White Power With a Lisp
Sporting a fluffy Mohawk-mullet, Nazi SS lightning bolts over his Adam's apple and an orange jail jumpsuit, infamous Southern California criminal Billy Joe Johnson emerges in public on June 6. He lands not on the blue-collar streets of Costa Mesa, which helped groom him into a monster, but in a Santa Ana courtroom. The setting is familiar to this robber, burglar, drug addict, assault enthusiast, killer, inmate and—oh, yes—father, handyman, and "white power" T-shirt and accessories designer.
Like Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, Johnson requires special security precautions. A noticeably tense, multi-ethnic team of sheriff's deputies escorts him into the courtroom. Long gone are his trademark red suspenders, which were traded in for the chains encircling his gruesomely scarred, heavily inked body. He shuffles through the room. The guards watch this prisoner as if he is an explosive.
This time, Johnson is not a defendant, but a key witness. Michael Allan Lamb and Jacob Anthony Rump, two fellow Public Enemy Number One (PENI or PEN1) Death Squad hoodlums, are charged with the 2002 execution of Scott Miller of Huntington Beach. PENI's co-founder, Miller had made the mistake of talking to a Fox News investigative reporter in Los Angeles. Rump and Lamb are also accused of attempting to murder an undercover Anaheim cop. They hope their star defense witness can provide an airtight alibi for them in the killing of Miller. And sure enough, Johnson will eventually testify, "I want them [the jury] to know they [Lamb and Rump] was not guilty."
Placed in the witness chair, he slowly stretches his neck and glances—clearly unimpressed—at the enlarged personal photography that decorates Superior Court Judge William Froeberg's courtroom walls. He studies the large crowd (many of whom are plainclothes cops), and then he winks and smiles quickly at Lamb.
When a solemn jury enters, Johnson goes bug-eyed. During his days in freedom, he liked to hang out in strip clubs. He stares at two blond female jurors as they walk by to take their seats. His tongue darts out of his mouth. He puckers, shakes his head and silently says the word "Wow!"
"I really don't pay attention to guys," Johnson later says with a lisp—due, presumably, to missing front teeth.
Though he is never asked about his sexual preference, the man who has spent half of his life locked in California prisons will declare his heterosexuality four times during his half-day appearance, including this doozy: "It's nobody's business who I am slut-butting."
Froeberg: "What does that mean?"
Johnson: "Slut-butting, what girls I'm running around with. Girls. Plural. Lots of girls."
"Okay," says Froeberg. It's his turn to be unimpressed.
Giving Johnson a forum to establish his masculinity wasn't the reason Rump, 30, and Lamb, 32, summoned their PENI pal from prison. Lamb, a violent career thug and dope dealer who branded his forehead with two PENI Death Squad tattoos and his throat with a swastika, faces the death penalty. Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas says his senior staff conducted an extensive review of Lamb's criminal conduct as an adult. They concluded that the most severe punishment is warranted and that Lamb is "beyond hope for rehabilitation." Rump—Lamb's less-than-brilliant dope-fiend sidekick—faces life in prison.
Intercepted jail mail shows that the two defendants have pet names for each other. Rump calls Lamb his "left butt cheek." Lamb calls Rump his "right butt cheek." You can't make this stuff up. They are, in their own minds, "a precision-tuned machine."
But the machine has a screw loose, and it's a sign of desperation that they've pinned their hopes on the likes of Johnson, who remains proud he used a rusty steel claw hammer to ambush and kill Cory Lamon, 26, in Huntington Beach in 2004. Johnson, a.k.a. BJ Psycho, had wanted to retrieve $20,000 stolen from a local stripper/escort named Wild Kitten. Lamon was the stripper's roommate who, it turns out, knew the identity of the thief. Sadly for Lamon, Johnson didn't realize that he should learn the identity before he used the hammer on his victim's skull. Days later, police arrested Johnson and a large contingent of his youthful followers before they could drive to the Inland Empire and burn Lamon's battered corpse.
