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A Hit Man's Guilt

John Patrick Sheridan Was Lucky. He Murdered 'Big Mac' McKenna and Got Away With It. Then He Heard About the Dying Man's Last Words.

December 16, 2001|FRED DICKEY, Fred Dickey last wrote for the magazine about the criminal investivation of a San Diego wildlife activist

Copyright Los Angeles Times

Through the plate glass separating prisoners from visitors, John Patrick Sheridan talks about the secret he kept for a decade. He explains how loyalty to a drinking buddy and a promise of $25,000 were enough for him to murder someone. He describes how he planned the killing and rehearsed it, and then pulled it off without a hitch. Yes, he says, he was lucky for a first-time hit man. Lucky, that is, except for one thing. He failed to consider the person who stepped forward 10 years later and fingered him, sending him to prison. That person was himself.

In the autumn of 2001, Sheridan is being held in a cell in the Santa Ana City Jail, awaiting his prison term for murder. He looks young for 39, slim and handsome--thick black hair, almond eyes and the tawny skin that is a blending of his Chinese and Irish genes. He is held in isolation 23 hours each day, left with only one hour to shave, shower, watch TV and make phone calls. This is not punishment, though. It is the same protection given to any snitch who would be in danger in the jail population.

Sheridan is an intelligent 10th-grade dropout from Agoura, a drug dealer and a chronic user from age 11, a strip-club roustabout before he became a contract killer. He can be a fun guy without a gun in his hand. He punctuates sentences with a merry laugh and is disarmingly frank about his life, including one particular night 12 years ago.

John Sheridan was in a place that made him uncomfortable. He had been there several times, but had backed away on every occasion, lacking the resolve to pull the trigger. This time he sat hunched down, obscured by darkness and a low wall, sipping beer from a bottle and caressing the stubby barrel of his Uzi automatic weapon. Every set of car lights that approached made him tense. Could this be the one? But every car continued straight down Carbon Canyon Road. Each time, Sheridan leaned back, knowing that the car would eventually come.

The man Sheridan awaited was Horace "Big Mac" McKenna Jr., a New Orleans native and a bodybuilder who stood 6-foot-6 and weighed almost 300 pounds. At 46, McKenna was mean, tough and a bully. But he liked animals, especially those that could eat humans, a species he was not especially fond of.

As Sheridan waited, McKenna was lounging in the rear seat of a luxury car gliding through Orange County. It was about 12:30 a.m. on March 9, 1989, still early for a sporting man, but he relaxed with the assurance that comes with being big-time and uncontested.

Sheridan looked at his watch again and again. Could he pull the trigger this time? Certain expectations had been created. Back in L.A., a scary guy was waiting near a telephone for a call, and when it rang he expected to be told: "It's done." A hit man is not without job pressures. The news would reassure Michael Woods, 48, McKenna's partner in three strip clubs--the Valley Ball in Van Nuys and Bare Elegance and Jet Strip in Los Angeles.

The businesses had made both men wealthy, but that is about where the similarity ended. Ruthless use of people had brought McKenna an abundance of money and compliant men and women who feared him. His large estate was filled with wonders: a mock boot hill, the facade of a Western town, Arabian horses and exotic animals. He dressed pet monkeys in tuxedos and even had a Bengal tiger. He also had a caiman, an alligator-like animal, but it froze to death. He did all of this on a reported gross annual income of $44,000. The man could stretch a dollar.

Compared to McKenna, Woods was as plain as a glass of milk. He lived in a sedate but expensive house tucked away in Westlake Village, nothing at all like McKenna's splashy 35-acre estate with its sprawling Spanish-style house in Brea. The great gulf between the men's personalities eventually drove them far apart. Trying to steal each other blind probably didn't help.

The rift widened, witnesses would later say, when Woods hired David Amos from England. Amos, then 21, was brought in as a club bouncer and he promptly created an aura around himself. He was even reputed to have been a British commando. The truth is, according to Amos' brother Tony, that he never got out of boot camp. Amos, however, was nearly as big as McKenna, just as buff and much younger. The older man took an instant dislike to Woods' burly new enforcer, the witnesses say.

As McKenna sped through that early morning blackness in 1989, the sweet deal he and Woods enjoyed was under attack from the Los Angeles County district attorney and state tax authorities. The men had been accused of skimming large chunks of cash from the nightly takes at the clubs. At the same time, McKenna's drug-influenced behavior was becoming more unpredictable and abusive. On at least one occasion, he and Woods engaged in a shouting argument, and McKenna took a big swing at the smaller man. Woods claimed that McKenna threatened to rape his daughters.

McKenna's car slowed and made the turn into his secluded driveway at 6200 Carbon Canyon Road. His driver was Bob Berg, an unaggressive born-again Christian nicknamed "Bible Bob." The car stopped as Berg began his entry routine, which involved getting out to open the gate, driving through, then getting out again to close the gate.

