Richard Steven (Liberty) Steinhart cracked a smile when he remembered the time he phoned his friend David Arnold Brown to report that he had killed the three people Brown wanted dead.
"Bang, bang--right in the back of the head," Steinhart said, describing the conversation that took place one day in February, 1989.
"Wonderful! You're a good man!" Brown replied.
However, Brown did not know that Steinhart was lying. The people Steinhart was hired to kill--a deputy district attorney and an investigator working on Brown's then-pending murder trial, plus Brown's wife--were alive and well.
In fact, Steinhart taped the phone conversation with Brown for authorities. The tape would eventually force Brown to plead guilty to conspiracy to solicit murder, and it catapulted Steinhart, a burly motorcycle gang member with ties to the underworld, right smack into the middle of a seamy saga of lust, greed and murder--a tale that would eventually find its way to the TV screen.
At the time, Brown was already in jail awaiting trial on charges that he had orchestrated the 1985 murder of his wife. He was accused of brainwashing his 13-year-old daughter, Cinnamon Brown, into pulling the trigger while his wife slept.
In the highly publicized case, Cinnamon Brown was jailed for the crime while her father married his wife's teen-age sister, Patti, and used the money from his dead wife's insurance policy to move into a tony Anaheim mansion. Cinnamon later implicated her father as the mastermind of Linda Brown's murder.
Steinhart's role in the affair was spotlighted in local newspapers, a best-selling book and a TV miniseries. The case even became grist for an episode on Oprah Winfrey's television show.
But even Oprah did not know quite what to make of Steinhart when he appeared last year on her show. She took one look at his long, shaggy black hair, curled-tip mustache and goatee and his tattoo-covered arms and said flatly, "I wouldn't mess with you."
But today the Steinhart who once appeared before the TV cameras is a changed man.
That transformation began in June, 1989, when he discovered religion while attending chapel to escape the boredom of a prison cell. Then, a year after his jailhouse conversion, acquired immune deficiency syndrome was diagnosed and Steinhart was told that he could die any day.
"I have no doubt that AIDS is my punishment for those wild days," he said. "I've been sentenced . . . because I've done a lot of people wrong. I'm paying for it, but I know that God is also watching over me, so I'm at peace.
"Some people say it's a scam," Steinhart said of the skeptical responses to his religious metamorphosis. "Why? I'm dying. I have nothing to gain. It's not a scam, but if it is, God would be able to tell."
Steinhart said that with help from medications "and God looking down on me," he is still alive two years later and out of prison. But his health is waning, and getting up in the morning is a painful daily struggle.
These days, most of his waking moments are spent in bed. But every once in a while, he feels well enough to venture outside his two-story, light-blue house in Perris that stands on 4 1/2 acres of land. The property, Reaching Out Through Jesus Christ Ranch, is owned by a church. Steinhart and his wife, Patti, use it to house and feed the area's homeless.
It's a far cry from the days when he doped himself up with cocaine, ran with ex-convicts and sold his "leg- and arm-breaking" skills to the highest bidder.
But it is a life that gives him peace, even as he suffers the racking pain that comes from the killer disease. It is a life of atonement.
The only fond memory he has of his criminal past is his bizarre friendship with David Brown, whose name still brings a smile to his face.
The two met in jail, where Steinhart was serving time for violating parole.
When Brown discovered that Steinhart was a martial-arts expert with a long criminal history, he sought out his friendship. Later, Brown offered to pay Steinhart $300,000 to $500,000 to kill the prosecutor and investigator handling his case.
He also wanted Steinhart to kill his wife, Patti, who knew too much about his role in his former wife's murder, Steinhart said.
"I was going to do it too," Steinhart said. "The idea of killing somebody--or hiring someone else to do the killing--didn't matter to me. I just wanted the money for drugs."
But before the killings were attempted, an inmate privy to the plot snitched to the district attorney's office. Confronted, Steinhart agreed to help the prosecutor by taping his conversations about the planned killings.
Steinhart thought the matter was behind him for good.
But last month, he received a phone call from the past. It was Cinnamon Brown, now 21, who had just been quietly paroled after serving eight years in a California Youth Authority facility.
They met for the first time and had dinner.
"She had questions about her dad," he said quietly. "I guess she mainly wanted to know if he wanted her killed too.
"I told her the truth: No, he didn't. She seemed relieved. I was relieved that I could truthfully tell her that and make her life a little more peaceful."
Even though the dinner was the first time, and probably the last, that the two would meet, Steinhart said, it was a cathartic experience for them both.
With that meeting, he has come full circle in his relationship with David Brown.
"Finally, I think the chapter has closed," he said.