Johnson tarnishes a judge

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Judith L. Meyer damaged her own reputation by using her position and power to help Detective Todd Johnson save face. Why do Johnson’s enablers keep going to bat for him?

On April 5, 2022, the California Commission on Judicial Performance published a seven-page admonishment of Judge Meyer. The document is remarkable because it discloses facts that, otherwise, the public wouldn’t know. It illuminates a series of bizarre interactions yet leaves a crucial question unanswered.

The document explains that Judge Meyer presided over a pretrial hearing on May 15, 2017. It was a murder case. The public defender in the case accused LBPD Detective Todd Johnson and his partner Malcolm Evans of misconduct. The detectives allegedly provided incorrect information about one witness and used “improper tactics” when obtaining an identification from another witness.

Judge Meyer stated on the record that “the behavior of the detectives is appalling and unethical and inappropriate.” She ruled that the prosecution could not call two of their three eyewitnesses and, as a result, the deputy district attorney dismissed the case.

A week later, supervisors from Long Beach police went to Judge Meyer’s chambers. The supervisors told her they were investigating a complaint about Johnson and his partner filed by the deputy district attorney. Judge Meyer authorized the court reporter to provide LBPD with a transcript of the May 15th proceedings.

On April 23, 2018 — almost a year later — Detective Johnson and his partner showed up in Judge Meyer’s chambers wanting to talk about the year-old proceedings.

Immediately following this meeting, Judge Meyer wrote a letter addressed to LBPD Chief Robert Luna. Judge Meyer wrote that she felt “compelled to write…on behalf” of the detectives, whom she had known for more than nine years. She characterized the misconduct allegations against the detectives as “an unfortunate misunderstanding.”

She signed the letter and sent it to Detective Johnson via email, stating, “Please review. If you like it, I’ll send a copy to DA and Chief.”

Detective Johnson forwarded the letter to Chief Luna. The District Attorney’s Office and the Public Defender’s Office, too, were given copies of the letter.

When Judge Meyer learned that others had the letter, she sent a second letter to Chief Luna on May 31, 2018. In it, she tried to retract statements she’d made in the first letter. Judge Meyer wrote that she did not have a relationship with the detectives and “never intended to give a representation that [she had] an overall feeling about their general character.”

Regardless of her intentions, the commission found that, in sending both letters, “Judge Meyer acted impulsively, without stopping to consider the potential consequences of her actions.”

Why did she feel compelled?

Judge Meyer wrote that she felt compelled — meaning, she felt forced or obliged — to draft the first letter, and to do so in the interest of the detectives rather than, say, in the interest of justice.

Why did she feel obliged to do this favor for the detectives? What pressure or leverage urgently compelled her to write immediately after talking with them? The commission’s decision doesn’t say.

Not coincidentally, on April 23, 2018 — the day that Johnson and his partner confronted Judge Meyer — a substantial article about the botched murder prosecution was published by Long Beach Press-Telegram. The article highlighted the agony of the victim’s grieving family, who were devastated anew by the failures of LBPD and the justice system.

Long Beach Deputy Chief Richard Conant, in an obtuse attempt to minimize the matter and deflect blame, referred to the detectives’ blunders as “a comedy of errors.”

So, within the context of a full-throttle damage-control public-relations effort by LBPD, Judge Meyer suddenly felt compelled.

The detectives unexpectedly confronted the judge in private and urged her to change her mind about remarks she had made many months earlier. Such an encounter can be interpreted as an ambush.

It’s striking, too, that Judge Meyer explicitly sought Todd Johnson’s approval when she sent him the letter for review. She could have sent the draft to one of her peers or superiors. Instead, her priority was to please Johnson. “If you like it, I’ll send a copy to DA and Chief,” she wrote to him.

Why would she care whether Todd Johnson liked the letter? Her outreach to him suggests that she had a compelling, personal interest in making herself agreeable to him. But why?

While Judge Meyer has acknowledged her misconduct and expressed remorse, LBPD has never publicly acknowledged that Johnson engaged in misconduct. Ever. After the murder case fell apart in Judge Meyer’s courtroom, LBPD supervisors publicly denied that misconduct occurred.

While Judge Meyer has been publicly admonished and personally embarrassed, Johnson has gotten away scot-free.

But he’s a good guy

Influential people in Long Beach apparently don’t think twice about going to bat for Johnson, even though the only person who seems to benefit is Johnson.

For example, the police brass who defended Johnson’s dubious conduct and covered up for him during his time on the force — what does Johnson say about them now? The exact words out of his mouth are: “Fuck them. I don’t give a fuck. That’s who I am. I stand by myself.”

Similarly, in a comment posted on this page, the chairperson of the Long Beach Area Republicans defended Johnson as a dedicated family man, despite audio recordings in which we can hear Johnson coerce sexual contact from an intoxicated woman in a hotel room. In another recording, Johnson threatens to go home and assault his own son.