Johnson, an ex-Nazi Low Rider now serving a 45-years-to-life sentence for murdering Lamon, obviously relishes attention. Photos show a massive tattoo across his chest reads, "CMTI," which he says stands for "Costa Mesa's True Individual." A Nazi war-eagle tattoo covers his belly button region. "I am proud to be white," he says about the swastika, demon and Iron Cross tattoos covering his stocky body. In a previous court appearance, he taunted the audience with a Heil Hitler salute. Asked if he calls courtrooms "the house of Jews," he replies without hesitation, "Certainly, certainly."
In the annals of Orange County gang prosecutions, it's unlikely anyone has a more impressive conviction record than veteran Deputy District Attorney Ebrahim Baytieh. In recent years, he's been a one-man wrecking crew to many of Little Saigon's Vietnamese criminal gangs. Street cops who aren't always impressed by prosecutors admire Baytieh. Dozens of violent gangsters will never get another chance to harm innocent people thanks to him.
His results aren't surprising. Baytieh prepares tirelessly for trials. His Middle Eastern accent doesn't get in the way of his rhetorical skills; he's a showman who shifts easily between subtlety and hardball. Perhaps most daunting for defense attorneys and their clients is his photographic memory.
In the case against Rump and Lamb, Baytieh and Anaheim police Detective Robert Blazek—who conducted the investigation—also possess substantial evidence. Three days after the Miller execution, undercover Anaheim police officers located the defendants in a stolen rental car. The panicked duo—who had been hiding from their parole officers for other crimes—attempted to flee in a wild, high-speed chase involving numerous cop cars and Angel, a city police helicopter. After a brief shootout, detectives captured Rump and Lamb. The men were carrying a 9 mm pistol. Forensic testing at the Orange County Sheriff's Department crime lab determined the same gun had been used to murder Miller.
Marlin Stapleton, Lamb's capable court-appointed defense attorney, faces an uphill battle. His game plan appears two-pronged. First, he presented evidence that numerous people in the underworld other than these defendants had motives to kill Miller. For example, he says, all PENI members were furious about Miller's interview with Fox News. Another gangster/convict, Jesse Wyman, wanted to confront Miller for allegedly stealing a truck and, according to Stapleton, had been looking for a gun in the days before the murder. The defense attorney also claims Miller stole narcotics from the Mexican Mafia.
Second—and more important to the strategy—is Billy Joe Johnson. Stapleton needs to pierce the "guilty beyond a reasonable doubt" standard for his clients by handing the jury the possibility that another person was the killer. Johnson obliges.
"I did it," Johnson testifies on June 6. "I wasn't real happy with the guy."
Here is Johnson's version of the murder: To celebrate his cousin's birthday, he started partying in a Costa Mesa Federal Avenue residence at about 4 p.m. on March 8, 2002. There were drugs, drinking and girls. Miller eventually arrived.
"I was really pissed-off when I seen him at my cousin's house," Johnson says. There had been problems between the two men involving girls and the unforgivable interview about PENI identity theft and narcotics activities from a year earlier. "What the hell is up with that?"
But Johnson says he let Miller, whom he knew as a friend for at least 25 years, feel comfortable.
Sometime that night—"Uh, between probably 8 and 10, probably, something of that nature, I mean, I was doing a lot of dope"—Johnson says, he left with Miller, "driving 80 or 85 mph" on the 55 and 5 freeways to "get some heroin" near Lincoln and Euclid in Anaheim.
"As I said, I'm pretty perturbed with the guy, really had it with him," Johnson testifies. "Walking down the alley, and we cruise, uh, getting ready to go into the apartment complex 'cause there's, like, garages, and then there's, like, an inlet towards the apartments. We walk in there. I just reached in my waistband and grabbed my gun and blasted him. I turned around, took off down the alley, jumped back in my Chevrolet Silverado truck and took off back to the party. I hooked up with Shirley Williams that night. I sure did. . . . It was at Doheny Beach [motel]. Actually right by Doheny Beach."
Police found Miller, 38, face-down in a massive pool of blood. The back of his head had been blown away. The bullet lodged in his brain.
If the jury bought Johnson's story, half of Stapleton's problem was solved. Next hurdle: How did Rump and Lamb get Johnson's gun?
