REQUIEM FOR A DREAMGIRL
It was about 8:15 Sunday morning, July 15, 2001, whenLisa Piho sped toward the intersection of Warner Avenue and Graham Street in Huntington Beach. Later she would say she failed to see the red light because she was changing a CD in her stereo. That might help explain why she was driving 53 miles per hour when, halfway through the intersection, she was broadsided by a car that had the green light—rammed so forcefully that the collision sent her car spinning into 55-year-old Mark de la Fuente, who was crossing the street with his dog. Police arrived within minutes. While Piho passed a field sobriety test, she declined to provide a blood or urine sample that would reveal any drugs in her system.
Because she was on probation, Piho could have been arrested for that refusal. Instead, police released her on her own recognizance. Later, after her car had been towed and its contents inventoried, police would discover a small bag of methamphetamines in a suitcase in the trunk.
It was impossible to know it at the time, but Piho's accident would set into motion a police scandal involving a seedy Santa Ana strip club, cops, sex and drugs. It would also claim another victim: Andrea Nelson, a young girl who police believe may have been murdered because she knew too much.
Sandra de la Fuente was still in bed that morning when her husband told her he was going to walk the dog. About an hour later, she heard sirens. Their 19-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter were still asleep a short while later when the telephone rang. On the line was a social worker at UCI Medical Center.
"Your husband has been in an accident," the ?woman said.
She woke the kids and rushed them out the door. The family dog was waiting on the doorstep, a leash hanging from its neck. A few minutes later, she reached Warner Avenue.
That's when she saw the police cars.
"I bet that's Daddy's accident," she remembers saying. As she parked the car, an officer walked toward her, waving his arms, indicating that she ought to get back in her car and keep moving. The cop assumed she was just an onlooker.
"I asked him if this is where the pedestrian was hit," Sandra recalls.
The cop asked why she wanted to know.
"I said, 'I'm his wife,'" she says.
The cop's hard expression melted into something like helpless sympathy.
"Ma'am," he said. "You have to get to the hospital. You have to hurry."
Sandra noticed a young woman sitting on a nearby bus bench. She was rocking back and forth uncontrollably. Sandra immediately figured the woman had hit her husband. Sandra was in shock but somehow managed to speak to her anyhow.
"I just looked at her and shouted, 'Don't worry. It was just an accident,'" she recalls. "That's all I thought at the time."
The woman let out a wail.
At the hospital, Sandra identified herself at theemergency-room desk. A nurse ushered her and the kids into a waiting room. Sandra had worked as a volunteer at Long Beach Memorial Hospital. One of her responsibilities was to escort relatives of mortally wounded patients to a waiting room. "That," she says, "is when I really knew it was bad."
Three hours later, a doctor told her Mark was still alive but completely unresponsive. His heart had stopped 10 times that morning. He had massive brain damage, a broken pelvis and countless other injuries, each serious enough to kill him. He was bleeding so severely that medical staffers were pumping three times his body's volume of blood to keep him alive.
Mark de la Fuente didn't die that day, but he never left the hospital. His body broken, his organs failing, he would occasionally open his eyes when Sandra or the kids spoke to him. But there was no other movement, no spark of recognition. Thirty-one days later, he died.
About a week after the funeral, Sandra drove to the Huntington Beach Fire Department to deliver a box of candy to the emergency crew that had helped bring Mark to the hospital. She asked to see the chief.
"I am so sorry about what happened to your husband," he said. "It was a shame he was killed by such a person."
Another fireman who was standing there grabbed the chief's arm.
"He said, 'Shhh,'" Sandra recalls.
She demanded to know what the chief meant. He struggled for a response.
"One of our guys recognized her," he finally said.
Later that week, Sandra paid a visit to the police officer in charge of the investigation of her husband's death. She couldn't believe Piho hadn't been arrested. She mentioned the incident at the fire station. The cop looked embarrassed.
"One of my men recognized her, too," he said.
