Chicken Babies, Bondage Nights and Severed Monkey Heads

True-life adventures with Richard Johnson, art provocateur

From behind the wheel of a parked Ford Crown Victoria yellow cab with 485,000 miles on the odometer, Richard Johnson accidentally stumbles for a second time into a topic he usually tries to avoid: his dead girlfriend.

Dressed in a black, short-brimmed felt fedora, dark sunglasses, and a black suit jacket over a shirt and tie, the 40-year-old Johnson looks more like a lost Blues Brother than a typical cabbie. His low, gravelly smoker's voice hesitates: "After Adrienne died . . ."

Johnson blames publications like the Weekly and others for "splashing blood on the page" by focusing on this tragedy, the murder more than a decade ago of his then-girlfriend, 26-year-old Sunny Adrienne Sudweeks, in their Costa Mesa apartment.

Richard Johnson
Photo by Jennie Warren
Richard Johnson

The last time the Weekly mentioned it, nearly a decade ago, gallery members wrote an angry diatribe in response, included the reporter's personal cell phone number, wallpapered the Weekly office windows with it and handed out hundreds of copies to the public. This time, Johnson, older and distanced from the tragedy, vows to just crumple up the article and throw it.

One person's conversation piece is another's lifelong heartache. A lot of people don't get that.

"People like to talk about it casually. They hear about it, and they like to pretend they're close to it. Like their life is more interesting than it is," he says.

He'd rather talk about his gritty art gallery and punk rock venue, AAA Electra 99, located in a nondescript office and storage complex across the street from the Anaheim disposal and recycling yard. He wants to give attention to the artists who rent wall space for $40 per month in the garage-like gallery. He wants to promote the bands, mostly teenagers, who play shows there. The shows sometimes allow him to make the gallery's rent using his cab-driving money.

But Johnson reluctantly agrees Sudweeks needs to be discussed. The art gallery he now runs was their dream.

"We had talked about [starting our own gallery]," he says. "We were just going to call it AAA--Any Art Accepted. We were going to rent spaces to artists and have rock & roll shows or whatever, and that was going to be cool.

"Then, after Adrienne died, everyone was like, 'You shouldn't do that right now,'" he says. "I was like, 'Whatever, what's it matter? I could die tomorrow.' I was real nihilistic at that time. I said, 'I'm going to do whatever the fuck I want.'"

He founded the gallery the same year Sudweeks died, 1997, and named it after her Internet handle and artist pseudonym, Electra 99.

* * *

With a slight jolt, Johnson pulls the yellow cab around the back of an alternative school in Irvine; the cab is on its fifth transmission. It's after 2 p.m., and the school--for students struggling because of behavioral problems or learning disabilities--is just letting out. "I went to a school like this," Johnson says.

He's waiting for one of his regular fares, two students on a voucher program who live in Laguna Hills, about a $60 ride. Johnson says the students and "little old ladies going to the doctor" are his bread and butter since he stopped working nights. He was working the night Sudweeks died.

Johnson thrived as a night cabbie and tells long tales about heroic fares, like the time he picked up a woman in Westminster and drove her home to Beverly Hills, after her husband was jailed in Westminster for drunk driving. Then he picked the husband up from Westminster jail the next morning and took him back to Beverly Hills. Then he took the husband back to Westminster to get his car out of impound, all on one shift (about $140 each trip).

But Johnson says the constant conflicts with drunks--usually ending with him spraying rowdies with pepper foam and purple face dye--got tiresome. He also saw himself change.

"There was this young girl walking down Newport Boulevard, and she's crying. Her boyfriend left without her," he says. "She walks up to the cab, [sobbing voice]'I don't have any money.' I'm like, 'Fuck it. Get in. Let's go,' and I took her home.

"I thought, 'Dude, losing my edge here,' you know," he says. "After Adrienne was killed, I knew I shouldn't work nights anymore."

The two students emerge from the school building. They spot the yellow cab. The first out is a chubby-cheeked girl with an abundance of tight spiral curls; she's a recent addition. Next out is Johnson's regular fare, a boy of about 14 with longish hair and a black T-shirt. He keeps his gaze at the ground.

"I like him," Johnson says. "He reminds me of me. I was the kid that got beat up for being punk rock."

* * *

Outside AAA Electra 99's Anaheim gallery space, three sun-melted vinyl records sit on the air-conditioner unit. Next door is the main office of a company that owns several "produce" vans peddling unhealthy snacks in impoverished immigrant neighborhoods. Next to that is a Mexican restaurant. From the city disposal and recycling center across the street comes the constant clatter of revving garbage trucks, reverse gear bleep-bleep-bleeps, and the crashing and smashing of debris.

