Q&A with Frank Johnson 

Sears Crosstown Building Manager

Much attention has been paid to the 1.4-million-square-foot Sears Crosstown building in recent months, following the announcement that the Church Health Center, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, West Clinic, and other tenants from the health-care, arts, and education fields will be part of the building's planned redevelopment.

But long before the vacant former Sears headquarters was back in the news, one man was holding down the fort, so to speak. Frank Johnson has served as the building manager/groundskeeper/occasional tour guide for Sears Crosstown since 2003.

Although he doesn't have a security background (Johnson used to own Ray Gammon's steakhouse on Summer), he patrols the expansive warehouse floors daily, looking for copper thieves and squatters. It's a job that has earned him the nickname "Sheriff of Crosstown." —

Flyer: What's your average day like?

Frank Johnson: I make a security check of the building when I first come over in the mornings. I'm checking for anything that would be alarming, but it's pretty quiet now compared to years ago. I don't have much trouble with people trying to get into the building. We have it so boarded and barred up, they have to work hard to get in the place. But they will try occasionally.

I'll make a run around the building on the exterior, and then I'll go inside the building to see if anything is out of order. Then I'll tidy up the parking lot.

I bet you had some crazy experiences securing the building when you started.

When I first got the job, it took me a few weeks to get familiar with the building, because it's possible for a person to walk in there and get lost. At the time, I had no idea that people were going to be interested in stealing the copper wire and trying to get in there to sleep.

Once I got two or three weeks under my belt, I realized I had a real tiger by the tail. There were guys who were housed in the building. I had to get rid of them. In the winter, they would start fires in trashcans to stay warm, and there was always the threat of a fire. It wasn't too long into the spring when, boy, all of a sudden they started stealing the wire. That became a big issue. There were miles and miles of it in the building.

How did you handle that by yourself?

I used to have the police over just about every day. In fact, I had an officer who sat in the parking lot during the day when I was there. We had between 40 and 50 guys arrested and charged with felony theft.

Up until three or four years ago, I was still having some problems, but then we finally got all of the windows on the first floor boarded up with plywood and two-by-fours. Also, anything of any significant value in the building is long gone.

Have you ever been scared?

I've had moments, particularly when I knew people were stealing the copper wire. I would come into the building like a mouse, really quiet, and maybe go up a floor or two and stand and listen. I could hear them working. Sometimes I could hear them talking. It could have gotten scary, and a couple of times it did.

The only other thing that was scary was an older man who had gotten into the building, and he was stone cold on whatever, alcohol or crack. He had laid down on the third floor with his feet sticking out of a doorway. We were really concerned that maybe he had expired, because we had a hard time waking him up. I had to kick him in the feet real hard before he finally rolled over. He was so out of his mind that we had to literally carry him down the stairs.

How do you feel about the planned redevelopment of the building?

I am thrilled that it will be developed. It looks like the real deal this time.

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