For Louchette’s Dead Friend, Dean Johnson [Dan Collins]
Reading about Dean Johnson’s gay NYC life isn’t something that everyone’s going to want to do. He moved there as a young man, just when the punk scene was getting going at legendary venues like CBGB’s. He became a doorman at a club and then a dancer, before becoming a party impresario of the gay scene and the frontman for a couple of outlandish, in-your-face gay bands. He wrote extensively on the internet about his hook-ups, and learned a day after his first band got signed to a contract that he was HIV-positive.
When the club scene took a dive, so did he. He struggled with drug addiction, and chronicled the whole thing on his MySpace blog. He got busted for heroin, and stole money from an employer to feed his habit. He cleaned up and relapsed and cleaned up again. He was 6 ‘6″ tall, shaved his head, sported outlandish glasses and alternately flounced about in dresses or assumed the uniform of a copper onstage. He’d rubbed elbows with numerous celebrities. He’d been through some hard times, and in the late summer and early autumn of 2007, he felt that his life was on the upswing. He’d begun to make his mark as an internet personality as well as a meatspace (and I do mean meatspace) one, he had a new band, The Velvet Mafia, that was starting to pick up gigs, and he’d kicked the junk and even the pot, noting that it had made him cross for days, but that he’d begun to be able to breathe. One of his last diary entries was this:
As I’m leaving the station in my neighborhood, I look over at the guy next to me and it’s fuckin’ Richie Stotts, the lead guitarist for The Plasmatics (the hot one with the mohawk) who I hadn’t seen since Wendy O. Williams drove a car through a wall of televisions on the westside pier back in 1983. He knew who I was so he was really friendly and we stood on the street chatting for a while, and I was particularly curious as to whether he thought Wendy’s death had REALLY been a suicide. He spoke frankly on the subject but asked me not to repeat anything he said – I can tell you that his answers were shocking, and reinforced my belief that an exibitionistic artist like Wendy would not shoot herself with a shotgun without selling tickets and hiring a film-crew. He said that sometime he would ‘buy me a beer’ and tell me more ugly truths. Then he asked me what was up with my band and I filled him in on what we’re doing and why I had been laying low for a while.
There was another side to Dean’s life that he was pretty up front about, too. He’d begun to consult Craig’s List to find jobs as a gay prostitute, a “top”. He’d pop Viagra to service his clients. On September 7, 2007, he wrote this in his online diary:
Current mood: relieved
Category: Travel and Places
That’s right..I actually vacationed in the pines. It was like living on the dance floor at Splash. From there I went to DC where I had a better time spending the weekend with a client who is disabled and walks on crutches. I’ll take gimp-sex over “High Tea” anytime. We had fun. He redecorated part of his apartment to look like a prison and I got to be the guard. :)
It wasn’t unusual for Dean to mention this kind of thing about his clientele, though he wasn’t about to post enough information about them online that people could identify them. Speaking in private was another matter: he was an almost overwhelmingly communicative person, it appears, to both friends and acquaintances. If you go to the pages set up for people to remember him after his death at the age of 45, you’ll find a very large number of people recalling him very fondly as a larger-than-life yet very down-to-earth and caring person.
Almost nobody believes the official account of his death.
But we’ll get to that in a bit. The reason that I’ve become interested in posting about Dean Johnson’s death is that it was mentioned by louchette in the comments to my post on Robert Wone. What does Johnson’s death have to do with Wone’s? Both of them died under mysterious circumstances in DC, and both of the initial investigations were carried out by the DC Police’s Gay and Lesbian Liaison. And, in both, there are serious questions about the conduct of the cases.
Louchette recalls Dean as a surrogate older brother, protective and wise to the ways of the street, even if, as some of his friends say, he was a risk-taker. At one point, he’d been a bouncer on a club rope line. He was physically imposing, even after almost 20 years of anti-HIV drugs. It’s clear from his postings that he was ambivalent about his role of top, but he was butch enough to carry it off to the satisfaction of his customers.
