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Strip-Club Partner Guilty in '89 Murder

Courts: Verdict in Brea 'cold case' jolts Michael Woods' family. Son of victim 'Big Mac' McKenna voices relief.

September 08, 2001|STUART PFEIFER and JACK LEONARD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A former CHP officer accused of ordering the slaying of a man who co-owned several nude dance clubs with him was convicted of first-degree murder Friday, 12 1/2 years after Horace "Big Mac" McKenna was gunned down outside his Brea mansion.

Michael Woods, 59, dropped his head as the guilty verdict touched off commotion in the Santa Ana courtroom. Woods' wife and two grown daughters sobbed hysterically, prompting a bailiff to ask them to calm down.

The silver-haired Woods, sitting at the defense table, turned toward his family and said softly, "Don't cry." At the back of the public gallery, McKenna's 35-year-old son wiped away tears.

The verdict capped a two-week trial in which prosecutors accused Woods of paying his bodyguard $50,000 to arrange the slaying in a bold attempt to win sole control of the strip clubs he operated with McKenna.

Outside court, Michael McKenna said he was relieved that jurors had finally ended the mystery into who was behind his father's death, long considered one of Southern California's most sensational whodunits.

"It's like I can finally stop wondering now. My dad can now rest and I can now rest," McKenna said. "To me, it's finally over."

The killing went unsolved until last year, when a longtime police informant surfaced and told investigators with the Orange County district attorney's office that he committed the crime--at the request of Woods.

Organized crime investigators went undercover for nearly a year before making arrests. On Friday, detectives said they were relieved to resolve what had been a "cold case" for too many years.

"It was a long ordeal. I'm glad it's over for [McKenna's] family," said district attorney's investigator Tom Stewart. "The right thing was done."

But Woods' attorneys said they were disappointed and vowed to appeal, saying their client was denied a fair trial.

They criticized prosecutors and Superior Court Judge Kazuharu Makino for preventing them from cross-examining the alleged hit man. Had John Patrick Sheridan been forced to testify, Woods' attorneys said, they could have exposed inconsistencies in the case and proved that Woods had nothing to do with the killing.

"It put us at a terrible disadvantage," said lawyer Richard Hirsch. "To me, not being allowed to call him [as a witness] is a miscarriage of justice."

Hirsch said Woods firmly believed the jury of seven men and five women would acquit him.

"He's shocked by the verdict. He's very upset," the attorney said.

Woods faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Jurors and prosecutors declined to comment on the case.

Woods and McKenna met in the 1960s while working as California Highway Patrol motorcycle officers in Los Angeles. McKenna was forced out of the CHP and Woods resigned his position in the 1970s, and the two became business associates in several nude clubs, including Bare Elegance and the New Jet Strip.

McKenna--a 300-pound bodybuilder--died after being hit by machine gun fire as he sat in a chauffeured limousine outside a Brea estate that housed a menagerie of exotic animals.

Prosecutors charged that Woods had grown tired of being bullied by his flamboyant business partner and had asked his bodyguard, David Amos, to arrange McKenna's murder.

During the trial, Amos testified that Woods believed McKenna had threatened at one point to rape his daughters. In response to that threat, Amos said, Woods asked him to hire a hit man, Sheridan.

Prosecutors let jurors hear a tape recording made last year of Amos and Woods discussing the March 9, 1989, murder over lunch at Jerry's Famous Deli in Studio City.

In the exchange, captured on a hidden device, Amos said he was worried about Sheridan's loyalty because the hit man had complained he was never paid as promised.

"Well, I hate to say this, but you're the one . . . you told me you would take care of Johnny," Woods told Amos on the tape.

"I know," Amos responded. "I thought he forgot about it. I mean, you said you'd do it, and I forgot to give it to him . . . I mean he can't prove it's you."

"Yeah," Woods replied.

But defense attorneys argued at trial that it was Amos who wanted McKenna dead, and that he had hatched the idea on his own and had paid a hit man to commit the crime.

Both Amos and Sheridan have received consideration for their cooperation with authorities in the case. They have agreed to plead guilty to manslaughter and receive 20-year prison sentences.

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