This location is the third for the gallery since Johnson opened on the Balboa Peninsula in 1997. In Balboa, he lasted less than a year, Johnson says, thanks to his next-door neighbor, aging Marilyn Monroe-era film starlet Mamie Van Doren. Van Doren hated the gallery from the first time she almost entered, but refused to pay the $1 fee, Johnson says. She made it no secret she wanted them out, calling the landlord, the cops and the city council; an art gallery with late hours, loud parties and punk music wasn't her idea of a good time. Then Johnson and some cohorts recorded a song under the name "Piss Daddy and the Trick Babies." He doesn't remember the whole song, only that it began "Mamie Van Doren is a whore!/Mamie Van Doren lives next door!" He doesn't know how, but Van Doren got her hands on a copy.

Then the Newport Beach Police got a copy. Then the city council. Then he was asked to leave.

Newport Beach city officials suggested Johnson move to a more secluded area near John Wayne Airport. He did, and it lasted until 2000, when the building was razed to become a parking lot. To this day, gallery members often ridicule Van Doren by mockingly reading passages from her 1987 autobiography, Playing the Field, in which she details her sexual encounters with famous people.

When the gallery moved to Anaheim seven years ago, Johnson once again had to fight opposition. After months of Anaheim City Council meetings, the gallery finally gained approval. It was difficult to pitch AAA's particular brand of art--punk and crazy, Johnson says, because "Anaheim is a cultural wasteland."

Johnson successfully lobbied for a conditional-use permit. However, the permit stipulated that the venue had to be all-ages and forbid alcohol, smoking, nudity and fires--all staples of the gallery's first two incarnations. Johnson mostly credits former councilman Thomas Tait and current Councilwoman Lucille Kring for even being allowed to operate. Kring, he says, actually came to the gallery earlier this year, stood in front of an limbless mannequin with bloody tits and accepted an award.

Inside the gallery entrance, visitors are greeted by a small, dusty monkey skull with hair still on it encased in a glass jar. Like most of the objects in the gallery, the monkey has a story. Johnson launches into it.

A friend bought the severed head in Africa, sneaked it through customs, and presented it at a birthday party for one of AAA's members, Johnson says. "He reaches in his bag, and he hands me a crumpled up newspaper. It's all wrapped up in duct tape. And I think, 'This crazy fool brought me a great big giant lump of hash from Africa!' So I tear into this thing, and there's a fucking monkey head in there. The stench envelops the room, and--I kid you not--the gallery cleared quicker than if it was on fire.

"And he covered up the head in talcum powder so it wouldn't stink when he was trying to get it through customs, and for some reason, someone blew the monkey dust all over the birthday cake. And later on, people who came late were like, 'Ooh, cake!' and people ate the fucking cake, man!"

AAA Electra 99's front desk is scattered with various papers. A 10-inch-diameter ashtray full of snuffed-out butts sits on top of a book.

Johnson, who sometimes appears smaller than his 6-foot-2 frame because of a tendency to slouch--tells tales from the gallery's Newport infancy with delight. Always looking for new events to draw in more people, they once decided to have a "bondage night."

"[Bondage Night] was great for a while. We'd hand out fliers to cute girls at the pier, and they'd stop by, and let us tie them up and spank them," he says. "But what happens is, eventually, real bondage people show up. And real bondage people just fucking creeped us out. It's all on video. It's the funniest thing. This big, fat guy with these big leather overalls on, and he's got his big, fat disgusting girlfriend, and she's spanking him with a paddle. He's all, 'Thank you mistress.' We're all going, 'Eewww!'"

Then Johnson launches into a carnival-style, step-right-up presentation of some of the pieces in AAA Electra 99's eclectic collection, such as a passenger door he stole from a taxi he drove, as retribution on quitting day. (He claims to later have mailed a former boss a box of live crickets). Above the taxi door are black-and-white photos Sudweeks took of abject, desperate and drunken passengers--part of a book project Johnson and Sudweeks planned but never had a chance to complete.

On the wall is a lacquered chicken carcass with a Kewpie-doll head, fat baby arms jutting out. The chicken baby has been part of the gallery since it opened and, as a wall splattered with articles about the gallery shows, gets mentioned every time the place is written about.

The "any art accepted" mantra saturates the space with dubious artistic choices: There's a filthy, naked baby doll with a nail through its eye sockets; countless iffy reinterpretations of Jesus, such as one with two heads that is, as Johnson points out, uncircumcised; and custom picture frames with razor blades, cigarette butts, hypodermic needles and prescription bottles embedded in them.

"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.

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.

When the punk band onstage is done, some of the kids remain, lounging on the gallery's American flag-striped couches. Johnson holds up an LP and mockingly points at it; it's Charles Manson's 1970 album Lie: The Love & Terror Cult. He puts the needle down, and within two minutes, all of the remaining kids shuffle out of the gallery. Then he changes the music.

"Works every time," Johnson says.

"My favorite part of AAA Electra 99 is right here. This is what I enjoy most about this place. I'm sitting here with my rock & roll, my chandeliers, talking to my buddies with the door closed, and nobody's going to bother me."

AAA ELECTRA 99 CO-OP MUSEUM & GALLERY is located at 2821 E. WHITE STAR AVE., STE. D, ANAHEIM, (714) 666-1805; WWW.AAAELECTRA99.COM.

dolson@ocweekly.com

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Anaheim Concert Tickets
Loading...