By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
It doesn't matter now if Wild Kitten's $12,000 was lost or stolen. Orange County members of the PENI gang, a subsidiary of the Aryan Brotherhood, concluded that Cory Christian Lamons had swiped the stripper's money. Sadly for Lamons, PENI (a.k.a. Public Enemy Number One Death Squad) devised a way to right this perceived wrong. Worse for the 26-year-old Laguna Niguel resident, the gang also took a break from running narcotics, weapons and identity theft rings to concoct a solution: they'd lure Lamons to a Huntington Beach apartment, launch a surprise attack, torture him, gain a confession and locate the missing money. The plan might have had better results if gang members hadn't repeatedly struck the victim's skull with a steel claw hammer as he entered the trap. It's unclear when they realized their mistake. Was it when Lamons stopped screaming two minutes after the attack began? Or was it when they pondered all of the blood, bone and brain matter that covered the walls, floors and furniture?
Call Billy Joe Johnson—a.k.a. BJ Psycho—unlucky, and not just because he's missing his upper front teeth. The 42-year-old Costa Mesa white supremacist, onetime electrician shop employee, divorced father of two boys and PENI gang member can't remember all the times he's been arrested. Methamphetamine, heroin and alcohol addictions tend to ruin memory. But his rap sheet includes robbery, residential burglary, aggravated assault, grand theft, street terrorism and possession of narcotics. We can presume that Johnson has a significant learning disability. Following three stints in state prison since the 1980s, he relocated trouble after each return to freedom. In fact, twice within about a week in April 2004, Huntington Beach cops found corpses in his presence. One of the bodies belonged to Heather Joy Caronna, who died after a fatal injection of methamphetamine as Johnson and his girlfriend, 26-year-old Suzanne Nicole Miller, looked on.
The other body belonged to Lamons.
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Helicopter pilots for Orange County law-enforcement agencies often have little to do when they're not performing political missions, harassing investigative reporters, or secretly flying ranking, married cops and their girlfriends to romantic locations. So you can imagine their adrenalin rush when an informant told cops on April 6, 2004, that Johnson and Miller hoped to take a corpse to a remote location and burn it. For six hours, police on the ground and in the air followed the pair (and an entourage of mostly twentysomething fellow PENI members or associates in two other vehicles) from locations in Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach to the Irvine Marriott parking lot, a Jewish temple in Newport Beach (your guess is as good as mine), a shopping center, a deli and then northbound on the 55 freeway. Cops finally stopped the gang in Riverside County. Gun-drawn officers found a gruesome sight in the flatbed of a Ford F150 driven by Johnson: a bloody, battered corpse wrapped in plastic and a blanket and hidden underneath a pile of firewood. The coroner determined that Lamons had died from blunt force head injuries and methamphetamine intoxication.
In most jurisdictions the Johnson drama would have ended with his arrest. But this is Orange County, and once a story moves into the jail system, anything is possible. Take, for instance, this proposition: charged with murder and placed in a maximum security cell at the Theo Lacy jail, Johnson wouldn't be able to obtain recreational drugs. After all, he's an inmate locked behind steel, concrete, barbed wire, cameras and an army of deputies around the clock. Nevertheless, on Mother's Day 2004—just weeks after his arrest—Johnson planned to celebrate the holiday with a stash of methamphetamine. Listening over the cell's intercom system, officers heard him talking to his cellmate about "puffing" a substance. They raced to the cell as Johnson put something in his mouth and began to quickly chew. Deputies ordered him to stop. He refused and—some might call this justice—suffered his own blunt force injuries. One witness said angry guards beat Johnson like he was a piŮata—holding him up by his feet and striking him. He spent a week in the hospital.
PENI, which also reportedly goes by PEN1 and was started by skinheads in California prisons, is a rival to the Nazi Low Riders. Both violent gangs vie for Aryan Brotherhood affections, according to law enforcement. It seems there are limits, however, to PENI's racist dogma. Johnson has hired a Japanese-American lawyer, Gilbert M. Nishimura, and a Mexican-American lawyer, Rey L. Ochoa. Nishimura and Ochoa's job isn't to win Johnson's upcoming murder trial. That job goes to renowned Newport Beach attorney Michael Molfatta. Ochoa and Nishimura have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against jail deputies for excessive use of force. Asked if he thought it was ironic that he's representing a white supremacist, Ochoa laughed and said, "Yeah, I guess you could say that. When I came to see Billy the first time, the guards looked at me and said, 'You can't represent him! You're a Mexican!' I just smiled. They hate people like Billy in that jail."
At the heart of every guard's use of force is the claim of fear. In Johnson's situation, the officers unloaded a can of pepper spray into his face after he declined to spit out the methamphetamine. Most people would probably lift their hands to their face in hopes of soothing burning eyeballs, which was Johnson's reaction. But the deputies who'd surrounded him said the move was unexpected and frightened them. "Fearing for my safety," Deputy K. Kelly wrote in his incident report, "I began punching him in his face." As Kelly punched, another deputy put Johnson in a chokehold and threw him to the ground, where as many as 10 additional deputies piled on. The county's official version of events is rather bland: deputies "attempted to secure" Johnson, got him on the ground, handcuffed him and then sent him to a hospital.
Witness statements obtained by the Weekly tell a different story. "Once Billy was restrained, the guards began to beat him severely," reported one inmate. "Somebody put a chokehold on Billy and others were beating, pummeling and twisting his body. At one point, they pulled Billy by his feet [off the ground] so that his face was dragged and scraped across the cement ground."
Another inmate called it the worst beating he'd ever witnessed. He said that 30 minutes after the incident, deputies asked him what he'd seen. He asked why. A deputy allegedly said, "Because depending on what you saw determines whether you will be committing suicide." A short time later, three deputies encircled him and asked if he'd had time to think over what he'd witnessed. This time he told the guards that he "didn't see shit." He said the deputies smiled and walked away.
"I was just flabbergasted when I saw what the deputies did to Billy's face," said Ochoa. "His head looked like cauliflower. I think that's why they hid him in the hospital for four days. They didn't want anyone to know what they'd done."