If cops and firefighters recognized Lisa Piho, it was probably because they frequented Mr. J's. It isn't much to look at—a nondescript building on Edinger Street just off the Costa Mesa Freeway. But in its heyday, the Santa Ana topless bar was a booming business, a favorite after-hours hangout for cops, businessmen and Orange County's shadiest characters. Mr. J's didn't have the best-looking dancers—that prize goes to Captain Cream, the semi-nude club in Lake Forest. But it had a reputation for pretty bartenders and cocktail waitresses, as well as bouncers who were known to go easy on no-contact rules in the early a.m. hours.
But what truly distinguished Mr. J's from other strip clubs was its cozy relationship with local law-enforcement agencies. The club's young manager, Sam Mohamed Johar, whose father owned the club, was a graduate of the Tustin Police Department's Explorer program. He had friends in police departments throughout the county. According to the Los Angeles Times, Johar used his police connections to run background checks on his bouncers and other employees in return for cash payments.
One of Johar's friends was Tustin police officer Anthony Bryant, who would ultimately lose his job for using department computers to help Johar. Long before he was fired, the Times reported, Bryant got into trouble for flashing his badge "at a Mr. J's guest who was disputing a bill for a lap dance."
Johar's relationship with cops went a lot deeper than paying them for background checks, though. In fact, the Mr. J's manager used at least one of his strippers in a sex-for-protection scheme.
The stripper was Lisa Piho.
Piho's job description certainly would explain why Huntington Beach cops and firemen were reluctant to tell Sandra de la Fuente how they recognized her. What's more than certain is that Johar used Piho's reckless driving to curry favor with corrupt cops already familiar with Mr. J's.
Because she had previous arrests for drugs on her record, Piho faced up to five years in state prison as a result of killing Mark de la Fuente. But Johar saw in that tragedy a way to help Piho win a lighter sentence—and win himself something in the process.
Shortly after the accident, Johar brought Piho to meet his friend, a Buena Park police detective named Jason Parsons. In that meeting, Piho offered to work as a drug informant. It's unclear what Piho knew about drugs that could help Parsons—except, ironically, that Johar himself had frequent run-ins with narcotics cops. Nor is it clear what Johar thought he might gain by recommending Piho to the Buena Park PD—another close alliance with cops, perhaps, a relationship that might be useful in a business where sex, drugs and power often converged.
Parsons agreed to use Piho. But his plan didn't seem to involve conventional undercover work.
A week later, he showed up at Mr. J's with five fellow Buena Park cops. They stayed until the end of Piho's shift and then gave her a ride home. That's when they asked for something in return: free lap dances. Piho refused. But she would soon do more than dance. Several months later, in April 2002, Johar persuaded her to fly to Las Vegas with Parsons and Tom Collins, another Buena Park cop. Johar booked the two cops a room with a bar and a view of the Vegas Strip at the Bellagio Hotel. According to the Times, the cops were ostensibly there to participate in the Baker-to-Vegas relay, "a popular desert run that attracts teams fielded by police agencies around the country."
At some point during the weekend, Piho had sex with Parsons in his hotel room. Collins caught them in the act but promised not to tell anyone.
It's impossible to know how long Johar's sex-for-cops scheme would have lasted, or how long one of the sleaziest chapters in the history of Orange County law enforcement would have remained a secret. What has also been a secret until now is that the entire sordid affair unraveled because of one person: Andrea J. Nelson.
In photographs, Andrea Nelson looks like an all-American girl: a blond bombshell with a seductive smile. She and her mother, Linda Cator, lived together in Tustin; Cator says Andrea always attracted the attention of older men. So in January 2002, just before Andrea's 19th birthday, Cator wasn't surprised when her daughter announced she was dating a rich 26-year-old named Sammy Johar.
Even when Andrea told her mother that Johar worked at his family's strip club, Linda Cator says, she wasn't overly concerned. Andrea told her that Johar never let her inside the part of the club where the dancers were, only in Mr. J's offices. Andrea said the dancers were jealous that Johar treated her so nicely—bought her clothes, jewelry and a Mercedes.
"At first, I approved," Cator recalls. Andrea "had a full-time job and was going to school. Everything was normal. But soon she was spending the night at his house, and I got mad."
