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Lt.: Gang rankings hinge on violence

Murder suspect had a role in shooting because members of his white supremacist gang routinely use violence to climb ranks, lieutenant says.

October 13, 2009|By Joseph Serna

After three days of testimony, prosecutors Tuesday rested their murder case against Costa Mesa native and skinhead gang member Billy Joe Johnson.

If he is convicted, attorneys would go into the trial’s penalty phase. The Orange County district attorney’s office is seeking the death penalty for Johnson, 46.

Johnson is on trial for his alleged role in the March 2002 slaying of Scott Miller, a founding member of the Public Enemy Number One white supremacist gang. Other leaders in the gang “green-lighted” a hit against Miller following his participation in a 2001 TV news story about skinhead gangs in Southern California and the prison system.

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Prosecutors allege that Johnson lured Miller to an Anaheim alley, where another gang member shot Miller in the back of the head with a .9 mm pistol.

Tuesday’s testimony at Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana was a preview of what jurors could expect to hear during the next phase of the trial, if they return with a guilty verdict.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Ebrahim Baytieh spent much of the day questioning retired Costa Mesa police Lt. Clay Epperson, who led the department’s Special Enforcement Detail and worked on its gang unit in the mid-1990s.

Epperson claimed that Johnson’s role in the killing — which the defense does not deny and which Johnson admitted to through testimony in a separate trial — accelerated Johnson’s rise in the gang’s hierarchy.

In the gang world, the more violent you are and the more crimes you commit is a path to power within the group, Epperson testified. Johnson, who had just transitioned into the Public Enemy Number One gang from the Nazi Low Riders gang, was trying to move up in the ranks, he said.

The central theme of Johnson’s new gang, Epperson testified, is “self-serving thuggery and violence.”

Pressing the prosecution’s case, Baytieh also played recorded phone conversations between Johnson and friends, while Johnson was in prison, to show that the defendant relished his “boogie man” reputation spun in the media. After the trial adjourned for the day, Baytieh called Johnson a cold-blooded killer.

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