The night after the murder, Johnson says, he was alone drinking beer at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano when he saw Lamb with a "big-titty girl." Lamb needed a gun. He told Johnson that the Mexican Mafia had allegedly shot at PENI members a day earlier.
"I told him that the weapon was 'hot' when what I should have told him is that the weapon was 'hot one,'" Johnson says. He explains to the jury that hot means stolen and hot one means a murder weapon.
Stapleton holds up the pistol and asks, "Is that the gun you gave Mr. Lamb [two days before police arrested him]?"
"Seems to be," Johnson replies.
"Looks exactly the same?"
To assist Rump and Lamb, Johnson needs to portray himself as a killer with a conscience. That's why four years after the Miller murder, he's finally confessing, he says. He doesn't want to see innocent men wrongly convicted.
When Stapleton finishes lobbing softball questions at Johnson, Baytieh snaps to his feet. "You say that you're here to set things right," he says. "But you are not thinking about Scott Miller's family, correct?"
"Actually, I was . . . I . . . I thought about it all, actually," says Johnson. "I thought about his wife, which is a good friend of mine. We used to go on vacations together. He [Miller] is a good friend of mine. He stepped out of line. I mean, it is what it is."
"You are not thinking about the criminal-justice system, correct?" Baytieh fires back as jurors watch intensely.
"I don't care about the criminal-justice system. It's a fucked-up system."
"You don't care about the judge, correct?"
"You don't care about the jury?"
"You care about PENI?"
"You care about you?"
"You care about your fellow homeboys [Rump and Lamb]?"
"I am a convict."
"And you will put your life on the line for your fellow homeboys?"
"You will do whatever it takes to help a fellow homeboy?"
"Well, depends on what you mean. I'm not going to jump in front of a bullet for somebody. I'm certainly not going to jump in front of a knife for somebody. And I am not crazy."
If Johnson has any credibility left, Baytieh aims to destroy it by enticing him to prove his own dishonesty. The DA gets him to repeatedly deny his connection to PENI. Then, Baytieh displays for the jury a photo of Johnson standing proudly next to a large PENI shrine in a Costa Mesa house. Johnson grows angrier. Baytieh shows Johnson his signature on a guilty plea that states he'd killed Lamon with a hammer "for the benefit of, at the direction of and in association with PENI criminal street gang."
"Yeah, I pleaded guilty to that," says Johnson. "I'm not a PENI gang member. . . . It [talking about PENI] is against my laws. It would get me dead."
Baytieh pounds away for another half an hour, describing evidence that Johnson is trying to rescue Rump and Lamb in hopes of getting himself out of trouble for disobeying the prison-based Aryan Brotherhood gang and playing a martyr to strengthen his status in prison-gang hierarchy. He notes that after Johnson, who already was going to prison for at least the next four decades, confessed to the Miller murder, he told a detective working for the defense, "That should clear the books."
"I'm not going to go there," replies a red-faced Johnson.
Baytieh continues, accusing him of asking Lieutenant Clay Epperson, a Costa Mesa cop who grew up with Johnson, for help against the Aryan Brotherhood, a.k.a. "The Brand."
"Hell, no," he says. "I didn't talk to no goddamn cop. You are crazy as fuck."
"Because you hate cops, correct?"
"With a passion?"
"Yeah, they are cheats. They're just a big, old gang, man. All of them are gangsters. I mean, they got different colored uniforms. They run different areas. The only thing that's different between me and a cop is that they don't use drugs. That's the only difference."
Stapleton glances at the jury. Baytieh glances at the jury. Panel members look terrified.
"After you got in trouble with the Aryan Brotherhood, you became part of a group called Fuck the Brand, FTB, isn't that correct?" asks Baytieh.
"You're crazy, dude," says Johnson. "Are you fucking out of your mind, or what?"
"As a result of that, you needed to get into PENI to get yourself out of trouble with the Aryan Brotherhood, correct?"
Johnson stares at the prosecutor. He's finally deflated. He simply says, "No."
Next, Baytieh gets Johnson to say he had owned the Miller murder weapon for at least six months. The exchange, which traps Johnson, demonstrates why Baytieh is considered one of the best prosecutors in California.
"How many bullets can you put into that weapon?" asks the DA.