Things got worse that spring, when Andrea received two traffic citations, including one for driving while intoxicated. Although her blood-alcohol level was legal for an adult, she was a minor, and the ticket resulted in the loss of her driver's license. Then, in May, Cator discovered Andrea had dropped out of Orange Coast College.
"The only rule I had was she had to carry nine units of school," she says. "I was so angry that she had done that without telling me. I was assuming so many things."
When Cator confronted her daughter, Andrea broke down in tears. She confessed that Johar was in trouble with the police, that he was on probation and that an Irvine narcotics officer named Mike Hallinan was following Johar, even showing up at his home in the middle of the night to search for drugs. Andrea wouldn't go into detail, but she mentioned that Johar and a stripper named Lisa Piho were involved in something at Mr. J's that was going to get everyone in a lot of trouble.
Cator says her daughter concluded her confession with a chilling summary: "Mom, you have no idea how much trouble I'm in."
The next morning, Cator drove to the headquarters of the Irvine Police Department and asked to speak with Mike Hallinan.
Cator met with Hallinan at a Black Angus restaurant. That's where they made the deal Cator regrets to this day.
It turned out Hallinan already knew Andrea because he had searched Sammy's house while Andrea was there. Cator says she agreed "to have Andrea tell him everything she knew about Sammy and Lisa Piho. They wouldn't give Andrea her license back but would make the two tickets disappear, and Sammy and Lisa would go to prison."
Cator left the restaurant and picked up her daughter at an assisted living home, where Nelson worked as a receptionist.
"I told her, 'We're going to the Irvine PD, and you're going to talk to Hallinan and tell him everything you know.'" Nelson looked terrified.
Cator says she'll never forget what her daughter said next: "You have just signed my death certificate, Mom."
Instead of meeting at Irvine police headquarters, Catorsays she brought her daughter to meet Hallinan at a nearby McDonald's; Hallinan insisted on speaking privately ?with Nelson.
During that meeting, Cator says, Andrea told Hallinan everything she knew about Johar, Piho and Mr. J's.
"They talked for over an hour," Cator recalls.
Whatever transpired apparently reassured Andrea.
"I was sitting out in my car because I smoke," Cator says. "She came out and was happy. She knew she did the right thing."
Hallinan told Cator that Andrea would have to accompany them the following night to point out the location of several drug labs used for making GHB, the date-rape drug.
"I said, 'Okay,'" Cator recalls. "I picked her up from work the next night, and they came and picked her up. I assumed I was going with them, but they said, 'Linda, it's not safe for you.'" Cator says she argued but finally relented. "I figured the less I knew, the better."
The police collected Andrea at 6:30 p.m. and brought her home four hours later.
"She pointed out GHB labs and drug dealers," Cator says. "She wouldn't tell me where or who, but just said that's what she did. She went to bed happy."
The next day Hallinan called Cator and said Andrea would have to go to Tustin police and identify a few police officers. "I said, 'No way; she is not pointing out officers.'"
Hallinan persuaded Cator to change her mind. "He said, 'Linda, we don't like dirty cops.' He talked me into it."
The next morning, according to Cator, Hallinan brought Andrea to meet with Tustin police sergeant Joe Stickles. In that meeting, Cator says, Andrea identified six cops who had ties to Sammy Johar.
"Andrea was feeling good about it," Cator says. "I was proud. I wanted Sammy to go to jail. The next night, Joe Stickles took my daughter to the Buena Park Police Department, because there were officers there she could identify."
Hallinan declined an interview request. But those officers likely included Detective Parsons and Officer Collins, the two cops who, just a few months earlier, had flown to Vegas with Lisa Piho. Cator says Stickles assured Andrea that nobody would discover she had informed on Johar or Piho. They planned to arrest the pair, and any cops who lost their jobs would likely assume that Piho and Johar had squealed on their own.
"They said they didn't need Andrea anymore," Cator says. "They had Piho and Sammy [Johar] squealing like pigs. I was happy because Sammy was in jail."
Despite her fears that she had put her daughterin danger by forcing Andrea to work as an informant, everything seemed to have worked out fine. Johar was behind bars, and Andrea had moved on with her life. She bought herself a new car, a silver Ford Focus, with money from her job as a receptionist.
