From the archives: Mental Illness Plagued Church Musical Director

Times Staff Writers

Pianist Roger Williams called Johnnie Carl late Thursday afternoon. Williams was playing Christmas Eve at the Crystal Cathedral, where Carl was musical director, and the two men needed to talk.

Carl’s voice was almost unintelligible, more growling than talking. “I’m going to kill myself,” Carl said, and then he hung up on the man he called his best friend.

“He was just completely out of his mind,” Williams said.

Williams called the Yorba Linda house again 20 minutes later, hoping to get Carl’s wife, Linda. No one was home, so he called the Crystal Cathedral. No one answered.

It was about that time that Carl walked into the steel-and-glass building in Garden Grove, pulled out a pistol, fired four shots — apparently aiming at no one — and barricaded himself inside his basement office.

Nine hours later, the church’s renowned musical director followed through on his threat and killed himself early Friday, minutes after police moved within a few feet of him.


Carl’s suicide came amid one of his most important times of the year, when the cathedral performs “The Glory of Christmas,” two weeks of daily extravaganzas that include spectacular theatrics and Carl’s musical arrangements. Thursday night’s performances were canceled.

Carl was among the most prominent arrangers and composers of sacred music. His most recent CD with Williams went platinum, and he received a gold record as an arranger/orchestrator on John Tesh’s “Live From Red Rocks.” His music has been performed by Celine Dion, the London Symphony and Michael Crawford, among others.

He had written more than 3,500 arrangements, including 200 for hymns.

“This guy was just brilliant, and he’d write the most beautiful music,” Williams said.

Carl, 57, had struggled with bipolar disorder and severe depression for years and had threatened suicide before, friends and church officials said. “There were other incidents when he had gone off his medication,” cathedral spokesman John Charles said. “There were points of depression. [But] it was never anything like this.”

Bill Gaultiere, head of counseling services at the Crystal Cathedral, said Carl sought pastoral support for his illness many times over the last 30 years.

Church spokesman Michael Nason said church founder the Rev. Robert H. Schuller and his wife had counseled Carl. “They were very, very close.”

Williams said Carl had been hospitalized for his illness several times, most recently about a month ago. Williams said that when Carl returned home, he said he was fine. “He would have these tremendous periods … and then he’d have these terrible lows.”

Early Thursday, Carl showed no sign of what was to come, Schuller told staff members Friday.

Later, Carl argued with a cathedral employee, which seemed to set him off, Garden Grove police said. It was unclear what the argument was about. Carl retreated to his office and fired four shots. The noise drew several people to his office. Waving his gun, he yelled, “Get out of here!” Police received a call from someone inside the church offices at 4:46 p.m. about the gunshots.

During the 30 to 45 minutes it took hostage negotiators to arrive, Carl called his wife and others, police Lt. Mike Handfield said. Among them was his psychiatrist, whom Carl told he would kill himself if he heard his name mentioned in the media, Handfield said.

When Carl asked what Schuller would be saying to reporters, police believed he was watching TV or checking the Internet. To cut off his access, police shut off most of the electricity in the building about 8:30 p.m., which also shut off the telephones. That forced officers to yell at Carl through his office door. “It was a real communication barrier,” Handfield said.

Police played Carl a taped message from a friend who had convinced him not to commit suicide months earlier, but he didn’t respond. He stopped talking, and police were concerned that the tape had done more harm than good. Unable to draw Carl into productive conversation or get him to open his office door, SWAT leaders forced open the door at 1:50 a.m. to give him a direct telephone line to negotiators. Police saw Carl seated at his desk, his wedding ring and watch resting on top. When he saw the door open, Carl paused, then grabbed the pistol and ran into a bathroom, locking the door behind him, police said.

After a short conversation with negotiators, police heard a single gunshot at 1:58 a.m.

“It could have gone on longer, but we really think that if we had waited, it would have been the same result,” Handfield said. “We were aware throughout this that he’d made this decision [to commit suicide]…. He was going to do this no matter what.”

Roger Clark, a retired Los Angeles County sheriff’s lieutenant who works as an expert witness on police procedures, said authorities usually try to wait out someone who has barricaded himself unless they believe he’ll kill himself immediately.

He also said that when police move in, they should know the layout of the room so they can cut off escape routes. In this case, Carl fled to the bathroom.

“Then he’s cooped up and there’s no way out except to put himself in the hands of the officers,” Clark said. “You could imagine the shame. He’d rather be dead,” he speculated.

Performances of “The Glory of Christmas” resumed Friday, but not before cast members held hands backstage and prayed for Carl. “If there is one person in the audience tonight who is in the same place that Johnnie was, this is for [that person],” stage manager Bodie Newcomb said.

“We had tickets for last night, but saw what was happening on TV and didn’t even bother to come,” said David Coleson, visiting from Colorado with his wife. He said they’d decided to come Friday instead. “There’s no question that we’ll be thinking about him [tonight],” Coleson said before the 6:30 p.m. show.

Carl had worked at the Crystal Cathedral for nearly 30 years. He lived in Yorba Linda with his wife of 28 years, Linda, and their children: Brandon, 23; Eva; 20 and Allison, 15.

Williams said he last saw Carl about a month ago, when Carl flew to Atlanta to watch the pianist perform at former President Carter’s 80th birthday.

Carl was in great spirits, but when Williams talked to him a week ago about the Christmas Eve shows, his friend seemed down. “We always said we’d play for each other’s funeral,” Williams said. “He said, ‘Play “The Rose” at mine.’ ”

Times staff writers David Haldane and H.G. Reza contributed to this report.