John A. McCullough is looking at 22-plus years in prison for the kidnapping and battery of his former girl friend, a pretty young woman maybe 20-years-old. I won’t name her in this report at the request of the Mendocino County DA’s Victim Witness Office. At the beginning of the proceedings last Friday, Mr. McCullough tried to bid his way out by offering to plead out to some of the lesser charges, such as domestic abuse and making criminal threats, but the prosecutor, Deputy DA Shannon Cox wasn’t buying.
Pretty young woman, handsome young man, but a handsome young man with a criminal history. Looking at him, you wonder why he didn’t just stay home with a bottle of Jack Daniels, sing himself some blues and look around town for a new love. But he didn’t, and now John A. McCullough, at age 31, is in big trouble.
“The kidnapping charge in itself carries a 22 year sentence, and the People are not willing to drop it,” prosecutor Cox told Judge John Behnke in response to Public Defender Linda Thompson’s offer to negotiate.
It often happens that kidnapping charges are filed somewhat extravagantly, especially when the parties are known to each other. But in cases where somebody is forced from one location to another, or ordered at gunpoint to get into the car, well, it can cost a fool for love 22 years of his young life.
In this case, the victim testified that she was indeed abducted at gunpoint, then she had her face repeatedly slammed into the dashboard, and was finally choked to give up her cellphone to the man she once loved.
Judge Behnke was inclined to believe the girl — at least for the limited purposes of the preliminary hearing. It may be shown at trial that the defendant is innocent, but a Prelim — or PX (preliminary examination) as the lawyers call it – is a crucial step in determining the strength of the evidence, after which the judge usually rules that the case can proceed to trial.
John McCullough now faces as much as 25-to-life in prison, and Deputy DA Cox feels confident she can prove all the charges to a jury, even though Ms. Thompson suggested in her cross-examination of the witnesses that there was perhaps a shadow of doubt, and any person looking at serious prison time who has Linda T as his attorney, well, no one’s ever confused her with Clarence Darrow.
The incident in Willits happened last November 21st.
“I was walking home from work,” the victim said.
“Where did you work?” DDA Cox asked.
“At The House of Pizza.”
“What time of night was this?”
“Ten, maybe 10:30.”
“And you were walking home from work?”
“Yes, but I was going to go out later.”
“With Mr. McCullough?”
“No. With my girlfriends.”
The victim said she was living with her parents in Willits after a failed relationship with the defendant. McCullough had turned abusive, she said, and she’d gotten a restraining order against him. But apparently McCullough had unilaterally waived his stay-away order and had kept on keeping on. The estranged couple had also been exchanging text messages, meaning that McCullough, you could say, was able to keep contact alive because his contactee was answering back. But worst of all, McCullough had been driving by his ex’s home yelling insults and threats at the girl’s parents.
“He would drive by the house and yell names at my Dad, cussing and saying he was going to kill us all.”
The victim testified that she’d relented to communicating with McCullough to keep him away from her parents.
“So you agreed to have contact with him?”
“He said he would leave me and my family alone if I would talk to him.”
“Was it positive contact?”
“Were the text messages positive?”
“Not really. He used blackmail on me, saying he would tell the whole town we were back together.”
“He was texting you while you were working?”
“And you got off work at or around 10 or 10:30; and you were walking home when you got a call from John?”
“What did he say?”
“First he asked where I was; but then he said, ‘never mind, I can see you.’”
“So you stayed on the phone with him while you were walking?”
“When did you see him?”
“When I went by a parked car he told me to get in.”
“No. I said ‘no’ and kept walking.”
“What did he do?”
“He followed me. He rolled down the window and said ‘get in.’”
“Did you get in?”
“No. I kept walking. Then he pulled out a gun and told me to get in.”
“Did he point the gun at you?”
“Not really. He just had it in his hand when he told me to get in the car.”
“What did you do?”
“I went around to the passenger side and got in the car.”
“I was scared he was going to kill me.”