When the interior light went on, McKenna pushed himself up to a sitting position. As Berg got back in, Sheridan quietly slid the bolt on his Uzi and stepped from his hiding place. The interior light clicked off. Sheridan was alongside the passenger rear window, which was partially open. He could see McKenna's dark form moving in the back seat. He raised the gun and pulled the trigger. The 9-millimeter clip emptied with the staccato sound of fingers sweeping across piano keys. The window disintegrated. At least 20 bullets thudded into McKenna's torso. Through the broken glass, Sheridan heard him say calmly, almost in wonderment, "I've been shot." With that, the stunned but unhurt Berg slammed the car into gear and shot up the hill. Sheridan sprinted for his own car down the street.

Minutes later, after Sheridan put miles behind him, he pulled into a 7-Eleven parking lot and grabbed a pay phone. "That job you wanted done? Well, it's done," he said. There was a pause, then a man with a British accent answered. It was Amos, Woods' main man. "All right. That's good," he replied.

John Patrick Sheridan, assassin, went out and got drunk.

McKenna's funeral drew a crowd of 300, a few no doubt wanting to make sure he was dead. The coffin was draped in an American flag, and there was a photo on an easel of McKenna on horseback. The spiffed-up monkeys were not there. Mike Woods was not there. The congregation listened to a priest trying to convince them that God's goodness was so vast that even Big Mac's soul was not out of the running, a bet that Vegas oddsmakers would have taken off the board.

As Sheridan talks on the other side of the jail glass, he struggles with emotions that are at odds with the unsavory world he occupied. This new language of "feelings" is foreign, and his vocabulary for expressing them is small. He takes refuge in a gruff, Clint Eastwood-style explanation: "I did what I did and I gotta pay the price."

The paradox of Sheridan's being behind bars is huge. He didn't have to be here. He was virtually untouchable by the law because there were no witnesses to the crime. As he says, "I didn't leave my wallet behind." Certainly, the men who hired him weren't going to snitch. So why is he here now? The answer rests with two things we admire, family and God, and two things we do not, fear and hate.

Sheridan had long been a strip-club hanger-on, which is how he met Amos. The two became drinking buddies. In 1988, Amos raised the subject of murder. "We were friends, and he first asked if I knew anyone who could take care of 'a difficult job.' He kept talking, and I figured out what he was talking about and who was the target. I also knew he was really asking me to take care of it." He pauses. "I told him he was nuts."

Sheridan laughs at the recollection because, at the time, he was snitching for Ventura County cops in an attempt to avoid prison. "I was out on bail at the time on drug charges, and I was, like, going to friends and saying, 'If there's anyone you don't like who's selling drugs, let me know and I'll turn them in.' " When Amos approached with the murder proposal, he unwittingly gave Sheridan a terrific opportunity to improve his standing with police. "Man, if David wasn't my friend, I had a murder for hire. I could have turned him in, and I would have been home free."

But Sheridan didn't. He liked his friend, and could use the money. Besides, he was hard into cocaine and alcohol, and his judgment did not serve him that well--especially after Amos sold him on the idea that if McKenna weren't killed, Amos himself would be "whacked" by Big Mac. After considering it for more than three months, Sheridan went back to Amos and said, "You know that job you were talking about? I can get it done."

Whatever he was thinking--or not thinking--at the time, Sheridan had signed on. However, he soon developed cold feet and approached a friend, who tried without success to persuade the Hells Angels to do the deed. When they declined, Sheridan felt trapped. Veiled comments by Amos convinced him that if he didn't do the killing, he could be in danger himself. So he bought the Uzi on the street for $1,200. ("So much for gun control," he says with a laugh.)

For the murder, Sheridan says he was paid $25,000 and given a job at the clubs. But in late 1989 he was sent to prison for two years on a cocaine bust. After his release, he resumed his strip-club job and spent almost a decade working in various manager roles. His salary at the clubs never topped $3,000 a month--even though, he says without bitterness, he watched Amos and Woods rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars, much of it taken out of the till before taxes. He admits to having stolen some himself.

Woods had made Amos a partner shortly after the killing as a payoff for arranging the McKenna murder. For the next decade, the two men dominated the L.A. strip club industry. They ran their clubs, raked in cash, bought boats and expensive cars--a Humvee and Mercedes for Amos, a Lexus and Mercedes for Woods. In the ultimate act of L.A. narcissism, they even made two minor movies, produced by Woods and featuring Amos in acting roles. Amos fancied himself an actor and liked to pal around with fringe Hollywood types.