The reason that I chose, out of all Dean’s recollections, to reproduce the one about visiting the client in DC is because that’s the person who got him killed. Dean’s friends all knew that at various times in his life he’d been a prodigious consumer of drugs on a prodigious scale, so when word began circulating that he’d died of mixing a variety of drugs with alcohol within a few hours of reaching this acquaintance’s apartment, they were suspicious. They soon became much more suspicious still.
Dean’s one-time client and acquaintance was a man by the name of Steven Saleh. He lived in a one-bedroom apartment in a luxury hotel in DC, provided for by worker’s compensation from a position that he’d held in the Department of Commerce until, as he’d claimed, he was overtaken by fibromyalgia. To control the pain, he’d been prescribed OxyContin. In comments made to friends, apparently after his initial rendezvous with Saleh, Johnson described Saleh’s apartment as a mini-pharmacy. And it appears that Saleh was smitten with Dean. Friends who used his password to gain access to Dean’s email after his alarming disappearance discovered almost overwhelming numbers of emails to Dean from Saleh. Dean wasn’t Saleh’s only gay acquaintance from the ‘net, though.
Wanting a caretaker, Saleh had advertised room and board on Craig’s List. His ad brought a response from a young man named Jordan “Jeremy” Conklin, a wayward 26-year-old gay kid who’d escaped from his Arizona Mormon roots to the big city. Compared with Johnson, Conklin was a babe in the woods who’d gotten an undergrad business degree at Arizona State, and was waiting tables, trying to find himself. The idea of free room and board in DC, where the percentage of gay men was even higher than in San Francisco, appealed to him. He responded to Saleh’s ad figuring that he’d get a look around, spend a few days, test out the job market. He said goodbye to his boyfriend, John Allen, and took the train down to DC.
Saleh had been pressing Dean for a visit prior to receiving his new houseguest, and he was nervous about having the two of them around at the same time. He’d said to Dean that he wouldn’t be having sexual relations with Jeremy, but then sent him an emailed photo of Jeremy’s cock, wondering whether he might be interested in a little multi-party activity. Dean humorously suggested that Jeremy might learn something from such an encounter.
Late in the evening of September 16, 2007, two days after Jeremy arrived, Dean received distressing news from Saleh in his email. The young man who was staying at Saleh’s apartment had overdosed. Police received a 911 call, as well, and paramedics were unable to revive the young man. Saleh shared his anxieties with Dean online. Would he be blamed for the death of his guest? Johnson assured his acquaintance that it wasn’t his fault that Jeremy had died, that Jeremy was responsible for his own choices in having taken the drugs that caused his death. When Jeremy’s boyfriend called the next day, police answered his phone and gave him the news. Toxicology results later would show that Jeremy had died from a combination of OxyContin and alcohol, which Saleh said Jeremy must have discovered where he kept them hid. The thing is, Jeremy didn’t do drugs. In fact, he’d moved out of a previous living situation because his roomies did.
Over the next days, Saleh poured out his anxieties to Dean online, begging him to come and support him at his time of need. Earlier his importunities had gotten to the point where good natured Dean got snappish about it, because if he was going to go to DC, he wanted to fly. Packing his 6′ 6″ frame into most commuter accommodations wasn’t a prospect he particularly relished for any long period, especially as he’d recently injured his shoulder. Saleh was solicitous and bought him an Amtrak ticket after inquiring into the dimensions of the seat; he knew that Johnson would rather fly, but . . . . And Johnson apologized for having been irritable. Contrary to later accounts, some of them quoting a friend of Dean’s by the name of Dale Corvino, Dean had arranged to visit prior to Saleh’s news regarding Jeremy, on September 13, and Saleh had sent him the ticket. On September 19, 2007, perhaps the last day of his life, he boarded the train for DC, arriving in the late afternoon. Saleh was the last person who would see him alive.
