It took almost 12 minutes for Superior Court Judge Frank F. Fasel to summarize Billy Joe Johnson’s extensive rap sheet and mention a few mitigating factors before finding that the Costa Mesa-bred white supremacist gangster’s 30-year spree of crimes “substantially warrant” the ultimate punishment: death.
What could possibility mitigate the killing of five people? Judge Fasel said he considered that Johnson loves his mother, once refused an Aryan Brotherhood prison order to kill his cellmate, focused his violence on other criminals, spent more than half of his life incarcerated, grew up without a father who had abandoned the family, began abusing drugs and alcohol at the age of 10, and that several females vouch that Johnson is a sweetheart.
Not surprisingly, Johnson–an admitted, Hitler-loving serial killer who lisps–treated the hearing without showing an iota of fear or worry. He smiled or quietly joked with defense lawyer Michael Molfetta throughout the judge’s remarks. Indeed, the 46-year-old Public Enemy Number One (PEN1) gang member, former Nazi Low Rider and Southern California electrician hasn’t hidden his desire to live his remaining years alive on San Quentin State Prison’s death row. In his view, a worse plight would have been a life-without-possibility-of-parole sentence served in Pelican Bay State Prison, where he was miserable during a previous prison stint.
“You shall suffer the death penalty,” Fasel told Johnson after denying a motion to modify the jury’s death sentence recommendation earlier this month. The killer–who wore his customary Mohawk, wrinkled white button-down shirt, khakis, white sneakers and body chains–leaned back in his seat and sucked on his few remaining teeth. “You shall be put to death.”
Neither prosecutor Ebrahim Baytieh nor Molfetta had anything of substance to say; Fasel ordered Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens to transport Johnson, the father of two kids by different women, to San Quentin within 10 days. There, he will wait for the California Supreme Court to review his convictions and punishment. Every defendant in the state who is sentenced to death receives an automatic, taxpayer-funded appeal. If the past is any guide, the high court won’t rule on the righteousness of this case until 2019 or 2020. The execution backlog in California is massive: more than 650 inmates.
“I’ve got a lot of emotions,” Bonnie Miller, the mother of one of Johnson’s homicide victims, told me afterward. “This will make the community a safer place for all of us, but it doesn’t change what he’s done.”
Born in Warren, Ohio, Johnson is the youngest of five brothers. The family moved to California in the late 1960s. The dad, who Johnson has not seen in years, lives in Oregon and is a former boat builder. His mother, who is bad health, is retired from Dyson Electronics in Irvine.
Johnson’s first arrest came for burglary at the age of 12. He dropped out of school in the 11th grade and worked restoring antique cars but ultimately chose a career in construction. Robberies, burglaries, drug possessions, assaults and murders got in the way, however. To kill, he’s used a rusty steel claw hammer, a handgun, a shovel and an ax handle. In his recent trial, he calmly told a jury that he plans to kill again before the state can execute him.
CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; obtained one of the last exclusive prison interviews with Charles Manson disciple Susan Atkins; won inclusion in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Best American Crime Reporting for his coverage of a white supremacist’s senseless murder of a beloved Vietnamese refugee; launched multi-year probes that resulted in the FBI arrests and convictions of the top three ranking members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department; and gained praise from New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.