110 W. New York Ave.
DeLand, FL 32720
By Jen Horton
posted Nov 26, 2012 - 10:44:12am
Jennifer Johnson’s personal journal was used in court Nov. 19 to provide evidence against the place she calls home.
Johnson is the primary animal-caretaker at the Animal Rescue Konsortium (ARK) shelter in DeLand. She lives there. Her story indicates there may have been more than one kind of “rescue” going on inside the shelter, which is housed in a restored historic home at 441 S. Woodland Blvd.
“It’s so quiet in here,” Johnson said, the day after the court hearing.
In her journal, Johnson had documented the animals’ veterinary care and medicine doses. She wrote down when she cleaned and what she cleaned, and documented her feelings of frustration that there was not more help available.
Johnson and her husband, Daniel, started out with ARK as foster parents for rescued animals. That is how they came to know ARK President Maggi Hall.
Things had been hard for the couple, but they had a lot of love to give.
“This has been one of our dreams, running an animal shelter,” Jennifer Johnson said. “Before we lived here, we fostered, and we had a good adoption.”
The couple had fallen on hard times. Johnson was let go from her job after she missed work for medical reasons. She and her husband lived on his fast-food paycheck.
They borrowed money from a friend to buy a trailer in a rent-to-own deal and, for a while, things were looking up. They were going to own a home. The bills were getting paid — barely — but life was going well, Jennifer Johnson said.
Then her husband lost his job.
“The lights got cut off,” she said. “We lived in the dark for about a month.”
Someone lent them a generator so they could prepare meals.
The landlord had a buyer for the trailer, and told the couple to vacate.
“I thought we had until June 15 to get out,” Johnson said. “I went on June 12 to pack our things, and they’d already been gone through, and the trailer cleaned out.”
All of the couple’s possessions had been thrown to the curb as trash, and picked clean of valuables.
“Maggi was out of town,” Johnson said. “We were scared to call her at first, because we didn’t know her. She said, ‘You can stay at the center.’”
The deal was that the couple would care for the animals in exchange for a roof over their heads.
It was a good deal, Johnson said. She got to do what she loved — help animals — and she wasn’t forced to be homeless with no belongings.
“I knew the deal when I came here,” she said. “We had already talked about that.”
Johnson cared for the animals around the clock, and kept a journal documenting her activities. That was the journal that was used in court. In some entries, Johnson wrote that she wasn’t sure how long she could continue without help.
Johnson said it wasn’t fair that her words were used to make the place she calls home look bad.
“They used my personal diary against me,” she said. “You know, some days you have an off day, and you want to give in. I may give in, but I never give up.”
Johnson said the number of animals housed at ARK would have been manageable, had she had the number of volunteers she expected.
She had only praise for ARK President Hall.
“Maggi has been good to us,” Johnson said. “She’s been like a mother.”
Hall was also dismayed about the way Johnson’s diary was used.
“I was ashamed for the City of DeLand,” Hall said.
Hall said she and the Johnsons had created a win-win situation.
“It’s been so wonderful,” Hall said. “They have grown so, really developed, and they are totally devoted to the animals. Jennifer was getting up every two hours at one point and feeding baby kittens with an eyedropper.”
Hall taught special education for 30 years. She said helping — people and animals — is where her heart’s passion lies.
Helping the Johnsons avoid homelessness, which helped the animals, was what Hall called a “double whammy.”
Jennifer Johnson said Hall gave her money to help with the medical needs of the Johnsons’ personal animals.
“She stands by us,” Jennifer Johnson said.
Critics of ARK have talked about Daniel Johnson’s status with the State of Florida as a registered sex offender, which prevented him from residing at the ARK shelter because of DeLand’s residency regulations for sex offenders.
Jennifer Johnson talked openly about that.
“When we were living in Okeechobee, there were no restrictions,” she said. “When we heard that he had to register here, he went right down to do it, because that was the right thing to do. Then we find out that he can’t live here.”
Dragging the couple through the mud, in Jennifer Johnson’s opinion, wasn’t done with the animals in mind.
“That was political,” she said.
DeLand Police Department records show Daniel Johnson was arrested Oct. 26 at the ARK shelter, on an open warrant for “failure to register as a sex offender.” Volusia County records don’t show him booked at the Volusia County Branch Jail on that date, and the state sex-offender registry lists him as “transient” when he registered on Sept. 18, 2012.
The state website also indicates Daniel Johnson’s status originated with a 1996 conviction for sexual assault in Michigan, when he was 22 years old.
Thirteen days after Johnson’s Oct. 26 arrest, police executed a search warrant at the shelter, and seized the animals.
Daniel Johnson said he was not denying that he is a registered sex offender. He pleaded guilty to the 1996 charge, he said, to expedite his release from jail for family purposes. He said he served three months in jail for the charge.
Daniel Johnson said that he does not have a permanent address, and has registered as transient.
“I’m just trying to live my life,” he said. “I’m just trying to keep busy. My wife and I are trying to start our lives over.”
Jennifer Johnson said Daniel Johnson “comes and goes” at the shelter, since he isn’t legally able to live there.
She said he receives $146 every two weeks in unemployment benefits. The couple also receives food stamps.
They have little, but count the blessings they do have.
“We have to pay for our personal items, and insurance on the van, gas to get places; there goes $146,” Johnson said.
She doesn’t get out to many places, though.
Asked how often she leaves the ARK center, Johnson brushed off the question. She said there hadn’t been much help, and the animals needed her.
Johnson needed them, too.
“For now, I’m happy here,” she said. “Everybody has problems, whether you’re rich or poor. I would rather be poor and loved than rich and unloved.”
The Beacon asked her if the cats loved her.
“Yes,” she said. “I’d wake up and say ‘Good morning, my babies,’ and they’d all stand up in their cages and reach up for me.”
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