2. Rewind

An episode of the television detective show Columbo aired on March 2, 1975. The episode was entitled “Playback.” It told the story of a man who had installed closed-circuit television cameras in his posh Southern California mansion. The sophisticated cameras were activated by motion detectors and heat sensors, monitored in real time by a security guard. The system also recorded thick reels of video tape.

One night, the man shot his mother-in-law in his study. He manipulated the video system to manufacture an alibi. He put the recording of the murder on a delayed timer. He drove away from his mansion to attend a party at an art gallery, making sure the security guard and others would remember where he had gone and at what hour.

While he was away from the house, the video system played back the tape of the shooting. The guard believed he was witnessing a murder in progress in real time. Meanwhile, the actual murderer was miles away with an airtight alibi. Police thought the victim had been shot by a mysterious intruder.

Lieutenant Columbo was skeptical. The presence of video cameras inside the mansion made him suspicious. He studied the video and saw a crucial clue that demolished the murderer’s alibi. At the time of the shooting, on the man’s desk was the invitation to the party he had attended at the art gallery. When the man left the mansion to go to the party, he had taken the invitation with him. Therefore, Columbo knew that the man had been in the mansion at the time of the murder.

Unlike the murderer in the Columbo episode who lived in a mansion in a monied enclave like Bel-Air, Huck and Dana lived in a relatively modest house on East Stearns Street, adjacent to a public golf course in the El Dorado Park neighborhood of Long Beach, California. My sister bought the house in 2001, several months after they married.

She was a successful kitchen designer who ran her own business from home. Huck was a general contractor. His finances had always been sketchy. Dana knew he would not qualify for a mortgage, so she bought the house herself. It was a 1950s ranch-style, single-family, detached home. It had potential, but it was cramped and outdated. The plan was for them to gain sweat equity by remodeling it themselves.

Huck’s biography was as sketchy as his finances. Over the years, he told us several stories about his upbringing, but I don’t know which ones were true. According to public records, Huck’s mother Linda Kay Floyd married Huck’s father David A. Martinez in November 1963 in Tacoma, Washington. Carl Lynn Martinez a.k.a. Huck was born in December 1964, and his parents divorced three years later.

Linda married Franklin Arnold “Rusty” Jenkins in 1971 in King County, Washington. At some point, public records suggest that they lived in Nampa, Idaho. A yearbook from Huntington Beach High School in California shows that Carl Lynn Jenkins a.k.a. Huck was a student there in 1980.

In 1986, Linda and Rusty bought a home on Surfbreaker Lane in Huntington Beach, a stone’s throw from the golf course at Seacliff Country Club. Linda and Rusty separated and divorced in 1993. According to their divorce settlement, Linda kept the house on Surfbreaker Lane. Papers filed as part of the settlement show that Carl Jenkins lived with Linda in the home at that time. He was 28 years old. His gross monthly income was listed as “unknown.” Property records show that the house on Surfbreaker Lane was sold in 1999, the year Huck met Dana.

To Dana, Huck portrayed himself as a carefree surf punk. Ever since her teen years, Dana had liked surfers. We grew up in Littleton, Colorado, which is about a thousand miles away from Southern California, and far from any ocean. In June 1977, when Dana was 14, I was 12, and my brother 10, my parents took us on a family trip to Disneyland. We visited Huntington Beach, too, and saw the immense, glittering Pacific Ocean for the first time.

In high school, Dana and I drove around the sleepy-and-boring suburbs of southwest Denver in a 1971 Volvo station wagon, which we could imagine one day carrying us and our surfboards along California’s Pacific Coast Highway. We romanticized a wholesome, sanitized version of surf culture that we imagined from listening to pop songs by The Beach Boys. I can see how, decades later, my sister would similarly romanticize Huck. To her, he was a real-life beach boy.

Huck had problems with alcohol in his past, she told me, although he’d never specified what problems. He was not an alcoholic, he assured her, but he had sworn off alcohol because it made him do foolish things. Dana admired Huck for not drinking. She thought he must be very sensible.