Still, Cator went online to the Orange County Sheriff's Department's website to make sure Johar was still behind bars awaiting trial on drug charges.
"One day, I saw he was out on bail," she says. "I called Stickles, and he said it was no big deal, [Johar] was still going to jail."
But Johar didn't go to jail. Instead, he left ?the country.
"One day, Johar called Andrea from the Bahamas," Cator recalls. "He sent her e-mails begging her to come with him. She wouldn't. She didn't want to be with Sammy anymore."
But if Andrea was moving on with her life, there were still signs of trouble. She continued to go out late with her friends. In October 2002, Cator says, her daughter met a rich middle-aged man named Homayan Bakhtar at a Mexican restaurant in Newport Beach. The two exchanged telephone numbers.
While Johar was older than Andrea, he was still in his 20s; at 45, Bakhtar was more than twice her age. Like Johar, though, Bakhtar was rich and he liked to party. He lived in an upscale Newport Beach neighborhood, in a big mansion with an indoor pool. He owned three auto-repair shops and would later say he was a frequent visitor to Mr. J's.
Sometimes the fickle nature of life and death comes down to something as mundane as a $300 jacket.
One night in January 2003, Bakhtar offered to send a limousine to pick up Andrea and two of her friends to go swimming at his house. When Andrea came home early the next morning, she couldn't find her brand-new jacket.
"I had just bought it for her," Cator says. "I was so mad at her that she lost it. I told her I would never buy her anything again if she didn't find it."
On Jan. 26, Super Bowl Sunday, Cator and her daughter watched the game together. The following night, Cator says, Bakhtar called her house.
"I picked up the phone, and this guy asks for Andrea." Cator passed the telephone to her daughter. After a brief conversation, Andrea told Cator that Bakhtar "has my jacket and said to come get it at 8:30 p.m. because he has a meeting."
Cator told Andrea she could go to Bakhtar's house to retrieve her jacket but made her promise to come straight home. Andrea brought her cell phone with her. Cator called her daughter at about 9 p.m. Andrea had just arrived and told her mom she had the jacket and was leaving in five minutes.
"I called again five minutes later, and she said she was leaving right away," Cator says. "I called again at 9:20 p.m., and her phone rang and rang and rang. That's when I panicked. I kept calling." Cator left her message after message, each one a variation on a theme: "'Hurry up! Where are you? Come home!' But she never called back."
In a city notorious for image consciousness, it's fitting that the first person visitors to Newport Beach's Hoag Hospital are likely to see is a handsome young valet dressed in a white overcoat. Shawn Smith was a valet working the night shift on Jan. 27, 2003. The first thing he noticed when Homayan Bakhtar pulled up to the emergency-room entrance was that the girl in the passenger seat wasn't moving. She was beautiful, young, with long blond hair, casually dressed in a brown sweater, blue jeans and white tennis shoes. She was slumped over in the passenger seat of a silver Ford Focus. The driver, a man twice her age, said she had passed out in the car just minutes earlier.
Smith grabbed a wheelchair. He pulled the unconscious girl out of the car. He immediately noticed that she seemed lifeless. Her body was cold to the touch. He rushed her to the emergency room.
A team of doctors and nurses spent 20 minutes trying to bring the girl back to life. But they were too late. She wasn't breathing and had no pulse. At 11:59 p.m. that night, just four days after her 20th birthday, Andrea Nelson was dead.
Bakhtar lingered outside the emergency room. He was still there shortly after midnight, when Newport Beach police officer Ryan Reilly arrived at the hospital, responding to a call from the emergency room. Reilly asked Bakhtar what had happened.
Bakhtar said Andrea had stopped by his house that evening, hoping to retrieve some clothing she had left there a week or so earlier. He added that Andrea had made several phone calls at his house, and that her cell phone had run out of batteries. They had sex, Bakhtar said, and then they left to check on a drainage problem at a Westminster apartment complex owned by his brother.
On the way, Bakhtar claimed, Andrea "began to yawn several times and laid her seat back," Officer Reilly wrote. "Bakhtar told me he continued to drive for approximately 10 minutes without talking to Nelson."
