The story and photographs covered two pages inside The Sun Herald's Oct. 15, 1989, edition.

Here he was, 30 years later, a mugshot on the home page of sunherald.com.

The 37-year-old is in jail and inaccessible, awaiting a preliminary hearing on June 20, when his attorney, Tim Holleman, will try to get Carter's bond reduced from the current $250,000.

Decades ago, Holleman filed a lawsuit for Carter and his family. Dixie Gas, where Carter's father filled up that milk jug, paid a confidential settlement for selling gas without an attendant on duty to prevent use of an unauthorized container, at the time a violation of fire codes.

The settlement was confidential but, suffice it to say, Carter receives a monthly check and had enough money to buy a house, the same house where he is accused of shooting the woman, a cousin of his mother's.

His mother, Evelina Carter, does not like to talk about her son being so badly burned. She remembers when she couldn't hug or touch him, could see him only through a glass window. There were trips to hospitals in Mobile and Shriners Hospitals for Children in Texas and Louisiana.

Evelina Carter.jpg
Evelina Carter Anita Lee calee@sunherald.com

And, eventually, there was a return to school. Other children picked on him and called him names, Evelina Carter said, but Johnny didn't let it get to him.

The adults in Johnny Carter's life made sure he had a chance. There was Julia Belcher, who was his occupational therapist back in 1989.

He wasn't laughing when she met him, not at all. Nine months into therapy, Belcher told the Sun Herald: "He's a totally different person than he was, no question about it. He didn't play. He didn't smile. Now, he's an 8-year-old boy."

The therapist, now Julia Hetherington, remembers an adult female who saw Carter while they were out shopping and called him Freddy Krueger, a burnt serial killer from the horror film "A Nightmare on Elm Street."

“He was just real special, he really was," said Hetherington, who now lives in South Carolina. "He would come to therapy. He tried so hard. Adults were mean. People are not real nice sometimes when they see a little boy who has raw wounds and he doesn't have lips.

“I wondered what his future would be like. I wondered how much chance he would have in life.”

His mom said Johnny finished high school. He has never worked, living instead on disability and his lawsuit settlement. Evelina Carter said Johnny has a pool room upstairs in their house. He likes to play pool.

On the one hand, Evelina Carter said, he mostly keeps to himself. On the other, she said he has been having too many people over to the house she shares with him. She wants it to stop.

She said the woman who was shot attacked Johnny Carter first with a bottle after he asked her — more than once — to leave. The gash on his forehead, where the woman allegedly hit him, is visible in his jail mugshot.

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Johnny Anthony Carter, 37, is in jail and inaccessible, awaiting a preliminary hearing on June 20, when his attorney, Tim Holleman, will try to get Carter's bond reduced from the current $250,000. Courtesy of Harrison County Adult Detention Center

Carter's been getting in trouble with the law since at least 2011. His criminal record shows his previous arrests have all been alcohol-related.

His mom said Johnny has had a hard time since the death of his father last August. His father left her and their three children when Carter was around 9 years old.

"Before he passed," Evelina Carter said, "he came and said he was sorry he walked away from the kids."

Holleman says Carter would hardly remember a time before he was burned.

"Johnny has done pretty well, other than the recent past," said Holleman, who began representing Carter in 1990. "It's got to be difficult and it hurts to see him in jail. Hopefully, we'll get him out soon.”

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