Just before or possibly just after midnight, one of Dean’s band-mates received a call from his cell phone. It was Saleh, stating that Dean was unconscious after taking a pill. The friend on the receiving end of the call urged Saleh to call 911. Later, Saleh called back to say that he had placed a cold compress on Dean’s forehead and that he seemed to be coming around. Police did receive a 911 call, but it was hours later: Saleh reported another unconscious man at his apartment. He claimed that he’d awakened in the morning to discover Dean unresponsive. The police, responding to the second 911 call from the same location regarding the same phenomenon, found Dean dead on their arrival. The police report says nothing about these calls, although the Washington Blade article states that the lead detective in the case, Paul Regan, had been in contact with the band member and was aware of the calls.
Meanwhile, in NYC, nobody knew that Dean was dead in DC. As the days dragged on, they became increasingly concerned. They called the police, the hospitals and the medical examiner’s office in DC, having heard about the phone call, but nobody knew a thing. They sent out an internet APB. Finally, when Dean didn’t appear for a rehearsal for his band, which had its first really big gig coming up in just a couple of weeks, they used his password to read his email. Saleh’s name opened the door to the information that Dean’s body was in the morgue, where it had been already for an entire week. Later, investigators would attribute this extraordinary delay to an unspecified “police error.”
Now, I’m going to reference a bit of one of louchette’s emails to me. I hope she won’t mind my putting into the post what she’d have preferred not to put in comments:
below is a copy of what i posted, so that you can have the links. and again, i will NEVER believe there was no foul play involved. dean without ID? hell, he never went anyplace without his passport, lest some hottie offer to fly him to paris on the spur of the moment. and i know from spending time with him in person that he wasn’t strung out, had really cleaned himself up, was planning to go forward with a new phase of life.
i think he knew too much. i think it was made to look like an accident, whether by saleh or someone else i don’t know. and i think that any deeper investigation would have exposed some powerful people and that couldn’t be allowed.
and g-d fucking dammit i miss him so much. i actually am crying again. but i’m not gonna say that in a comment.
It’s not as though Dean didn’t have time to arrange himself before departing. And it bears repeating that he was so far beyond narcotics that he had actually quit smoking dope in the months before his death. Whatever the disposition of his identification, there’s the matter of the cell phone, presumably taken into evidence by the cops: why couldn’t they have called any of the numbers on that phone to figure out whose corpse it was that they were dealing with? Did they just figure that they were going to take Saleh’s word that this second dead body wheeled out of his apartment within the span of a week was who he said it was? It doesn’t make much sense.
The story made DC’s Fox 5 News at 10 last night. And this morning my city councilman (I live in the same Ward as the crime scene) emailed this out…
I wanted you to know that this morning I spoke with Commander Anzallo, who heads up detectives for MPD, concerning a report of two deaths at the Envoy at 2400 16th NW.
On two separate dates–September 16 and September 20–just four days apart the tenant called 911 to report an unconscious man in his apartment.
In both cases, the individual was >unconscious but dead on scene, there >were no visible signs if trauma or foul play and each person had been invited into the apartment by the tenant.
Police executed a search warrant, and are treating this as highly suspicious. They are awaiting further medical reports.
The first death involved someone who was 26 years old, and the second someone who was 45 years old.
That is all there is to say at present.
One would have hoped that under such circumstances, the investigators would have pushed hard for more evidence regarding the circumstances. But if there were more pertinent evidence, you’re not going to find it in the news. Dean’s sister Beth (his mother predeceased him) expresses some of the same kinds of frustration with the police and investigators that Mrs. Wone has encountered:
the police knew who dean was….they claim that the fact that he was visiting alone from out of town caused the delay in notification. i think it is clear that his death was being treated as just another dead hooker until his fame and vast army of loved ones became apparent.
I’m going to let the WaPo take over for a moment:
According to a police affidavit filed in D.C. Superior Court, Saleh told detectives in September that he gave Johnson a Rozerem pill. And the Web site of WTTG-TV (Channel 5) quoted Saleh as saying in an interview that he kept OxyContin in his apartment hidden from visitors. In a brief interview yesterday, Salehâ€™s attorney, Paul Kiyonaga, would not discuss his clientâ€™s medications.