Finally, Bakhtar said, he tried to wake Nelson, but she was "unresponsive." That's when Bakhtar said he became "concerned" and took Nelson to Hoag Hospital. Bakhtar told Officer Reilly that "Nelson told him several times in the past she was a heavy cocaine user. Bakhtar said he did not see Nelson use any cocaine or drink any alcohol at his house."
Toward the end of their conversation, Bakhtar told Reilly that when he first met Andrea, she was dating Johar. He said he didn't know Johar personally, but as a patron of Mr. J's, he knew who he was.
After calling the police, hospital officials turned her body over to the Orange County coroner's office, which performed an autopsy and toxicology report the next morning. Official cause of death: accidental overdose of cocaine and methamphetamines.
Early the next morning, Newport Beach police detective Will Yourex searched Bakhtar's home. Inside a shoebox in a closet, Yourex found a glass pipe for smoking meth. In another shoebox, he found 5 grams of marijuana. A woman's bra lay on the floor, partially hidden beneath window curtains. In the medicine cabinet in Bakhtar's bathroom, Yourex found three bottles of clear liquid; they later tested positive for butane diol and gamma-butrylolactone. The two chemicals are also known as gamma hydroxy butyrate, or GHB, the date-rape drug.
Sandra de la Fuente knew nothing of Andrea Nelson when, four days later, she took a seat in a courtroom at Orange County Superior Court. In a few minutes, the woman who had killed her husband would be sentenced on charges of vehicular manslaughter and reckless driving with gross negligence. Because Piho had prior arrests for drunk driving and, several months after the accident, had been arrested for being under the influence of meth during a probation search at her home, the Orange County Probation Department had recommended she be sent to state prison.
Something else de la Fuente didn't know was that Sgt. Joe Stickles of the Tustin Police Department had written a letter to the judge and the probation department arguing that Piho deserved a light sentence because she worked as a police informant.
"I have found Miss Piho to be honest and forthright in our dealings, even though it may have shed bad light on her," Stickles wrote. "Miss Piho is not and has not received any consideration for her cooperation in the investigation. Even though she was made aware of that, Miss Piho still agreed to help."
Stickles added that he was writing this letter as a private citizen, not on behalf of the Tustin Police Department.
"Miss Piho is a kind and caring person," Stickles argued. "She would never intentionally hurt someone. She has five cats and can't get rid of any of them because she feels they belong together. She is an animal lover. . . . I don't feel Miss Piho would do well in a penal environment."
The prosecutor had told de la Fuente the judge would likely sentence Piho to five years in prison. She was surprised, then, when Superior Court Judge William Evans set her sentence at a year in the county jail.
Still collecting herself, de la Fuente took a second blow: Stickles was sitting next to Piho in the courtroom. She says she watched in disbelief as Stickles, who was holding hands with Piho, repeatedly rubbed her thigh.
"To say I was outraged is an understatement," de la Fuente says. "My heart was pounding. I was thinking, 'What am I seeing? This woman killed my husband. This is incredible.'"
On April 1, 2003, de la Fuente typed up an informalcomplaint to the Tustin Police Department. Her letter described the apparently intimate physical contact between Piho and Stickles. A few weeks later, she met personally with Capt. Bob Schoenkopf, an internal affairs officer who has since retired. Stickles, who has since been promoted to lieutenant, refused to comment for this story, citing legal threats against his department by Linda Cator. The Weekly was unable to interview Schoenkopf but obtained a tape recording of the meeting. That tape suggests that Newport Beach police weren't the only ones considering the possiblity that Andrea Nelson was murdered—and that her death might involve her work as an informant.
The first 20 minutes of the tape consist of de la Fuente describing in blow-by-blow detail how Stickles rubbed Piho's thigh in full view of everyone in court. Schoenkopf asks her equally detailed questions: What kind of dress was Piho wearing? How far away from them were you sitting? Was Stickles' behavior toward Piho "amorous" or "comforting"?