My sister invited Huck to move into her condominium at Redondo Avenue and Third Street in Long Beach very soon after they started dating. She told me he was sleeping in his truck in an ex-girlfriend’s garage. He would benefit from a stable, comfortable home, she believed; she invited him into hers.

Dana protected and defended Huck even at her own expense. At the condo, one of Dana’s neighbors and friends hired him to do repair work on her condo. The woman was frightened by Huck’s sudden, intense anger toward her and told Dana that he was abusive. Huck countered that the neighbor was making up stories because she was jealous of Dana’s new romantic relationship. Dana and this woman had been close friends. They had gone on a Caribbean cruise together with the woman’s family. Even so, Dana took Huck’s side, rupturing her friendship with her neighbor.

I was living in a condo in West Hollywood on Kings Road just below Fountain Avenue. I had a minor renovation project I wanted to do. Dana suggested I hire Huck. He blew my electrical budget by installing several recessed lights in one small room. He said he had “tricked it out” for me, expecting me to be impressed. I complained to my sister that he had gone over budget on the lights. He hadn’t done the electrical work I wanted him to do.

She said I must not have communicated clearly enough with him. Besides, the work he had done was good. I was lucky he was willing to drive all the way to West Hollywood to complete the remaining tasks.

He finished the work. I paid him more than I had planned. It was fine. No big deal.

Dana made excuses for him and protected him from consequences even when she thought his behavior was unacceptable. One 4th of July, Huck inexplicably started lighting firecrackers and dropping them off the balcony of Dana’s condo onto passersby on the sidewalk below. She told him to stop but he didn’t.

Later, he explained tearfully that the firecrackers were his inarticulate way of coping with painful childhood memories regarding his mother and her sisters. He spoke of his aunts as if they were vengeful gossips who enjoyed hurting him. He referred to them in the past tense, as if they were no longer alive. He became prickly and evasive when Dana asked for more details. Dana assumed he had endured horrific abuse that he was unable to discuss. She felt sorry for him, forgave him, and married him.

Huck and Dana’s wedding

He cried during their wedding on November 24, 2000. At his insistence, no one from his family was invited to the ceremony. By that time, his mother Linda and stepfather Rusty were living together again in Sun City or Menifee, California. Huck claimed Linda was prone to making hurtful accusations about him and would not let him forget his past mistakes. He didn’t want her making a scene at his wedding, and he hated Rusty, so they weren’t invited.

Huck led us to believe that Linda and Rusty were his only living family members. Linda died in 2005, followed by Rusty in 2010. After that, Huck pretended he was all alone in the world, with no family except us Joneses.

Not until 2018 did I learn that Huck had aunts, cousins, and a grandmother living in Southern California. If these relatives had come up in a background check conducted by Nuch’s team, it was never mentioned to me. I found out because our family genealogist researched Huck’s family tree.

Two of Huck’s friends were at the wedding. One was a fellow contractor named Tom Sawyer whom Huck had known since their youth. Their friendship had earned Carl Jenkins the nickname Huck Finn.

Huck’s other friend was Paul Harrington. Huck shared a garage with Paul in Orange County, California. Paul ran a moving and storage business. Huck kept his construction truck at the garage and ran a struggling one-man company called True Construction. According to state licensing records, Huck established True Construction in 1995. Sometime after Dana bought the house on East Stearns Street in 2001, Huck moved his truck and his business to her driveway.

In 2004, Paul was arrested for illegally growing high-grade marijuana. According to news reports, police found 1,050 plants on the premises of Paul’s business, as well as one pound of marijuana and a handgun in Paul’s office. Police characterized Paul’s grow operation as extensive. Electric service to the building had been altered. Paul was accused of stealing electricity to run irrigation equipment for his pot garden.

Huck told Dana and me that he was just as shocked as we were to learn of the criminal charges. In retrospect, I wonder who did the extensive plumbing and electrical work on Paul’s pot garden.

At the conclusion of the wedding ceremony, Huck blubbered and wiped tears from his eyes. Dana thought this was sweet; it confirmed Huck’s fragility and his joy at having a true family at last. I thought he was crying fake tears, and that he was doing it to upstage the bride and be the center of attention. This is a good example of how Dana and I disagreed fundamentally about the nature of Huck.