â€œMr. Saleh has been informed that the autopsies on Mr. Conklin and Mr. Johnson have been completed and there has been no finding of wrongdoing in connection with their deaths,â€ Kiyonaga said in a statement. â€œMr. Saleh hopes that these autopsy results will afford closure to their families and to all those who are grieving the tragic loss of these men.â€
Conklin, a business graduate of Arizona State University, worked as a nightclub bouncer last summer in Provincetown, Mass., a resort community on Cape Cod. John Allen, who became romantically involved with Conklin in Provincetown and shared an apartment with him there, said in an interview that he never saw his friend use drugs.
Johnson, however, was open about his emotional instability and off-and-on battles with substance abuse, acquaintances said. One friend in Manhattan, Dale Corvino, said that most of the drugs in Johnsonâ€™s body probably were medications that had been prescribed for him.
â€œElavil is an antidepressant, and Iâ€™m pretty sure he was taking an antidepressant,â€ Corvino said. â€œKlonopin is an anti-anxiety pill, and I think Dean probably would have taken something like that for the trip down there.â€ Johnson, who came here by train, â€œreally had a lot of anxiety about traveling alone. And he had a shoulder injury, which was really very painful, and I know he was taking something for it, which could have been the Ultram.â€
So, nothing to see here, move along, right? Numerous MSM articles replicate this bit of information from Mr. Corvino, but the only one worth reading for the context is the one from the Village Voice:
The next day, September 16, [boyfriend John] Allen called Conklinâ€™s phone from Massachusetts, and a D.C. police officer answered. Two attempts later, he was told by Saleh that Conklin was dead. Allen says he called back again demanding an explanation, and he says Saleh claimed that Conklin had been upset and that Saleh had comforted him. â€œThen he became dismissive,â€ Allen notes, â€œand he asked me, â€˜What else can I do for you?â€™ â€ Further calls to Jeremyâ€™s phone went to voicemail.
Saleh told police that Conklin â€œmust have taken some pills.â€
Saleh’s monstrous narcissism in that instance sounds quite a bit like that reported in the Washington Blade:
During the course of the ride, Mr. Saleh stated to members of the Metropolitan Police Department, â€˜What is the media going to call me? The gimp black widow?â€™â€ the affidavit quotes him as saying. It says Saleh also stated during the ride to the police station, â€œI guess I wonâ€™t have any more dinner parties.â€
Corvino said Johnsonâ€™s friends learned through an e-mail exchange between Johnson and Saleh shortly before Johnsonâ€™s visit to Salehâ€™s apartment that Saleh referred to himself as a â€œgimpâ€ because of his physical injuries and pain.
The police affidavit made no mention about whether investigators placed any special significance in Salehâ€™s description of himself as a â€œblack widow,â€ a reference to the male-killing, poisonous spider.
Through the e-mail exchange, which friends obtained by entering Johnsonâ€™s account, the friends learned that Saleh invited Johnson to stay with him to keep him company â€œbecause he was freaked outâ€ over Conklinâ€™s death, Corvino said.
â€œSteve, sometime prior, had hired Dean as an escort,â€ said Corvino, who noted that he read the e-mail exchanges between Johnson and Saleh. â€œBut this visit was not on the basis of an escort visit,â€ Corvino said.
â€œHe always would end up sort of forming personal relationships with his clients, his Johns,â€ Corvino said of Johnson.
Allen said police and the news media initially misidentified Conklin as â€œJordan Cronkin.â€ He said Conklinâ€™s last name was misspelled by police and that he and his family used the name Jeremy as his first name since the time he was a child.
Allen learned of Conklinâ€™s death when a D.C. police officer answered Allenâ€™s cell phone call to Conklin. Allen gave police contact information of Conklinâ€™s family. Neither Conklin nor Johnson had any official ID on them or with them at the times of their deaths.
