He wants people to know he’s a burglar, robber, white supremacist, gangster, drug addict and savage murderer who believes in Nazism and the power of Nordic hammer-wielding deity Thor. But please don’t accuse Billy Joe Johnson of lying, cheating or stealing. “It’s the truth,” a shackled-to-the-floor Johnson told an Orange County jury deciding whether or not to send him to San Quentin State Prison”s death row. “I don’t lie. I don’t cheat, and I don’t steal.”
But on Oct. 27, inside a Santa Ana courtroom with a rapt, capacity crowd, Johnson wasn’t answering pesky questions by veteran homicide prosecutor Ebrahim Baytieh;that would come later. He was speaking to Michael Molfetta, his often-exasperated, taxpayer-funded defense lawyer, who replied, “But Billy Joe, you’ve been convicted of burglary and robbery.”
Visibly enjoying the stage, Johnson cleared his throat—the one covered with a huge tattoo of SS lightning bolts announcing his admiration for Hitler. The admitted serial killer turned his head—the one sporting his now-customary mohawk but accentuated on this day with seven equally spaced spikes from his forehead to his neck. Then he gazed, this time without malice, at several female jurors unfortunate enough to be seated six feet from him. Their eyes darted away.
“I take,” explained Johnson, whose own court expert diagnosed him with an anti-social personality disorder, a low IQ, grandiose opinions of himself, zero chance for rehabilitation and severe psychopathic tendencies. “There’s a difference.”
Welcome to Johnson’s surreal world. While Molfetta sought a parole-less life-in-prison sentence, his client openly sided with Baytieh’s death-penalty recommendation. Therein lay this Public Enemy Number One Death Squad (PEN1) gang member’s dilemma: He wanted the jury to hate him enough to send him to death row at San Quentin, but not enough to spite his wishes and return him to a place he considers a worse living hell: Pelican Bay State Prison.
“I’d have a little more range of movement [on death row],” Johnson, 46 and a custom-home builder by trade, told the jury. “Stretch my bones a little bit more . . . [but] it doesn’t matter. Life or death, it doesn’t matter. My life is gone. I’m dead. I’m here but not here.”
Johnson doesn’t want anyone to think they have power over him. (He says he fears no man.) But in a ham-fisted attempt to underscore his qualifications for the death penalty, Johnson bragged about his willingness to enforce his white-power beliefs with lethal force, and then he voluntarily confessed to killing “at least” two additional men in officially unsolved cases. Baytieh’s efforts to elicit the names of those victims were met with laughter from the witness stand.
“I’m not going to talk about it,” said Johnson, whose murder count now stands at five.
Jurors have plenty of gory evidence to consider. There’s the 1991 prison ax-handle killing of Clyde Nordeen. There’s the point-blank-to-the-head handgun execution of Scott Miller in Anaheim in 2002. And there’s the rusty claw-hammer murder of Cory Lamons in Huntington Beach two years later. In each case, Johnson ambushed unarmed victims. He escaped any prosecution for killing Nordeen (because, he says, prison guards sanctioned the hit), but he received a 45-year-to-life sentence in the Lamons case.
“I don’t feel no remorse about nothing,” Johnson told jurors. “I commit crimes when people piss me off. When I do a crime, I don’t look at the repercussions. . . . I’m good in my heart.”
But the twice-divorced killer wanted everyone to know he has feelings. He says he adores his ailing 73-year-old mother in Costa Mesa and loves his two offspring, one of whom—no surprise—has followed in his daddy’s criminal footsteps. “I love them,” he said.
Molfetta sought to capitalize on Johnson’s claims of situational tenderness, asking if he considers himself “cold-hearted.”
“I can be,” said Johnson, who has been incarcerated and paroled seven times since 1983. “I’ve grown up in the [California prison] system. The violent nature is all I know, but my family life is different.”
He blamed massive alcohol and illegal-drug consumption—LSD, cocaine, marijuana, heroin and, his favorite, crystal meth, for wrecking his lifelong dream. “I have not accomplished what I thought I’d accomplish,” he said. “I thought I’d be living on top of the hill, looking down on the rest of creation.”
In a move to imply he shares a few of society’s views, Johnson noted that he hates pedophiles (and prison rats) and women-abusers, though he admitted that he routinely calls women “bitches” and has been aggressively promiscuous. He also said that the day’s emotional testimony of Bonnie Miller, the mother of one of his victims, made him feel “terrible.”
A softer Johnson might have seemed plausible if jurors hadn’t also heard taped jailhouse-phone conversations of him angrily ordering PEN1 members roaming free in society to carry out home-invasion robberies, burglaries, assaults and murders.
From a May 28, 2007, call: “I’m really pissed. Now I want to fucking chop their heads off. Go get one! I said go get one now!”
From a Sept. 10, 2007, call: “Just start—you know what I mean, no bullshit, start killing motherfuckers. . . . I’m not fucking playing with nobody no more. Mr. Nice Guy is gone.”
From an April 5, 2008, call: “Fuck all of them motherfuckers, you know what I mean? Smash them all until they fucking go blind!”
One call provided jurors with a “Who’s on first?” moment. A PEN1-related girlfriend of Johnson finally realized that Orange County sheriff’s deputies were recording their calls.
Woman: Oh, oh, well, you know, they’re listening because we know.
Johnson: I know that. You know that. We know that. So, you know what I mean.
Johnson: Um, um.
Woman: Now we know that they know.
Johnson: I know.
Woman: I know that they know, so now I’m letting you know that we all know.
Johnson: Yeah, so who cares if they know?
During testimony about those calls, Johnson described himself in a “cat-and-mouse game” with deputies. “I think I’m the cat,” he said, cracking a smile that showed his false front teeth.
In hopes of ensuring that a lone, bizarre juror somehow doesn’t feel sympathy for Johnson, Baytieh played a chilling recording of Johnson talking about himself in the third person: “He ain’t done yet. He’s gonna kill again—oh, man!”
“I’m a motherfucking, bona-fide, certified, fucking nut fucking case, and if they don’t like it, they can fuck off,” said Johnson, who speaks with a lisp. “You know what I mean? Put that on the fucking front page, you know what I mean? Nut case. Fucking don’t care.”
In a final attempt to bolster his monster image, Johnson told jurors that he is determined to kill members of United Society of Aryan Skinheads, a rival gang.
“I’m on a mission,” he said, winking at the prosecutor.
At press time, neither side had presented final arguments to the jury.
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.