The Gang's All Here
Killer Billy Joe Johnson resumes his efforts to save a hoodlum pal from death row
Like his ever-evolving tales of drugs, sex, guns, Hitler love, gang loyalty, strip clubs and killing, Billy Joe Johnson arrived in Orange County Superior Court on May 19 sporting a new look since his last colorful court appearance nearly a year ago. Johnson shaved his lengthy sideburns and somehow—does the jail supply hair wax?—spiked his Mohawk into an impressive 5-inch peak. The man who tattooed Nazi SS lightning bolts on his throat attempted to soften his appearance for the sequel with a preppy schoolboy outfit. Had his punk friends seen him, they would have booed his white button-down shirt and khaki pants.
Johnson was all dressed up to deliver more jarring testimony on behalf of Michael Lamb, his Public Enemy Number One (PEN1) pal who is attempting to avoid California's death row. His time on the stand featured cussing, laughing, angry outbursts, yawning, frowning, smiling, squinting and the continual sucking of his few remaining teeth. Inside the courtroom—or, as Johnson calls it, "The House of Jews"—Lamb's jury of nine women and three men looked nauseated when shown gruesome crime-scene photographs of what Johnson did to another man with a rusty steel-claw hammer in 2004. Mere feet away, sitting in chains on the witness stand beneath Old Glory and guarded by seven deputies, he cocked his head to the right and beamed.
Give Johnson, known as "Psycho" in gang circles, points for comradeship. Already serving a 45-years-to-life sentence for the hammer murder, the Costa Mesa native deduced that he could possibly save Lamb by taking sole credit for the 2002 ambush execution of Scott Miller in Anaheim. The plan didn't work in the 2007 trial. A jury convicted Lamb and Jacob Rump, another gangster, for the killing. Rump got life in prison, but the jury deadlocked on whether to send Lamb, the shooter, to San Quentin's death chamber. Prosecutor Ebrahim Baytieh is trying again.
Though gang police insist Johnson is smarter than he often appears, the PEN1 hoodlum wasn't smart enough to keep his apparent perjury plans to himself. According to June 14, 2007, police telephonic wiretaps obtained by the Weekly, here's Johnson explaining—or attempting to explain—his idea to Becky Mangan, Lamb's girlfriend: "Okay, well, 'cuz, uh, uh, I don't know if that will have any bearing, but they did file charges [against me for the execution], right, I go, I go Tuesday [to testify for Rump and Lamb]. So, so this is what I'm saying is, if, if, he didn't say anything in his thing. By him filing charges on me, right, that's saying . . ."
Mangan interrupted Johnson, a casualty of drug addictions, to help him complete his thought, "That's saying they think you're guilty."
An excited, lisping Johnson replied, "Right, so if I'm guilty, then they can't be guilty. You see what I'm saying?"
Mangan said she understood his logic, and Johnson continued, "Uh, just so you know that I know that we know, you know what I mean? And, and, and, that they know so that you know what I mean. Potentially, they can use it uh, uh, you know what I mean, to show, you know, what I mean, to show that these guys are fucking, are barking up the wrong tree!"
"Yeah," she said.
"You know what I mean?" Johnson added. "And then I'll talk to you later about other things that have been going through my mind once, once I get going on the thing, you know what I mean?"
But Johnson, a self-described "jackass," has a poor understanding of criminal law. Instead of aiding Rump and Lamb, Johnson's plan backfired. Not only is Baytieh using Johnson's testimony to charge him in the Miller killing, too, but he'll be seeking the death penalty for Johnson this summer. The prosecutor's theory: Johnson drove Miller to an apartment complex where Lamb and Rump waited to carry out an ambush because Miller had committed the unforgivable sin of talking to a Fox Channel 11 Los Angeles reporter about PEN1 activities.
The jury is expected to rule on Lamb's fate in June.
FAREWELL TO AN ANTI-MAFIA HERO
Death allows me to reveal the identity of a valuable and fearless source of mine on organized-crime ties between Southern California and Las Vegas. Last month, James "Buffalo Jim" Barrier was found dead of as-yet-unknown causes in a Las Vegas Motel 6. His pants had been pulled down to his ankles, and his driver's license as well as a wad of cash—all except a single dollar bill—were missing. A constant recipient of death threats, the 55-year-old Barrier served as a witness in the successful FBI probe of Rick Rizzolo, the owner of a mob-tied titty bar next-door to Barrier's auto-repair shop.
You may recall Rizzolo as the fat-fingered fellow we photographically memorialized partying in 2005 with our then-gleeful-looking sheriff, Mike Carona, at a Newport Beach restaurant. The day before Barrier died, prison officials released Rizzolo—whom Carona claimed is an honest businessman—from custody after convictions in a racketeering case. Before news broke of Barrier's mysterious death, anonymous men repeatedly called Barrier's business telephone, laughed and hung up, according to his family.
In a 2006 interview at OC Weekly—one in which we discussed at length the hierarchy of organized crime figures on the West Coast, Barrier told me that he wasn't worried about being whacked, but, he said, if it happened, they'd use a woman to lure him somewhere. According to Las Vegas news accounts, recovered cell-phone records show that on the night of his death, he had a seven-minute phone call with a woman named "Lisa." When one of Barrier's daughters called the number, Lisa claimed she didn't know Barrier. In a subsequent interview with police, the woman reportedly admitted she had been in Barrier's hotel room and that he may have suffered a seizure before she fled.
But the death—which authorities say wasn't caused by a heart attack or brain aneurism—has left Barrier's daughters claiming foul play. Steve Miller, a Las Vegas journalist and mob expert, former city councilman and longtime Barrier friend, says he's leaning against a homicide, but is waiting for the toxicology reports before he reaches any conclusions. "I believe that if this is a mob hit, it would have been much more dramatic and clearly meant to send a message to people who oppose the mob's new business ventures," Miller told me.
UPS DELIVERED CHINESE SOLDIERS?
When I moved away from home to attend college in Texas, my parents shipped a prized possession to me by UPS. I'll never forget answering the door, greeting a smiling delivery man dressed all in brown, and then seeing two packages that looked like they'd been assaulted by an angry mob of gorillas swinging baseball bats. The destroyed boxes contained my expensive, partially crushed stereo speakers—the ones my parents forgot to insure.
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Last week, I was reminded of that experience at the Bowers Museum press briefing for the new Terra Cotta Warriors exhibit. An arrangement between the Chinese government and the museum had UPS fly the priceless artifacts from Shanghai to Anchorage on a 747, then on to Ontario. There, the legendary objects from China's first emperor were carefully loaded onto the company's trucks and driven under helicopter escort to the Santa Ana museum.
Though surely not aware of my experience, museum president Peter Keller expressed relief about the safe arrival of the artifacts and glee that once again he and his staff secured a noteworthy Chinese exhibit before any other museum in the world. "It was a real struggle to get it here," he told gathered reporters and dignitaries. "And I can't say how thrilled we are."
Keller then introduced a triumphant UPS executive. "UPS people deliver on our promises," she said, ignoring my raised-eyebrow gaze. "Your business can trust UPS."