Conklinâ€™s father arranged a viewing in Arlington, Va., of his sonâ€™s body for Allen. The body was then cremated and shipped to Conklinâ€™s mother in Arizona, who is no longer with the father. Allen, who said the news of his boyfriendâ€™s death has been highly upsetting though they only dated a few months, plans a memorial service on the beach in Provincetown at sunset on Oct. 27 for Conklinâ€™s gay friends.
Now, Saleh admits having given Dean a Rozerem–a sleep agent–in order to calm him down, though Dale Corvino states it’s likely that, apart from the anti-depressant Dean was on (that helped him kick some of his other drug habits), he may have taken the anti-anxiety drug Klonopin. The toxicology reports state that in Dean Johnson’s case, as in Conklin’s, the major contributing factor to the acute intoxication from which they are both determined to have died was the OxyContin. It seems rather . . . irresponsible of Steven Saleh to have left it once again where it might be found by a visitor. But the parallels go further. In his emails to Dean Johnson regarding Jeremy Conklin, Saleh unfolds the overdose in real time:
Meanwhile, Johnson started getting e-mails from Saleh about his visitor. Saleh, sounding like he was apprehensive about Johnsonâ€™s reaction, at first claimed that Conklin wouldnâ€™t be around when Johnson arrived, and emphasized that he wouldnâ€™t be having sex with him. But Saleh later e-mailed a photograph of Conklinâ€™s penis and suggested that the young man join in their activities. â€œMaybe heâ€™ll learn something,â€ Johnson responded. But later, Saleh sent several more messages saying that Conklin had been drinking his Bacardi rum. Saleh says that it didnâ€™t surprise him after looking at Conklinâ€™s MySpace page. He concluded that Conklin was recovering from some kind of abuse in his background by turning to drink. He told Johnson that he was trying to get Conklin to relax.
This was precisely the reason he would later provide for having supplied the Rozerem to Johnson, though why Johnson would have to relax after arriving isn’t clear. Nor is it clear why the anxious admirer would wish to administer a powerful sleeping agent at 9:30 pm, when he had been so eager for Dean to arrive. Leaving aside the toxicologist’s view that the OxyContin was principally to blame for the deaths, that still doesn’t at all explain how Saleh gets away uncharged with supplying a prescription drug to a man who dies in his apartment. At one point, investigators were actually floating the possibility that Johnson had a bad drug interaction between Viagra or Cialis and his anti-depressant.
In a different article, in the WaPo, we get this extra bit of information:
Conklin came by bus Sept. 14, arriving at the Envoy late at night. The friend said that the next day, Saleh told Johnson that Conklin was enjoying himself and that he had been drinking Saleh’s rum. He also wrote that he was going to let Conklin send a message to Johnson.
Shortly afterward, the friend said, another e-mail arrived in Johnson’s mailbox, apparently from Conklin, who introduced himself and said that he was delighted to be living with Saleh, that he had not felt this happy in a long time.
Why does that ring untrue? Because according to John Allen, Conklin hadn’t made up his mind yet to move to DC.
The parallels go still further, though: whatever the “police error” responsible for Johnson’s corpse having been consigned to the morgue for a week before anyone he knew apart from Saleh having found out about it, the delay in contacting anyone about Jordan “Jeremy” Conklin’s death had to do with the police reporting the name as Jordan Cronkin, according to his boyfriend, John Allen.
So, we’ve got two guys, one 6′ 4″ and the other 6′ 6″, both dead principally of the combined effects of booze and OxyContin, often prescribed for the fibromyalgia that Saleh said that he was suffering from (oddly claiming as well, it seems, that the condition was job related), both of whom are found to be missing any identification, both of whose friends and family weren’t contacted by authorities in a timely fashion, both cases handled by the Gay and Lesbian Liaison:
Police have declined to say whether he [Saleh] is a suspect because no evidence has emerged that a crime has been committed, police said.
Johnsonâ€™s friends have said Johnson told them Saleh is a former federal government employee who sought disability status for what he claimed was a work-related injury. Johnson reportedly described Salehâ€™s apartment as a â€œmini pharmacy,â€ the friends have said, because Saleh was taking a large number of prescription drugs.