"How many safeties does it have on it?"
"On the right side, right?"
Rump and Lamb could be cooked. Johnson got both answers wrong. This 9 mm holds 13 bullets and has safety switches on both sides.
Baytieh changes subjects, and five minutes later, he jumps back to the gun issue.
"Can you describe the bullets for us?" he asks.
"No, I never took the clip out of it."
Johnson is not expecting Baytieh's next question: "Did you ever fire that weapon?"
"No, I never have," replies Johnson.
"You've never fired that weapon?"
Johnson realizes his mistake: "Uh, I fired it one time."
A juror in the front row frowns and shakes his head.
PENI formed in the late 1980s from the Long Beach punk-rock scene, according to gang experts. At the time, the Nazi Low Riders and the Aryan Brotherhood ruled all white-supremacist gangs in California. But after prison officials managed to isolate the leadership of both feuding groups, PENI filled the void.
By the early 1990s, the gang became heavily concentrated in Orange County, particularly the cities of Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa and Anaheim—though they are also living in LA, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego. The gang reveres Nazi Germany and became a lethal, criminal operation after many of its leaders—including top dog Donald Mazza—landed in prison.
In 2005, police arrested 19 white supremacists with ties to PENI after an investigation into a Riverside County high school football coach who recruited for the gang. According to Kevin O'Grady at the Orange County branch of the Anti-Defamation League, this police probe located 75 illegal weapons, 15,000 rounds of ammunition, stolen vehicles, drugs and Nazi propaganda.
Today, corrections officials describe PENI as the most active white prison gang in the state. Unlike criminal Latino gangs, it is not turf-oriented. Money is its motivation more than racist ideology, according to police. PENI's criminal operations include forgery, identity theft, counterfeiting, witness intimidation, assault, burglary, fraud, illicit narcotic sales, racketeering and, of course, murder. Last year, 67 PENI members and associates were arrested in raids that recovered a hit list naming a local judge, prosecutors and police officers.
"Violence is what allows PENI to exist," according to Huntington Beach Sergeant John Van Holt, a gang expert. "It elevates the status of the gang and makes their criminal enterprises easier to do because of the reputation that comes from that."
DA spokeswoman Susan Kang Schroeder estimates there are more than 300 PENI members—many of whom call themselves "Needle Nazis"—in prison or roaming Southern California. Recently, law-enforcement agencies have tracked the gang's activities to the Pacific Northwest and to Arizona. They cherish heroin and methamphetamine—and these 14 words: "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children."
But the Miller and Lamon cases give these gangsters black eyes. It's a world steeped in arrogant ignorance. Directly in front of jurors, Rump and Lamb routinely joke, giggle and make funny faces when the lawyers have sidebar meetings with Froeberg. These are gangsters who talk about "love and loyalty." Yet, they'll kill their own without remorse.
What did it feel like to murder a longtime friend? Baytieh asks Johnson.
"I felt nothing," he says. "See, you live in a different world than I do."
The prosecutor replies, "I agree with you, Mr. Johnson."
There's silence, and then, perhaps sensing he's lost the exchange, Johnson huffs, "That's right, man."
It's one of the most fascinating court appearances in county history. Rump and Lamb had smiled and traded pleasantries with Johnson when he entered the courtroom. As deputies escort him out, there is silence. Both look down at the defense table.
It's hard being white supremacists these days. Cops and court personnel include large numbers of nonwhites, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and homosexuals. The media doesn't understand your convictions. You can't trust your buddies to appear credible in court. And apparently, you can't rely on your family, either.
Rump and Lamb have been held without bail in the Orange County Jail since 2002. On the day of Johnson's testimony, their female relatives—mothers, a grandmother and a girlfriend—brought white button-down shirts for them to wear in front of the jury. The defendants were overheard in their courthouse holding cells complaining.
They preferred colored shirts.
If the defense can't salvage their case, Rump and Lamb might soon receive lifetime supplies of solid-colored clothing courtesy of the California Department of Corrections.
We'll know the answer soon enough. Closing arguments in the trial are scheduled to begin on Thursday, June 14. Judge Froeberg expects the jury will start deliberating by Tuesday.
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