“Where did you go after you got in the car?”
“He went around the block and back toward Brown’s Corner.”
“Did you want to be in the car?”
“You were going north on 101?”
“He turned onto the Fort Bragg Road and pulled over by the Willits KOA. Then he grabbed me by my hair and tried to get my phone.”
“Did you give it to him?”
“I was tired of getting my head bashed into the dash, so I gave it to him.”
“Were you arguing with him?”
“Yes. He was calling me a whore. He was mad because I had walked out on him and got an abortion. He said if it was his father or his brother, I’d be dead already.”
It would seem young Johnny wasn’t living up to the McCullough family’s lofty standards of intolerance. But the girl didn’t immediately give up her phone, and the motorized assault resumed.
“He started driving toward Fort Bragg again and he tried to get my phone out of my shirt. He pulled over again and started choking me, and saying maybe he should just get it over with, so I gave it to him.”
“What did he do with it?”
“He tried to take the battery out but couldn’t get it out, and he told me to take it out so nobody could contact me or track me.”
“This was on the way to Fort Bragg?”
“How far did you go in that direction?”
“Maybe as far as James Creek.”
“Did you have any conversation with him?”
“Yes. I told him I loved him and wanted to turn around and go home with him.”
“Why did you tell him that – was it true?”
“No, but I didn’t want him to kill me.”
“So he turned back toward Willits?”
“And the conversation resumed?”
“Yes. I told him I hadn’t had an abortion; I said it was a miscarriage. Then he got on the phone to his brother who said he’d seen me with someone. He started calling me a whore again and I said I needed to use the restroom and he pulled into Flyers.” (Flyers is a Willits service station.)
“You got out and went into the restroom?”
“Then did you go back to the car?”
“Yes, but not immediately. I was trying to get the cashier’s attention.”
“Why, because he came back in and took me out to the car.”
“Did you get back in?”
“Yes. And then we went toward Ukiah.”
“Did he live in Ukiah?”
Now you were on the way to Ukiah. Were you still having a conversation with John?”
“Yes. I told him I loved him and wanted to go home with him but I needed to go to my parents’ house and get some things first, so we turned around near the weigh station. I told him I was going to pick up some clothes and go with him. So when we hit the road by the fire station I got out and started walking to my trailer. Then he suddenly said ‘you’re going to send me to jail’ and came after me.”
“Did you see the gun again?”
“So you got up the hill and ran into the house?”
“Yes, and my Dad came out and I could hear him — John – screaming, ‘I’m going to kill you! Your family can’t protect you forever.’”
“Did someone call the police?”
“Yes, my Mom.”
“Did Officer Androtti come to your house?”
Public Defender Thompson began her cross-examination of the girl.
“You indicate in your declaration for a restraining order that you were in a relationship with Mr. McCullough for eight or nine months, is that correct?”
“And you said that he was abusive and you didn’t want to be with him?”
The victim didn’t understand the question.
“How was he abusive; in what way?”
“He would slam me against the wall, pull my hair out throwing me around the room, and scream at me that I was a whore.”
“Okaaaay…” Ms. Thompson drawled this word with arch enunciation. It’s one of her signature gimmicks, and she basks for prolonged moments in the effect she imagines it has worked on everyone involved before resuming her questions.
“But you were pregnant at the time with Mr. McCullough’s child, weren’t you?”
“And did you have an abortion?”
“And did he know?”
The Public Defender pounced. “Aha!”
It was another of the Thompson’s crafty theatrics, this exclamation.
“Now, as for this alleged abuse – did you ever report it?”
“So you went to live with your parents?”
“And you indicate that John sent abusive messages to your father?”
“Do you think your father still has these messages on his phone?”
“I’m sure of it.”
“And you got this restraining order in November before the incident of the 21st?”
“Did your parents do that for you?”
“No. I did it myself.”
“Were you aware whether or not Mr. McCullough had ever been served with that order?”
“But you started getting texts from him, isn’t that correct?”
