Longform

The Shape of Things to Con

Snell Johnson was in trouble. A successful businessman one day, the target of an SEC investigation the next.

So begins a 1992 segment of "The Rest of the Story," a syndicated program in which radio commentator Paul Harvey "completes" a tale by revealing behind-the-scenes information in that halting, highly inflected, unmistakable Paul Harvey style.

In this segment, Harvey breathily tells his listeners that Johnson was once well-off. He had developed a prosperous company that provided satellite communications systems for merchant ships.

But then Johnson's partner was accused of committing a securities fraud. Johnson himself was charged with aiding and abetting.

Having lost his business in the wake of the scandal, Johnson was looking for a way to make money. He discovered a talent by accident.

. . . He got this idea for selling small bronze statues of football players through NFL franchises. He was certain of his market, but he couldn't find a sculptor whose work pleased him. So one night he took home some clay and decided to sculpt a football player himself. And whaddaya know! It looked pretty good.

In 1982, Harvey continues, Johnson was convicted in regard to the fraud--despite his insistence of innocence--and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

There were times Snell thought that he wouldn't make it through, even times he considered tying his bedsheets together and hanging himself.

Five years later, Johnson was paroled, Harvey intones.
It was time to start over. But how? Doing what? And then Snell remembered the little bronze football players. It would never make him rich, he reasoned, but he needed to find some kind of work, something an ex-con could do without being asked a lot of questions.

So, Harvey relates, Johnson moved to Mesa and began to sculpt.
. . . Now let's flash forward to 1992, this year. This year, you visit the Scottsdale Galleria in Scottsdale, Arizona. You will be drawn to an establishment called the Artex Galleries. . . . And the solitary artist whose work is represented here last year sold three and a half million dollars' worth of monument-size statues.

His name--quickly becoming legendary in the American artistic community--is Snell Johnson. That's right, the same Snell Johnson. But some of us still remember those first little bronze football players, and the very heavy price that one artist paid to be vindicated--and now to be celebrated . . .

And now you know The Rest of the Story.

Not quite.
It is certainly true that Snell Johnson has become well-known for his sculpture.

His larger-than-life bronze horses, deer and people are mounted at the entrances of Indian casinos, residential subdivisions and tourist attractions all over the West.

A pair of Johnson's eagles grace the lawn of Paul Harvey's home in the Arizona Biltmore Estates.

Boxer Mike Tyson recently commissioned Johnson to create life-size statues of Alexander the Great, Hannibal and Genghis Khan, along with a gargantuan Islamic priest, kneeling in prayer, that will be placed in the middle of Tyson's swimming pool at his Las Vegas home.

By employing shortcuts--he creates some of the forms he will bronze with foam, rather than the traditional method of crafting wire skeletons--and working long hours, Johnson has become to bronze sculpture what Judith Krantz is to literature: prolific and commercial.

And whether they are masterpieces or Western schlock, Johnson's artworks clearly do have value. At times, however, that value may be related as much to the IRS code as to artistic judgment: Snell Johnson has marketed at least some of his sculptures as sophisticated tax shelters.

In fact, Johnson's financial past and present are far more complicated than Paul Harvey's description would suggest.

(Harvey did not respond to repeated requests for an interview; Johnson says the two met when Harvey visited Johnson's gallery at the Galleria.)

Federal court documents call Johnson a career swindler who has used the names of Mormon Church officials to further his scams. His 1982 conviction--a prosecutor remembers the crime as the most egregious white-collar fraud he's ever seen--was not Johnson's first brush with the law. In 1974, he pleaded guilty to selling unregistered securities. He was convicted of lying to a bank in 1979.

And in the years since his 1987 release from prison, Johnson has drawn the wrath of investors and employees--some of them Mormons--who say he owes them money--sometimes large amounts of money. At least one investor is accusing him in court papers of returning to old ways by committing securities fraud.

The recent complaints about Johnson are spelled out in a series of lawsuits filed in federal and state court in Phoenix:

* Robert Russoli, a Pennsylvania businessman, is suing Johnson and his companies--Artex, The International Fine Art Exchange, Inc., American Heritage Group, American Art and Artex Galleries--claiming he invested almost $200,000 in an online art sales business, but much of that money was diverted to other Johnson enterprises. Russoli also charges that Johnson sold unregistered securities.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.