Oh, but Johnson is a good guy, his defenders insist. Johnson, too, says he’s a good guy. He tells the woman in his hotel room what a good guy he is.

“I didn’t think you weren’t a good guy,” she replies using a past tense.

During the same slurred conversation, Johnson says: “I’m the worst person that’s ever walked this earth.” He punches himself in the head twice, each blow landing with a heavy thump, as if he’s trying to beat his contradictory opinions about himself into congruence.

Johnson says he’s crazy.

Johnson says, “I’m fuckin’ crazy.” A few seconds later, he sounds skeptical: “Oh, I’m crazy?”

Johnson’s perverse, self-directed violence — such as punching himself in the head — can be seen as a threat of violence directed at everyone within striking distance. It’s a warning. If he would hit himself, what might he do to you?

If he would threaten to beat up his own son, what might he do to your family?

A former colleague described Johnson as a powder keg who blew up at his police peers and superiors but never got in trouble for it. If he can do this to the police, what might he do to any other public official?

Somehow, Johnson persuaded a judge to recklessly put her reputation — and the court’s reputation — on the line to serve his interests.

It’s as if by defending and pleasing Johnson, his enablers hope to placate him and insulate themselves from potential harm. The case of Judge Meyer demonstrates, however, that one does favors for Todd Johnson at one’s peril.

Who’s to stop an unstable 800-pound gorilla? He seems really nice much of the time, but he does what he does.

Why is Johnson infamous?

Todd Johnson became infamous because he got away with misconduct for years while working as a homicide detective for the Long Beach Police Department in Los Angeles County, California. His misdeeds would not have been possible without extraordinary help and support from many superiors, fellow officers, and friends.

As Beachcomber reporter Stephen Downing put it: “Johnson has a reputation for heavy alcohol consumption and enjoys an unusual level of protection by department brass from disciplinary action because of his elite assignment and attachment to what department insiders call the favored ‘Boys ‘n’ Girls Club.'”

DUI Incident in 2017

Beachcomber reported that, on the night of December 26, 2017, Homicide Detective Todd Johnson had been drinking at Crow’s Cocktail in Long Beach. About 10 minutes after leaving the bar, Johnson was behind the wheel of a plain-colored, on-call LBPD police sedan when he collided with another car. The other motorist smelled alcohol on Johnson’s breath and called 911.

Lloyd Cox, the LBPD duty chief at the time, covered up the incident by ordering that no Breathalyzer be administered, and that Johnson be allowed to drive the city vehicle from the scene.

Beachcomber reported that a former employee at Crow’s Cocktail said: “Todd Johnson was a regular. He spends a lot of time in the bar. His drink of choice is a pint glass full of straight vodka with a soda side. He would often have four or five drinks. He always got past the point of being served, but we said nothing because he’s a big guy with anger issues. We didn’t want him or the LBPD vice squad coming down on us.”

According to Beachcomber, a LBPD source said of Johnson: “He definitely has anger issues. I’m sure it comes from his drinking. He’d regularly blow up in the office at his partners, peers, the sergeant and lieutenant and nothing would happen to him. Everyone in the office who sat near him knew he was a powder keg.”

Complaint and retaliation

Earlier in 2017, Homicide Detective Mark Bigel complained to LBPD supervisors that Johnson had arrived at the scene of an Officer Involved Shooting incident and took part in the investigation while smelling of alcohol and possibly being intoxicated. Johnson was not disciplined. Rather, Bigel was transferred out of homicide in retaliation for reporting Johnson.

Johnson in 2021

A source at LBPD told Beachcomber: “Todd Johnson was drunk or under the influence at work most of the time and everybody knew it. When Bigel stepped up and reported him for being liquored up at the OIS scene he didn’t get any backup because the guys knew the brass would turn it around on them for not reporting it earlier. So, [Lloyd] Cox saved Johnson and got rid of Bigel. That’s the way it works here, if you’re a favorite in the Boys ‘n’ Girls Club you’re protected. If you’re not, they find a way to get rid of you.”

After Beachcomber published details about Johnson’s alleged DUI and drinking on the job, LBPD representatives paid a personal visit to the paper. LBPD representatives wanted Beachcomber to produce the names of its sources and police insiders. Reporter Stephen Downing wrote that LBPD seemed “more interested in challenging the quality of information in the column rather than getting to the real truth of Detective Johnson’s alcohol problem and the LBPD’s broken organizational culture of cover-ups, cronyism and retaliation.”

Also during this time, Johnson was one of several “favored” LBPD officers who communicated with one another using a disappearing-text app called TigerText, which became a focus of controversy.

Botched murder investigation

In 2018, Johnson was at the center of a murder case that fell apart in court due to his mistakes. Johnson and his partner repeatedly misspelled the name of one defendant, and were accused of coaching a witness to identify another defendant in a photo lineup. The judge in the case, Judith L. Meyer, said from the bench: “The behavior of the detectives is appalling and unethical and inappropriate.”