Then, after a long pause, as if he's weighing the situation, Schoenkopf starts talking. He tells de la Fuente that Piho helped Stickles in a major police corruption scandal that resulted in the firing of five cops—two in Tustin, three in Buena Park. One of the Tustin cops had already been charged with 176 different crimes, he says. He shows de la Fuente a stack of files representing the case and explains that it involved months of police work.
The case, he adds, stemmed from "an initial allegation that one of our officers was directly involved in . . . [the] family that owns Mr. J's."
According to Schoenkopf, there were two chief informants who made that ?case possible.
"Those people were Lisa Piho and a woman named Andrea Nelson," he says. "Lisa Piho, um, as much as a lowlife as she is, was the subject of a number of death threats. . . . Lisa was deathly afraid."
That's why Stickles was in court with Piho—not as a lover, but as her bodyguard in case somebody tried to kill her during the sentencing hearing.
"The death threats were very real," Schoenkopf adds. And then to underscore the seriousness of the danger, he reveals what he says police know with a certainty: "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."
Schoenkopf tells de la Fuente that Nelson's work as an informant had been a secret in the department until shortly before the investigation ended. When the cops were fired, her name was made public.
"It was very coincidental," he concludes. "Two days after we released Andrea Nelson's name, she got murdered."
Today, nearly three years later, AndreaNelson's death is still officially an accident. Despite the police finding GHB in Homayan Bakhtar's house, the coroner failed to detect the drug in her blood. But Cator is convinced her daughter was murdered.
She says her suspicions started when Bakhtar called her from Hoag Hospital.
"He said Andrea went unconscious," she recalls. Cator hung up and called ?the hospital.
"They said they weren't able to resuscitate her," she says.
Cator says she told hospital officers her daughter was a police informant and demanded they perform tests to see if she had been raped.
"They said, 'We can't. He's already admitted that he had sex with her.'"
Cator drove to the hospital and told Newport Beach police detective Yourex she believed Bakhtar had raped and murdered her daughter. Yourex seemed sympathetic and said he was suspicious about Bakhtar's story.
"They were treating it as a homicide," Cator believes. "But the next morning, the coroner wrote it off as a drug overdose."
Despite the coroner's finding that her death was accidental, Newport Beach police were suspicious enough about the GHB they found in Bakhtar's home—and his story about Andrea passing out in his car—that they forwarded the case to the Orange County district attorney's office.
But the DA declined to prosecute Bakhtar.
On Sept. 30, 2003, Matt Murphy, the DA homicide unit's senior deputy district attorney, told Newport Beach police the case was going nowhere.
"Having reviewed the investigation surrounding the death of Andrea Nelson, it does not appear additional follow-up is necessary," Murphy wrote. "Despite the circumstances of her arrival at the emergency room, due to the known history of drug use, absence of GHB in the toxicology tests, and the coroner's opinion of accidental death, it appears insufficient evidence exists at this time to pursue a homicide charge against Mr. Bakhtar. There are several narcotics-related charges that should be pursued, however."
Linda Cator has filed a wrongful deathcase against Bakhtar and has posted a website, www.andrearemembered.com, that claims he killed her daughter. In her pursuit of justice, Cator has alienated her own family and much of Orange County law enforcement. She's threatened lawsuits against the cities of Tustin and Irvine asserting that Officers Stickles and Hallinan failed to protect her daughter. She wishes she never had gone to police in the first place.
"Had I known then what I know now, I never would have allowed them to use Andrea as an informant," she says. "I would have found a good lawyer."
Now, Cator's in the process of selling her house to pay for a lawyer and to fund her own homicide investigation.
Her obsession with her daughter's death is fueled by her own sense of guilt—for forcing Andrea to become an informant, for yelling at her about losing her jacket, and for allowing her to go back to Bakhtar's house to pick it up. She knows her daughter died with a lot of drugs in her system, and that she had used drugs frequently with Johar, but she's convinced drugs aren't what killed Andrea.
Cator's Chatsworth-based attorney, Norman Gregory Fernandez, says he plans to prove Nelson met "with wrongful death" but can't say at whose hands.
"It's going to be a very interesting case," he says. "It may be that we will be adding more defendants to this cause of action. We are doing a comprehensive investigation and will let the chips fall where they may."