Sheridan's life was less exotic, although he had one thing that neither Amos nor Woods claimed: a sense of guilt. About seven years after the killing, Sheridan was told by an unsuspecting Bob Berg that as McKenna's car sped up the driveway, the stricken man had said to his chauffeur, "Tell my mom I love her." A cynic might say that Big Mac should have talked about his mother more often. But for Sheridan, hearing those words forced him to look at what he had done. He says he cried, and guilt began to percolate. As time passed, he quietly began grieving for McKenna's family and prayed for his victim, using words he says will remain "between me and God."

He also was troubled when he saw the autopsy photos. "The guy really was a mess," he says, shaking his head. He tries to put himself into his victim's place, but his thinking is muddled. "I certainly wouldn't appreciate anyone jumping out of the bushes and taking me out. Mac didn't know what was happening, and all of a sudden he was dying."

Woods and Amos were suspects immediately after the killing, but investigators had no luck making a case. Eight years passed. Then, in 1997, the case drew the attention of Rick Morton, a 26-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department who had joined the Orange County district attorney's office three years before. Morton and his team conducted interview after interview with dancers, cronies and club employees. The answer to the question, "Who killed McKenna?" was often the same: Woods, and maybe Amos. Even Woods' brother Richard thought so. But as hard as Morton and his team worked, by 2000 they had little new information.

They were about to get lucky.

When Sheridan heard about the Orange County investigation, he began to worry--in ways Woods and Amos did not. All three had to fear the cops. But Sheridan also had to watch over his shoulder for his bosses. It wasn't hard to figure out why: He had left no biological evidence of the crime and had destroyed the gun. There were no witnesses. He was home free, and so were Woods and Amos--provided Sheridan kept quiet. As Morton says, "The ultimate loss of control is the danger of someone you don't trust being able to put you on death row."

Fearful that Sheridan might talk, Woods and Amos gave him another $10,000. Even so, Sheridan believed he eventually would be "whacked" by the partners. "One time, Mike invited me to go to Lake Mead with him and David and go out on his boat." He laughs merrily. "I wasn't that dumb." He believes that had the situation continued, he would have had to kill Woods to save himself. "Other than going to the cops, that was my only option."

Sheridan also had developed an interest in religion, and in February 2000 he went to a Catholic priest and unburdened himself about the murder. He didn't stop there. He also went to the police and confessed.

Police wanted stronger evidence and persuaded Sheridan to wear a wire in the hope that Amos would incriminate himself. From February to October of 2000, Sheridan spent hours with Amos, using every opportunity to discuss the murder and their respective roles. Sheridan couldn't use the same tactic with Woods because Amos had been his sole contact on the killing, and an approach to Woods at that point would have aroused suspicion.

Wearing a wire was dangerous. If Amos checked for the device, Sheridan might have found out very quickly what God thought of him. But the ploy worked. On Oct. 26, 2000, police arrested Amos for murder and brought him face to face with Sheridan. Shaken, Amos agreed to wear a wire for a meeting with Woods. The next day, Woods and Amos had lunch at Jerry's Famous Deli in Woodland Hills. Investigators listening to the conversation heard Woods discussing ways to continue covering up the killing. He was arrested immediately after leaving the restaurant.

An Orange County jury convicted Woods on Sept. 7 of first-degree murder. He will be sentenced next month to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Amos, for his cooperation, was allowed to plead guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 20 years.

Sheridan also was allowed to plead guilty to manslaughter for the contract murder--a crime that could have earned him the death penalty. He, too, has been sentenced to 20 years, of which he will have to serve at least half. "I wasted my life," Sheridan says from his seat beyond the glass. "I wasted my wife's life. I understand that." Sheridan's wife, once a nude dancer, is now a born-again Christian who, he says, supported his decision to step forward because they both wanted to start over, free and clear of the strip-club life. She has since moved to another state to try to hold her family together. Asked how she is doing, he says, "Not well."

Visits with his kids are rare and painful because he is reminded of all that he has thrown away. "When my 8-year-old girl asks when I'm coming home, I have to tell her it'll be when she's in college." The girl explains to people that her "daddy killed a bad guy." Yet despite his new religion, Sheridan cultivates a hatred for Woods that he says provided additional impetus for going to the police. By doing so, he says, he prevented additional killings that Woods would have commissioned, including his own.

He also resents Woods for being cheap, duplicitous and sexually using the dancers. "Mike messed with me and messed with a lot of people over a lot of years. I want Mike to have a long life so he can suffer. If Mike had had the guts to kill me himself, he wouldn't be in the mess he's in. I want him to think about that until the day he dies."

The time in prison will also give Sheridan time to think. He can probably use all of it, for the odd truth is that Sheridan still can't explain why he did it, why he agreed to coldly aim an assault weapon at a fellow with whom he had no quarrel. Ask him the question a hundred different ways, and he cannot provide a single satisfying answer. Ultimately, an answer emerges: A screwed-up drug abuser committed murder primarily because he was a screwed-up drug abuser.

Recent Photos of Fred, Family and Friends

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