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 was three years ago, but Bob Schoenkopf still remembers thinking something was wrong—seriously wrong—when he heard that Andrea Nelson was dead.
On Jan. 27, 2003, Nelson, an informant for the Tustin Police Department, where Schoenkopf worked as a captain, was brought to Hoag Hospital by a man twice her age. She was unconscious, not breathing and cold to the touch. Just a few days earlier, Schoenkopf recalls, Nelson's name had been released in connection with the department's investigation of Anthony Bryant, a police officer suspected of having unsavory ties to a Santa Ana topless bar, Mr. J's.
The case involved Bryant and two other officers from Buena Park who were friends with Sammy Johar, whose family owned Mr. J's. Johar, a former Tustin police explorer, provided his friends in uniform with off-duty jobs and sexual favors from Mr. J's dancers. Nelson was Johar's ex-girlfriend. After breaking up with Johar, Nelson told police everything she knew about him and his friends in local police departments, thus sparking one of the sleaziest scandals in the annals of Orange County law enforcement.
Bryant was fired, as were the two Buena Park cops; the Weekly has been unable to locate the former officers. After he jumped bail on a drug charge, Johar disappeared; he's still wanted. Mr. J's closed and is slated for demolition to make way for a Honda dealership.
And Andrea Nelson is dead.
As the Weekly has reported, Nelson's mother, Linda Cator, has filed a wrongful death suit against Homayan Bakhtar, the man who brought Nelson to the hospital. Bakhtar claims he's innocent of any wrongdoing.
Cator's suspicions were fueled when she received a tape recording made by Schoenkopf just a few months after Nelson's death, in which he stated she had been murdered. In it, Schoenkopf said Nelson and Lisa Piho, a former Mr. J's dancer who also became an informant, were the two most important witnesses in the case, and that Piho had faced death threats because of her testimony against Bryant and other police officers.
"Those threats were very real," Schoenkopf said on the tape. "Andrea Nelson got murdered in Newport Beach. We still don't know if it was related to this investigation or if it was something else she was involved in . . . It was very coincidental. Two days after we released Andrea Nelson's name, she got murdered."
In a recent interview, Schoenkopf, who has retired and now lives in the Pacific Northwest, recalled his suspicions about Nelson's death.
"It just seemed to me that there was just too much coincidence that she just turned up dead at the hospital door," Schoenkopf said. "Given the crowd that was involved in this—the drugs and bad cops—it was too much of a coincidence."
While they acknowledge such coincidences, prosecutors have accepted a coroner's report that determined Andrea Nelson died from a self-inflicted cocaine overdose.
In fact, the story of Nelson's death is full of bizarre coincidences.
Specifically, several former employees of Mr. J's—none of whom were interviewed by police or prosecutors—say Bakhtar was a close friend of Johar. Carlo Bonanni, who worked as a doorman at Mr. J's, says Bakhtar regularly hung out at Johar's house in Irvine, the scene of wild parties that often drew the attention of Irvine police. In fact, records obtained by the Weekly show that Bryant, whom friends called Tony, listed Johar's house as his own residence.
"Tony became his roommate over in Irvine," Bonanni said. "Sammy owned the house, but he rented Tony one of the rooms." He added that Bryant was a "good, close, tight friend" of Johar. Once, inside the club, Bonanni says, he saw Bryant flash his police badge at a disruptive Mr. J's customer. "They were trying to get this one customer out, and it was getting to be pretty radical," Bonanni said. "So Tony decided to help out and maybe this guy would respond and just leave the club . . . Bryant flashed his badge and said he was an off-duty officer, and still the gentleman didn't want to leave, so he left the hard way."
A Mr. J's dancer who asked not to be named said both Bryant and Bakhtar were involved in Johar's sex-for-cops scam—the very activity that Nelson revealed to police. They claim Bryant drove a limousine for Johar between Orange County and Las Vegas, and that Bakhtar often rode along.
"They were getting girls from Mr. J's and running them to and from Vegas—and the cops used to protect it," she said. "Tony Bryant was on [Johar's] payroll . . . he was working as a limousine driver . . . Everybody knew about it. All the girls knew about it because it was the good thing to do. If you hung out with [Bakhtar] and Sammy, if you were a dancer, you got free drugs and could get a substantial amount of money."
Schoenkopf confirmed that Tustin police were aware Bryant moonlighted as a limo driver for Johar.
"He was never charged for that," Schoenkopf said. Instead, the department charged him "with a bunch of infractions" related to his work for Johar. Bryant "wasn't exactly forthright and truthful in his statements to us," he added. "He'll never work in law enforcement again, thank God."