Trouble With Cats
James Trumbauer, Sammy Johar and Buena Park narcotics detective Jason Parsons had one thing in common: their affection for Lisa Piho, the stripper whose reckless driving sparked the sex-for-cops scandal involving the late, great Santa Ana topless bar Mr. J's; police from Tustin and Buena Park; and a 20-year-old police informant who turned up dead two days after law-enforcement officials made her name public.
That shared interest in Piho has not served Trumbauer, a former electrical contractor from Huntington Beach now doing a seven-year sentence in federal prison on drug charges.
In an interview from the U.S. prison in Lompoc, Trumbauer claimed he was set up by Piho, his ex-girlfriend, who helped Johar plant drugs in his car in a bid to win her lenient treatment after she killed a man walking his dog.
The bizarre events that landed Trumbauer behind bars—and still haunt local law-enforcement agencies—started in Huntington Beach on the morning of July 15, 2001, when Piho, a topless dancer at Mr. J's, ran a red light and drove her car through a crosswalk, where Mark de la Fuente was walking his dog. De la Fuente died a month later; by that time police had found methamphetamines in Piho's car. Trying to avoid prison time, Piho went to her boss and boyfriend, 25-year-old Sammy Johar, for help.
Seeking out Mr. J's young manager as a fixer might seem an odd choice, except that 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.
Johar brought Piho to his friend Parsons and offered her services as a drug informant. Parsons told Piho he thought he could help her. A few weeks later, he showed up at Mr. J's with five friends from the Buena Park Police Department. They drove Piho home, poured themselves some beer and asked for free lap dances. Although she apparently declined, Johar arranged for Piho to travel to Las Vegas with Parsons in April 2002, where Buena Park internal affairs investigators say she had sex with him at the Bellagio Hotel.
As the Weekly revealed last month, Johar's ex-girlfriend Andrea Nelson told police about Piho and Johar's involvement with corrupt cops in Tustin and Buena Park. Nelson died of an apparent drug overdose in January 2003, just two days after her name was released in connection with the firing of a Tustin police officer. Her mother, Linda Cator, has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit alleging her daughter was murdered because of her role as an informant (see "Requiem for a Dreamgirl," Dec. 2).
Thanks to Nelson's testimony, Parsons and other officers implicated in Johar's sex-for-cops scheme were forced to resign. "Orange County prosecutors dismissed charges in some cases for which they were witnesses," the Times reported, but "the exact number of cases affected by their departure could not be determined."
One case that wasn't dismissed but perhaps should have been is the one involving James Trumbauer. He claims that he's another victim of the Mr. J's scandal, and that it all started with an argument over his cat.
Trumbauer had been living with Piho for a few years, but when she left his Huntington Beach apartment, he claims, she took his cat with her. "Lisa stole my cat from me," he said. "I was trying to get it back, and that's how I got to meet Sammy [Johar]. He had the cat."
Trumbauer says he went to Mr. J's and demanded that Johar return his cat. Johar refused, so Trumbauer says he threatened to call the police and tell them Johar had stolen his cat.
Trumbauer says Johar's disproportionate response is critical to understanding his case: "He threatened to do something to get me in federal prison for a number of years," Trumbauer recalled. "Funny how that worked out."
Or not so funny. Trumbauer says he backed off. "I was trying to be nice to him because I was just trying to get my cat back, even though I didn't like the guy at all," he said. Eventually he got his cat—and even began dating Piho again.
He says he had no hard feelings for Johar. So in April 2002, when Johar called to borrow Trumbauer's car, Trumbauer agreed. A short time after Johar returned Trumbauer's car, he called Trumbauer to say he'd accidentally left some groceries in the trunk.
"He wanted me to meet him in Buena Park, and I wouldn't do that," Trumbauer said. Now, he says, it looks obvious that he was being set up.
The meeting took place on April 11, 2002, in a Huntington Beach parking lot, where Trumbauer says Johar helped him transfer what looked like bottles of drinking water from Trumbauer's trunk into Johar's car.
"I didn't think anything of it," he said. "They just looked like 11 one-gallon bottles. They were in bags and looked like they were from a grocery store. We were putting them in the back seat of his car and a van rolled up on us. Guys with guns came out yelling and threw me on the ground."
As it turned out, the "guys" were Buena Park cops, and the "water" bottles actually contained 11 gallons of GHB, the so-called date-rape drug, which is also popular at rave parties.
"I got charged with possession with the intent to distribute 11 gallons of GHB," Trumbauer said. On the advice of his lawyer, Trumbauer pled guilty and received a one-year jail sentence. But before he could begin serving his time, he was arrested again and charged with possession of 5,000 tablets of pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in the manufacture of methamphetamine. Trumbauer claims he was simply in the wrong car at the wrong time, unwittingly driving a friend to a drug deal.
Whatever the truth of that claim ("I can't say much about that [arrest] because I'm appealing it," Trumbauer said), his GHB conviction contributed significantly to the 88-month second sentence.
What Trumbauer knows now is that the officer who arrested him was Buena Park narcotics detective Jason Parsons, who that same month—thanks to his relationship with Johar—had had sex with Piho in Vegas. But Trumbauer didn't know about Parsons' relationship with Piho or Johar until the Times reported it a year later, in April 2003. By that time, he was already behind bars.
"I was kinda shocked," he said. "This was supposed to be my girlfriend and we were back together at that point—and then I hear she had sex with the cop that arrested me."
Upon discovering the relationship between Parsons, Piho and Johar, Trumbauer tried to reverse his guilty plea.
In an April 2004 court declaration, Trumbauer claimed that he never would have pled guilty if he'd known about the relationship between Piho, Johar and Parsons. "My trial attorney felt that a jury would believe the officers, who would testify that Sammy was a reliable informant," he alleged, adding that Detective Parsons was already under investigation by Internal Affairs when he pled guilty, "but that information was never given to me or to my attorney."
Trumbauer attorney Robert Ramsey believes his client deserves a new trial. Witnesses would be scant: Johar is now a fugitive wanted on drug charges and Parsons is a disgraced ex-cop. "It would be powerful stuff to impeach them with," Ramsey said. "In all likelihood, the cop is going to take the Fifth because we're alleging criminal activity against him."
But Ramsey didn't file Trumbauer's request to reverse his plea at the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse in Santa Ana until April 2004, a year after the Times article appeared. He acknowledged that the court rejected the motion because it was filed too late.
"He's not too happy about it," Ramsey said of his client. "We're sort of having a dispute about that."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.