“And didn’t you get word from him that he wanted to be friends with you without all the drama?”
“And two days before you were exchanging texts, weren’t you?”
“Yes, I was playing his head games.”
“On your cell phone Mr. McCullough is listed as “Snuffins” — isn’t that correct?”
From Mr. McCullough to Snuffins. What’s become of male dignity in contemporary romance?
“He wanted to go out but I told him I was going out to the bar with the girls.”
“So you were getting calls from John while you were walking home after work?”
“Yes, but he called first while I was still at work.”
“Then the second call came while you were walking?”
“Now, when you first had an idea he was in a car nearby – where was it, the car?”
“The other side of Brown’s Corner.”
“And isn’t it true that you had to cross the street to go by the car?”
“No, I had to walk around the car.”
“So he told you to get in the car on the phone?”
“Yes, but I said no and then he followed me and rolled the window down so I could see him.”
“How did you see the gun?”
“It was in his hand.”
“Did he hold it up so you could see it?”
“Well, can you describe it?”
“It was a small black gun.”
“And he said ‘Get in’ – anything else?”
“Just cuss words. And there was meanness in his voice.”
“After you got in the car did you see the gun?”
“So after you got in he turned and went down Highway 20 toward Fort Bragg. Had he already assaulted you physically at that point?”
“No. He was talking about his cousin who said he saw me with someone and he was calling me a whore.
“And you were continuing to tell him that you had had a miscarriage and not an abortion?”
“When the car pulled over at the Willits KOA, did you try to get out?”
“Why didn’t you?”
“He grabbed my hair.”
“He grabbed your hair and pulled you back?”
“And that was the first physical assault?”
“Was he driving when he slammed you into the dashboard?”
At this point Ms. Thompson blurted one of her gotcha guffaws. It turned out that when the cops finally apprehended defendant McCullough, he had confessed that he slammed the woman he said he loved into the dash at the same time he hit the brakes.
“I wanted her to feel it,” he is alleged to have said on tape to Willits Police Officer Jeffery Androtti and the DA’s investigator, Detective Kevin Bailey.
“Did you ever go to the hospital?” Thompson asked the victim.
“A couple of days later,” she said.
“And isn’t it true that you later asked someone to hurt him, to hurt Mr. McCullough?”
“Did you want him dead?”
“Wouldn’t you want someone dead if they were trying to kill you?”
“Are you saying you didn’t ask someone to hurt him?”
“No, I didn’t.”
Officer Andretti was called and testified that when John McCullough was first questioned he dismissed everything as “bullshit,” but later in the interrogation changed his story. He had heard the cops were looking for him and had turned himself in, hoping to plea to a domestic violence rap and avoid the complications possession of the gun caused him. He was, after all, a convicted felon with a long rap sheet and not supposed to have a gun. On this point he was, as DDA Cox put it, “minimizing his culpability.”
Androtti: “He said he’d used blackmail to get her in the car, saying if she didn’t get in she’d lose everything.”
Cox: “Did he admit he drove off with her?”
Androtti: “He did.”
Cox: “Did he admit she wanted out?”
Androtti: “Yes, he did.”
Cox: “Did he talk about taking her phone?”
Andretti: “He did. He said he wanted the battery out so they couldn’t be tracked by law enforcement.”
Judge Behnke: “What was it he said about grabbing her hair?”
Andretti: “May I look at my report?”
Judge: “You may, but don’t read from it directly; just use it to refresh your memory.”
Androtti (after a moment): “He grabbed her hair at the back of her head at the same time he hit the breaks and slammed her face into the dashboard. ‘I wanted her to feel it,’ he said.”
Predictably, Judge Behnke found that there was sufficient evidence to hold McCullough on all five counts: kidnapping, physical assault, criminal threats, felon in possession of a firearm, violation of a restraining order, and a number of special allegations.
By the time Valentine’s Day rolls around, Mr. McCullough might be looking for a new sweetheart at the state prison, where the concept of violent love is well understood.