The deputy district attorney in the case complained to her supervisors that Johnson ought to be on a list of officers whose testimony should not be relied on in court. Johnson and LBPD retaliated by blaming the attorney. LBPD brass sat for an interview with a local paper to defend Johnson and his partner. One police official called the botched case a “comedy of errors.”

After Judge Meyer blasted the detectives in court, LBPD supervisors paid her a personal visit, saying they were investigating a complaint by the deputy district attorney. A year later, Johnson and his partner, too, visited the judge privately. Immediately after this visit, Judge Meyer wrote an unusual letter retracting her courtroom criticisms and seeking Johnson’s approval. After this letter was shared with LBPD brass, the DA’s office, and the public defender’s office, Judge Meyer wrote a second letter trying to walk back some of what she had written in the first letter.

LBPost reported about the letters: “In the first one, a draft of which Meyer emailed directly to the detectives, she not only vouched for their integrity but hinted that she had erred in the ruling that led to the dismissal of the murder charges. She spent most of the second letter defending her own integrity.”

It wasn’t the first time LBPD representatives paid a personal visit to one of Johnson’s critics to help salvage his reputation. Ultimately, Judge Meyer was publicly admonished for her misconduct in the matter.

Another botched murder investigation

Johnson was the lead investigator on another botched homicide case in which a man claimed that his wife sustained massive head injuries while doing yoga at home. Hospital personnel reported to police that the woman had been assaulted. The victim’s family alleges that Johnson improperly closed the case without investigating, and lied about the facts to hide his omissions and failures. Despite multiple complaints and pleas from the victim’s family, LBPD refused to reopen the investigation. Johnson’s friend Judge Meyer authorized the initial search warrant in the case.

Silent demotion

Johnson and son

LBPD removed Johnson from the homicide detail in 2018, but the department refused to say why. Some LBPD insiders speculated that Johnson was removed at the request of the Los Angeles District Attorney because of a conflict of interest. Allegedly, Johnson had hired lawyer Henry Salcido, whom he knew from a homicide case, to defend his own son regarding two alleged sexual assaults.

Further, insiders alleged that Johnson, when told about the assaults, intimidated the victims — and, in fact, an audio recording was made of his angry outbursts at the victims.

While some insiders say Johnson retired from LBPD under a cloud in 2019, LBPD has consistently said they have no records regarding sustained findings of misconduct against Johnson. According to public records, Johnson was allowed to retire honorably with pension and benefits.

Rittenhouse case

Johnson in courtroom.

After retirement from LBPD, Johnson was hired as a legal investigator by the Kyle Rittenhouse defense team. It was a high-profile case, and a prestige assignment for Johnson.

On August 25, 2020, Rittenhouse fatally shot Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber, and wounded Gaige Grosskreutz. The shootings happened during civil unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Rittenhouse was charged with homicide. During the trial in November 2021, his lawyer successfully argued that Rittenhouse’s actions were in self-defense. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty.

A woman who once lived near Joseph Rosenbaum and his family contacted the Rittenhouse defense team after the trial. She talked to Rittenhouse spokesman David Hancock, who determined that her testimony would be important in a civil case. Hancock dispatched Todd Johnson to Tucson, Arizona, to investigate the information offered by the woman.

As a private investigator licensed in California but not in Arizona, Johnson was required by law to notify the Arizona Department of Public Safety before conducting an investigation in that state. According to the Licensing Investigation Unit, there is no record that Johnson sought a reciprocal license agreement in Arizona before this visit to Tucson.

On December 8, 2021, Johnson interviewed the witness and drove her to locations in Tucson to interview other potential witnesses. After spending more than five hours with her, Johnson invited the woman to drink with him in the bar of his hotel. She alleges that she and Johnson drank heavily, and that Johnson assaulted her in his hotel room.

Fearing for her safety and suspecting that her drinks had been drugged, the woman made audio recordings covering more than an hour spent in Johnson’s company. The recordings corroborate what she told police: Johnson was armed and paranoid about “the feds;” he kissed and touched her against her stated wishes; and he pressured her to have sex with him.

The responding Tucson Police officer declined to arrest Johnson, as he wrote in his report, because he wasn’t sure a crime had been committed. Weeks later, the officer amended his police report to assert his own opinion that Johnson’s accuser must be mentally ill.

Johnson again escaped accountability for his choices and actions. That’s why he’s infamous.

KENOSHA, WISCONSIN – NOVEMBER 03: Lead defense attorney Mark Richards (C) and potential defense witnesses Todd Johnson (L) and Steve Spignola attend the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse at the Kenosha County Courthouse on November 3, 2021 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Rittenhouse shot three demonstrators, killing two of them, during a night of unrest that erupted in Kenosha after a police officer shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back while police attempted to arrest him in August 2020. Rittenhouse, from Antioch, Illinois, was 17 at the time of the shooting and armed with an assault rifle. He faces counts of felony homicide and felony attempted homicide. (Photo by Mark Hertzberg-Pool/Getty Images)