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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

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.

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