Chicken Babies, Bondage Nights and Severed Monkey Heads

True-life adventures with Richard Johnson, art provocateur

In 2004, Costa Mesa police used a DNA sample to identify Jason Michael Balcom, who was serving a 50-year sentence for rape and burglary in Michigan, as a suspect in a 1988 slaying similar to Sudweeks'. Balcom's DNA matched one found at the scene of the brutal stabbing death of 22-year-old Malinda Gibbons in her Costa Mesa apartment.

But there are also several possible stumbling blocks. If the killer fled the country and his DNA was never put in the database, it's unlikely he'll be caught. Also, there is a huge backlog of DNA samples yet to be tested, the subject of a Nov. 30 Los Angeles Timesstory. According to a 2004 study for the U.S. Justice Department, evidence gathered from 540,000 unsolved crimes nationwide--including 52,000 homicides and 169,000 rapes--has not been subjected to DNA or other tests that could help identify suspects.

Johnson says it's only a matter of time.

"I have total faith that somebody will catch him," he says. Johnson still protests periodically outside the Costa Mesa Police Department. Although now, as with his most recent appearance there on the 10th anniversary of Sudweeks' death last February, the protest has taken the form of a candlelight vigil.

* * *

AAA Electra 99's wilder days of smuggled monkey skulls, illegal bonfires and bondage nights are long gone. When the gallery moved to Anaheim and became all-ages, Johnson knew one mistake could end up costing him everything, he says, so he's in charge of making sure no alcohol is sneaked in and that no one is drunk in the parking lot when the high schoolers come to watch bands play on Friday and Saturday nights. The gallery is only open those nights, except for Wednesdays, when it opens to allow people to buy $5 memberships, since the gallery's use permit is, officially, for a social club. Any bands wanting to play must show up in person on a Wednesday and purchase a $5 membership card.

Johnson says the rule helps weed out bands that might not be a good fit to play at the gallery. "The real reason for membership is, it's really hard to get four assholes to come down on a Wednesday and give us five bucks," he says.

On a recent Saturday evening, Johnson is sitting behind a glass counter, wearing a devil-horned felt hat and orange foam earplugs. Meanwhile, about 20 teens and young adults in ill-fitting clothes are mildly pushing one another around to a deafening punk band called Lord Have Mercy. The teens seem distinctly sober, most of them appearing a little self-conscious and brooding.

Tyler Farr, member of the band We Are the Pilots, says Johnson keeps the situation under control.

"Richard doesn't let anyone get crazy. He's an intimidating guy," Farr says. "He sets the rules. He says, you know, no drinking, no drugs. Don't do it before, and don't do it here, or he'll kick you out."

Johnson says most of the kids who come to the gallery are good kids.

"High school bands are great," Johnson says. "Not only are you not going to have as many drinking problems because they have trouble getting alcohol in the first place, but they're so happy to be playing anywhere. They're very respectful. And they have fans. Some of the high school bands, they'll fill that place up."

Dave Piorek, whose band the Preacher's Son drove from Los Angeles to play, says AAA Electra 99, while not the only all-ages venue, is unique in Orange County.

"There's clubs I've played where it's very stark, and it can feel sterile. This definitely feels alive. There's so much color and so much energy," Piorek says. "You'd expect a place like this in New York in the '60s or something like that, or up in San Francisco. But this is one of the places that really appreciates the word 'art' and the idea of expression, that you can be anybody and do that. You can be a ratty little kid and come in here and bang around on the guitar, and they accept that as being art. You feel you can do whatever you want. It's inspiring."

Like the art on its walls, the gallery doesn't prescreen the bands with any set of standards, just so long as they can pay, Johnson says. This low bar tends to attract a lot of bands that want to work out their sound, mainly in front of their friends.

"We have some bands that don't bring anybody at all," Johnson admits. "Noise bands where you're lucky if 10 people show up. Then we'll have bands like We Are the Pilots and Preacher's Son, where I have to stop letting people in. Our rule is, try to bring 10 people.

"Doing shows is like turning tricks for us," Johnson jokes. "We only do it when we have to pay the bills. We were quite proud of ourselves this month because we actually made $300 over running costs. We were all patting ourselves on the back.

"That reminds me: I've got to pay the rent," he says.

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