The affidavit says Saleh told police he had given Johnson a sleeping pill the night of Sept. 19, when friends say Johnson arrived in Washington, and that Saleh discovered Johnson unconscious the next morning. The affidavit says Saleh told police that Conklin â€œmust have taken some pills,â€ which, according to Saleh, caused Conklin to lose consciousness in the late morning or early afternoon of Sept. 16.
Saleh has not returned calls to his apartment seeking comment.
Police have declined to provide information beyond what appears in the affidavit, other than to say there were no signs of trauma or injuries on the two bodies and no outward evidence of foul play.
â€œThe Medical Examiner will have to guide us as to whether itâ€™s a criminal matter,â€ said Sgt. Brett Parson, an assistant to Chief of Police Cathy Lanier and former commander of the police departmentâ€™s Gay & Lesbian Liaison Unit.
Parson said he could not comment on the preliminary findings of the Medical Examiner, which are based on autopsies performed on the bodies. But he said the Medical Examinerâ€™s office has not listed the two cases as a priority concerning the toxicology tests, a development, according to Parson, that usually means authorities donâ€™t believe a death is a homicide.
Parson said results of the toxicology tests are expected within two to four weeks. Allen, Conklinâ€™s boyfriend, said a detective working on the investigation told him it could be as long as several months before the toxicology tests are completed.
As was the case with Robert Wone, the toxicology results were unconscionably delayed.
Let’s say that the police misplaced both the bodies at the morgue. It still doesn’t explain why they wouldn’t have gotten into Dean Johnson’s cell phone to try to notify someone that he had become a corpse. It doesn’t explain, either, why they couldn’t pinpoint a time at which Saleh had first contacted a band member, a bit of information that seems crucial, given that he says he discovered a corpse the next day, and one that doesn’t, apparently, appear in the affidavit. Clearly, the investigators made no real effort to construct a timeline. Just as clearly, there’s a lot of crucial evidence that they didn’t follow up on, not the least of which is determining just what might have happened to Dean Johnson’s identification, which nobody has mentioned retrieving from his NYC apartment on the very, very unlikely chance that he left town without it. Neither, apparently, has anyone discovered what may have become of Jordan “Jeremy” Conklin’s. What other drugs did police find in the apartment, and were they also prescribed? We don’t know. Did police contact the prescribing physician? We don’t know. What kinds of contacts might Steven Saleh have in Washington that could have made this thing go away, or is it just because the police and the medical examiners suck that this guy’s gotten off? We don’t know. Why, if Dean had accidentally overdosed, did Saleh not take his band mate’s advice and call 911, and even if he believed that Dean had recovered, did he think it was a wise idea to go to sleep? We don’t know. What estimate for a time of death did the coroners give in either of these cases? We just don’t know.
Were any other blood samples taken from Conklin’s body before it was cremated? Remember, the question of whether the examiner’s office retained blood samples from Robert Wone was undetermined. Were any samples of Dean Johnson’s kept? We don’t know.
In the event, no charges ever were brought against Saleh, and although the cause of death is listed as undetermined, rather than accidental death or suicide or, obviously, homicide in both cases, they’re both closed as of the moment.
If you go to the Motherboards, the last entry you’ll find is dated 9-20-08. If you go to Dean Johnson’s MySpace page, someone posted as recently as 2-23-09. If you look at the last entry on his MySpace blog, at the bottom you’ll find that he was watching a movie called Cruising, a detail that gave friends gooseflesh:
Al Pacino hunts for a serial killer in a lurid world of gay leather bars in Cruising. Because of his resemblance to the victims of a series of slayings, cop Steve Burns (Pacino) goes undercover as a gay man, wandering through wild, gyrating bacchanalias straight out of a Tom of Finland painting, hoping that the killer will be drawn to his dark, tormented eyes.
Steven Saleh’s MySpace page is still open though. He last logged in a year and a week ago, advertising himself as a gay man who liked to swim to keep himself in shape. As far as I know, he’s still around, and he’s probably out there on the web somewhere, still casting.