Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx started working out in 2012 to cope with the grief after her mother’s death from cancer.

That’s when she met Juan Johnson at the gym, where he was a muscular trainer trying to hide his tattoos. Soon, he was her personal trainer.

The two bonded over their similar backgrounds. Foxx grew up in the now-demolished public Cabrini-Green housing complex; Johnson grew up in a rough part of Humboldt Park.

“We had personal intimate conversations about our life and her life where she grew up and stuff like that,” Johnson said. “She just opened my eyes to a lot of stuff.”

When Foxx knew him, Johnson was a 210-pound weightlifting fanatic. Now, he weighs 140 pounds because of heroin use, which he resumed about five years ago following a long stretch of sobriety when he ran his training business and counted Foxx among his clients.

“It’s so painful, actually, to hear that he is not doing well,” Foxx said after hearing about Johnson’s recent troubles. “It breaks my heart.”

Juan C. Johnson, 50, in Humboldt Park this summer. (Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times)

Johnson was among several hundred low-level drug possession cases the Better Government Association and the Chicago Sun-Times randomly examined.

The arrests were concentrated in swaths of the West Side, where drugs are sold at open-air markets, and most of the people arrested were older Black men such as Johnson. Under state law, possession of any amount of controlled substance — even just the residue left in a baggie — is an automatic felony.

In interviews, Johnson revealed his relationship with Foxx during a discussion about his fitness career. He said he was Foxx’s trainer at a gym for a few years, and he did not do drugs during that period.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx remembers Johnson as “a sweet, humble guy.” (Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times)

For him, the arrest was humiliating. He said he stopped communicating with Foxx because he was embarrassed about his drug use and legal struggles stemming from it.

Foxx said she didn’t know about it. She remembers Johnson as “a sweet, humble guy.” He’d gotten out of prison for a federal gun conviction and had worked hard to become a trainer at the LA Fitness in Broadview, where they became friends, Foxx said.

“He talked about the struggle of finding employment and how grateful he was — with having the record that he had — to be able to do this,” she said.

“I think I paid him $30 an hour. I spent four mornings a week with him, 6 o’clock every day. He was on time every time.”

Johnson was arrested for drug possession in 2017, about a year and a half after he said he started using heroin again. A Chicago police officer pulled over his car in Brighton Park while he was working as a ride-share driver. Police said they found a straw and 0.4 grams of heroin in his wallet and towed his car. He was in jail for a week until he was released on bail. About two weeks later, his case was dismissed.

Johnson said he had to pay $3,000 to get his car out from the police impound lot. Last year, the city lowered such fees, which Mayor Lori Lightfoot had promised to do during her campaign.

Johnson also lost his job because of the arrest. He wondered: “Am I going to go back to the streets?” He said he eventually got another job, but the arrest set him back financially.

Johnson remembers when Foxx was elected state’s attorney for the first time in 2016. He said he went on LinkedIn and congratulated her for “knocking out” incumbent State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.

“I still got [Foxx’s] text that said, ‘She should have known better to go up against me,’ ” Johnson said.

But he said he was too ashamed about his arrest to congratulate Foxx on winning reelection in November 2020.

In an interview on a Humboldt Park bench, Johnson recalled his old life as a trainer. At the peak, he said, he made $5,500 per month training clients. This was during a period of sobriety he describes as one of the happiest periods of his life, when he had money, stability and peace of mind.

Watch the conversations about the series here.

“And I let that go,” he said.

Foxx said she’s familiar with that.

“People in my family have struggled with addiction and arrests,” she said.

“The reality is for so many people who maybe are not ready for services or who have tried it for multiple years or who cannot unstick themselves from the addiction, it is just this unending cycle for them and for the people who love them, who root for them.”

Casey Toner and Jared Rutecki are reporters for the Better Government Association. Frank Main is a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. This story uses data from The Circuit, a courts data project by Injustice Watch and the BGA, in partnership with civic tech consulting firm DataMade. The University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center for Health Journalism provided support for the project through a 2021 National Fellowship.

Casey Toner, a Chicago native, has been an Illinois Answers reporter since 2016, taking the lead on numerous projects about criminal justice and politics. His series on police shootings in suburban Cook County resulted in a state law requiring procedural investigations of all police shootings in Illinois. Before he joined Illinois Answers, he wrote for the Daily Southtown and was a statewide reporter for Alabama Media Group, a consortium of Alabama newspapers. Outside of work, he enjoys watching soccer and writing music.

Jared Rutecki manages the Illinois Answers databases, and creates stories on state and local government matters, including pensions, payroll and public safety. He has sent more than 1,500 public-records requests a year on average since 2016.

Jared was an Annenberg National Health Fellow at the University of Southern California in 2021. He has won local and national reporting honors including the Sigma Delta Chi and Eugene S. Pulliam First Amendment awards.