Assuming Cator's wrongful-death lawsuit goes to trial, Fernandez is likely to call as an expert witness Dr. Harry J. Bonnell, a Georgetown University-trained pathologist. Bonnell worked as a medical examiner for two decades, including 10 years as San Diego's deputy chief medical examiner. He's testified in more than 470 cases, most of them criminal cases in which he's worked with prosecutors. Bonnell says he's far from convinced that Nelson's death was accidental—and is absolutely certain the Orange County coroner did a sloppy job in making that determination.
"The findings don't jibe with the history provided by Mr. Bakhtar," Bonnell says. "In other words, she had been dead longer than when he said she became unresponsive. . . . Her pupils were already fixed and dilated. She was cold to the touch. This is not somebody who has just gone unresponsive in the car."
According to Bonnell, Nelson's autopsy report shows she had a bruise on the inside of her lower lip. He thinks it's possible someone tried to suffocate her. The coroner, he says, "tried to write that off as a result of resuscitation. But when you do that, if you have any bruising, it's inevitably to the upper lip or teeth." Then there are the lungs. "In most drug overdoses, the lungs are heavy," he says. "But in hers, the lungs are of normal weight. There are also . . . pinpoint hemorrhages in the lungs. That is not something you see in drug overdoses. That's something you see in upper-airway obstruction, when somebody is smothered or suffocates or chokes on a hot dog."
The fact that the coroner found no GHB in Nelson's blood doesn't surprise him. "GHB has a short half-life," Bonnell says. "It gets cleared from the bloodstream pretty quickly, which is why you need to test the kidney or the urine. From what I see, they just tested the blood, and they didn't test the stomach contents."
While Bonnell believes it's possible Nelson died of a drug overdose, he says it's just as possible that she was murdered. "It could be she died from the cocaine," he says. "The levels are consistent with other cases. But it could be she took cocaine and somebody put their hand over her mouth."
In September 2002, Buena Park policedetective Jason Parsons, who had sex with Lisa Piho, and Officer Tom Collins, who covered it up, were fired. On March 7, 2003, Tustin police officer Anthony Bryant, Johar's friend who ran background checks on Mr. J's employees, lost his job. By then, Sammy Johar had already jumped bail on a narcotics charge and fled the country. His father, Mohamed Johar, did not return a telephone call to an answering service for Mr. J's. Sammy Johar's whereabouts are unknown; he is still wanted by the Orange County Sheriff's Department for possession of dangerous drugs.
Thanks in part to Stickles' letter, Piho spent several months in county jail instead of five years in a state prison. She has moved to San Diego and could not be located for an interview.
Homayan Bakhtar faces a Dec. 16 pretrial hearing at Harbor Municipal Court for the drugs, including GHB, Detective Yourex found in his bedroom. At his Nov. 18 arraignment, Bakhtar said he would plead not guilty. Outside the courtroom, he refused to discuss Andrea Nelson's death.
"I don't think I should talk about it," he said. But when asked if he was innocent of any wrongdoing, he brightened up. "Oh, yeah," he said. "Absolutely."
Two days earlier, on Nov. 16, Mr. J's closed its doors for the last time. The Johar family, which had owned and operated the club since 1988, sold the property to Honda Santa Ana for $1.9 million.
The club's sale paves the way for an expansion of the Santa Ana Auto Mall, part of the city's redevelopment zone. Soon Mr. J's will be buried under an asphalt parking lot and rows of shiny new Japanese cars. The event will be a happy one for Santa Ana city officials, who have been trying to wrest the property—and potential sales-tax revenue—away from Mr. J's for years.
Within a week of the deal, the club's signs had been torn down or painted over and lines of used cars with balloons were displayed out front. The door was locked, but inside, leopard-print wallpaper and an empty cash register were visible in the dim interior light.
Replacing a strip club with a car dealership is what redevelopment experts call progress—replacing urban blight with the hope of prosperity. But burying Mr. J's won't diminish Linda Cator's grief, and it won't erase from the history books the seedy nexus that existed there between drugs, sex and cops. And if you believe in such things, you might say the ground beneath it will always be haunted by the mysterious death of the woman who helped bring it all down.
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