The ceremony and reception were held just off the coast of Marina Del Rey aboard motor yacht Mauretania, a graceful, 1930s-style yacht built in 1947. Dana had chosen it and had planned the party herself. It was a wonderful event, despite the groom.

After Dana’s death, my dad chartered the same yacht. We sailed off Point Fermin near Long Beach and scattered Dana’s ashes at sea. Huck wasn’t invited to that ceremony; it was just for family.

Dana said she never felt threatened by Huck. I wonder if she told me this to spare me from imagining the worst. I once told her I thought Huck might physically hurt her. We ended up having an argument. She told me that he would never hurt her. He might raise his hand to their dog, or threaten self-harm, but he would never hurt her. She was certain of it.

For whatever reason, Huck didn’t seem scary to her. She knew she was stronger than him emotionally. She had grit, and he didn’t. His bullying seemed petty and manageable. If Dana confronted him, which she rarely did, he would cry and say he felt suicidal. He was just putting on a tough-guy act to protect himself, he would say.

As much as I disliked Huck, I was not aware, at least not consciously aware, that he had ever physically harmed my sister. Huck was muscular, certainly, and my sister joked that he was built like cartoon character Fred Flintstone. Even so, I thought his real strength was gaslighting, or undermining Dana’s trust in her own accurate perceptions. Huck was great at it, and he did it all the time. He did it so frequently, and about such inconsequential things, that I stopped noticing it.

One example comes to mind. When he did the electrical work on my West Hollywood condo, he installed audio speakers, too. A couple of years later, after I had sold the condo and moved back to Colorado, he reminded me of the specific style of speaker he’d installed. He and I ended up arguing about it. I was sure that he misremembered the style of speaker. He insisted I was wrong, and he was right. He was so earnestly, sincerely adamant about it that I started to doubt my own memory. Was I crazy?

I ended up rifling through old photographs taken in my condo to find a picture of the actual speakers. I found one. Turns out, he was wrong, and I was right. I had a photo to prove it. I sent him a copy of the photo. Huck told Dana that only a “psycho bitch” would go to such lengths to prove a point.

There was nothing to be gained from engaging in a dispute with Huck, Dana had learned early in their relationship. Ordinary conversations with him could be exhausting because he seemed to need constant validation. Disputes were even more taxing. Eventually, my family and I learned to follow Dana’s lead and go along with whatever story he told, whatever claim he made. I don’t know if this qualifies as Stockholm Syndrome, but it did feel at times as if our whole family was held hostage by Huck.

It depresses me now to look at photos of Dana and Huck’s house that were taken by the Long Beach police. To me, the photos show a house that gradually became dominated by Huck. As years passed, the house came to reflect Huck’s taste for dark and sometimes ghoulish décor.

He eventually walled off the front of the house so people couldn’t see in from the street. He installed surveillance cameras inside and out. I might have seen these things as signs of his escalating paranoia and deviousness. Instead, I assumed it was just Huck being his typical, inexplicable self. Back then, I wondered when my sister would admit that Huck was an emotionally manipulative burden on her, and file for divorce.

It wasn’t always this way. For a time, their house had been a light, bright home full of possibilities. At moments, it seemed as if their marriage had a chance of being happy, mostly because Dana was determined to be happy no matter what.

The September 2006 issue of This Old House magazine featured a before-and-after article about Huck and Dana’s home remodeling project. Over the years, several of Dana’s kitchen designs had been featured in national magazines. She was thrilled to have her own home recognized in this way.

The article, which was written by Jill Connors, took note of the home’s “concrete floors, engineered stone counters, and contemporary bamboo base cabinets.” According to the article:

“Huck did much of the work, from gutting the room to the studs to running the electrical to staining the floors, which helped them stay within their $40,000 budget. Says Dana of the four-month kitchen redo, ‘We needed to change everything about the space functionally and aesthetically—and we did.’”

In fact, the “four-month kitchen redo” took years because Huck did much of the work himself. It was a source of irritation for Dana that he dragged his feet on the kitchen project. Eventually, the house looked fresh, well-finished, and modern in an unpretentious way.

