Chicken Babies, Bondage Nights and Severed Monkey Heads

True-life adventures with Richard Johnson, art provocateur

"In the old days, we would always have fires [illegally, but in a now-defunct location], and our neighbor Jim would bring us stuff to burn," he says. "One day, there's this big round piece of wood that's painted orange, with a log in the middle. And so I'm thinking, 'Oh, Jim brought me this to burn.' We're sitting out there that night, and we haven't started yet, and this old dude walks up. He's like, 'Did you get my art?' And I'm like, huh?

"I was two seconds from lighting this guy's art on fire to keep warm. It was a big circle with a damn log glued in the center, so how much more damn 'firewood' can you get?"

But many of the paintings at AAA Electra 99 are actually more traditional and straightforward. It's really up to the artists. Unlike other art galleries, Johnson says, there is absolutely no selection process. "I don't even want to see it before it's up there on my wall," he says. The approach seems to work; there is virtually no space left to rent. Spaces come in two sizes: $25 for a small space, $40 for a slightly larger space. Many of the artists don't even want to sell their stuff; they just lease space month after month, year after year, content that someone is viewing it.

These days, most of the gallery's regulars are teenage punk and metal bands, as well as their usually small groups of loyal followers. Because of requirements imposed by the city when the gallery moved to Anaheim, AAA Electra 99 has evolved into a relatively wholesome venue.

* * *

The rumor that Johnson was involved in Sudweeks' death seems to periodically rear its head among the teenagers who attend punk shows at AAA Electra 99, a sort of urban legend, according to Johnson's current girlfriend, Michelle Kim.

Shortly before 5 a.m. on Feb. 21, 1997, Johnson returned home from a night of cab driving to discover Sudweeks' body. Later news reports revealed she had been raped. Costa Mesa forensics personnel extracted a DNA sample believed to belong to the killer.

"Some of the detectives down there think it was probably a Mexican national just hanging out in the alley, a total random crime of opportunity," Johnson says. "Other detectives think it was some kind of stalker serial killer who was watching her for a long time. And other people think it was somebody we know.

"But it definitely wasn't somebody we know," he says. "She was so sweet. Nobody would do that to her."

Costa Mesa police spokesman Sergeant Frank Rudisill says finding the DNA sample spurred the department to launch a DNA dragnet. DNA samples were collected from hundreds of people who either knew Sudweeks or volunteered to be tested.

Rudisill says he's familiar with Johnson. He refers to him as a "difficult personality."

Johnson, as Sudweeks's boyfriend and the one who found her body, was initially a suspect. However, he was not a DNA match and had several witnesses, including a taxi dispatcher, confirm he was working that night. Johnson blames lazy police work for the DNA dragnet, which he says was done as a substitute for real detective work. He says he doesn't believe the detectives even interviewed several of her acquaintances or followed up on all the leads, and, he says, they dropped the ball on the case.

"I blame the cops. No. 1, I hate cops. No. 2, they treated me like shit," he says. "The first three days was, 'You did it, you did it, admit you did it, we know you did it, you did it, you did it, you did it. But as soon as the DNA came back, it was like, 'Oh, well, we don't want to talk to your ass anymore.' It was completely disrespectful."

Johnson says he called the Costa Mesa Police Department and complained several times, berating detectives, secretaries, or whoever he could get on the phone, but, he says, he was told the investigation was "none of his business" because he and Sudweeks weren't married. He even demanded to talk to the police chief. He protested outside the Costa Mesa P.D. with signs claiming, "Police Ineptitude" and handed out fliers in front of the police station that criticized detectives. Then he was arrested for making obscene phone calls to the department. The charges were later dropped.

To make matters worse, Costa Mesa police Lieutenant Ron Smith told The Orange County Register a year after Sudweeks' murder that Johnson "has not been ruled out as a suspect," even though no evidence linked Johnson to the crime. "He did find her [after the murder]. That's always a starting point in the investigation," Smith told the Register.

The insinuation in the paper lives on today. "I'm so sick of people talking about it," Kim says.

The murder remains unsolved, but both Johnson and Costa Mesa detectives hold out hope of finding the killer.

Back in 1997, Rudisill says, DNA testing on criminals was not as widespread as it is today, so there were limits to the number of existing samples to cross-check. Over the past 10 years, more states have joined a nationwide DNA database named CODIS, which means the likelihood her killer will be identified improves every year as more people are added.

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