The dining chairs were a good example of this style. They were just plastic patio chairs, box resin outdoor dining armchairs by Compamia, to be exact, in bright orange. They were an inexpensive, practical way to add bold color to the dining area.

At her table, my sister hosted Thanksgiving dinner several times, even during the years when her kitchen languished in partially renovated limbo. As my family members will attest, the orange chairs weren’t particularly comfortable. But they just seemed to fit the house.

Back then, if you were to see the house from the sidewalk, it looked cheerful and well-kept, with a front lawn and windows that looked out on a well-traveled street. Their lot was 0.10 acre in size, and the house was 1,322 square feet. Behind the house was El Dorado Park Golf Course, with trees and airy acres of grass, giving the house a feeling of spaciousness.

On March 4, 2014, police put an evidence marker near a pair of Huck’s shoes, which were on the floor next to one of the bright-orange plastic chairs. Police photographed the shoes, but Detective Johnson apparently failed to notice blood spatter on the chair. I like to think that Lieutenant Columbo would have seen the blood, but he never showed up at my sister’s house.

In 2018, four years after Johnson closed Dana’s case, I saw a column written by retired Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Stephen Downing, published in Beachcomber, a local paper in Long Beach. The column accused Detective Johnson of chronic, on-the-job alcoholism. A source told the columnist:

“Todd Johnson was drunk or under the influence at work most of the time and everybody knew it.”

LBPD Brass Enable Alcohol Abuse, Stonewall the Fallout

The column alleged that Detective Johnson had been involved in a collision in a city-issued car after an evening of drinking in December 2017, and his supervisors covered up the incident. For years, according to the column, officers and supervisors in Long Beach had covered for Johnson’s drunken sloppiness and explosive rage.

A different news report, written by Jeremiah Dobruck and published in the Long Beach Press-Telegram on April 23, 2018, recounted a murder investigation that Johnson had botched.

I had reason to wonder: Were Long Beach police honestly investigating Dana’s death, or were they covering for a problematic detective known for botching homicide investigations?

In April 2018, I wrote to the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office to tell them about what I perceived to be Johnson’s improper closure of Dana’s case. The DA’s office did not respond. In May 2018, I built a website at YogaDeath.com to publicize the case.

Through the website, I was contacted by a long-ago former girlfriend of Huck’s. They had broken up, she said, but Huck was still living with her in 1999 when he met Dana.

The woman told me her whirlwind romantic relationship with Huck had lasted just long enough for him to move into her condo. As quickly as their romance had started, it cooled, and Huck took up residence in her spare room. She said Huck became violent when she asked him to either start paying rent or move out. “You’re ruining my life,” he roared, overturning a table, and prompting her to lock herself in the bathroom for safety. She told me Huck had a felony conviction in his past that barred him from owning a gun, and yet he owned a gun.

I doubt Dana ever suspected Huck of having a criminal record. If Nuch’s team had discovered this information, they hadn’t told me. I wondered if the woman’s story could be a hoax. I checked her name and past addresses. Sure enough, she and Huck had shared a past address.

I knew Huck owned at least one handgun because Dana had told me about it. Huck wanted to keep it under their bed. Dana told him to get rid of the gun or lock it in his safe.

Huck’s safe in the garage

In their garage, Huck kept a safe that was the size of a commercial refrigerator. He was proud of it. He told me it was from a former bank building that was being renovated. The safe gave me the creeps because it was big enough to fit a person inside it. Who needs or wants a safe like that, I thought, other than a drug dealer? I figured it was just another of Huck’s toughguy props, like the gun, a possession he thought made him seem cool, but for which he had no legitimate use.

Why do well-intentioned people make excuses for, defend, and protect people who repeatedly flash warning signs of destructive anger and deception? It’s easier to rationalize it away than to confront it. It’s easier to believe that a seemingly supportive husband would never kill his wife. A seemingly competent police detective would never deliberately misrepresent facts in a murder investigation.

After a while, you invest so much emotional capital and personal credibility rationalizing questionable behavior, it’s too painful ever to acknowledge you’ve been conned. You just want to go on believing the best.

Read Chapter 3: Film Noir