Brea Man Is Slain in Ambush : Ex-CHP Officer Led Flamboyant Life On Estate in Brea

Times Staff Writer

Horace Joseph McKenna was a man hooked on power and wealth, a hulking body builder who used his size to intimidate and impress. He was a former law enforcement officer turned bad.

McKenna was 46 years old when he was gunned down Thursday while he slept in the back seat of his limousine as it pulled up to the gate of his isolated estate in Brea’s Carbon Canyon.

So far police have no suspects in the murder and only one witness: the chauffeur behind the wheel when McKenna met his assassins.

But based on interviews with those who knew him, it appears that McKenna, the man called “Big Mac” by his friends, died as flamboyantly as he lived.


“He looked like Mr. Clean” is how attorney Ron Isles, a Brea city councilman, described his former client.

“He was a great big guy, one of those kind of people that if you saw him walking down the street at night, you’d be terrified,” Isles said. “But then he would open his mouth and you could tell he was a gentle person.”

But Isles hastened to add that he did not know about McKenna’s “business affairs.”

Isles said he knew McKenna because of his problem with the exotic animals he kept at his estate--a black leopard, a tiger and two spider monkeys that were seized by the Department of Fish and Game last June. The animals’ future was to be decided in court on March 15.

But McKenna’s own future, it seemed, was also about to be decided by the judicial system.

On the day of his murder, the Los Angeles district attorney’s office released documents detailing its wide-ranging investigation of this former California Highway Patrol officer for income tax fraud, gambling, narcotics and prostitution activities.

In addition, according to the district attorney’s office, McKenna and the man believed to be his business partner, former CHP Officer Michael Woods, were alleged to be hidden owners of four nude and topless bars in the Los Angeles area.

And investigators said that while they found some of McKenna’s many employees to be “extremely loyal” to him, others lived in “extreme fear” of this 300-pound, 6-foot, 6-inch man who liked everything to go his way.


Said Mike Tutty, a weightlifter friend of McKenna’s who was interviewed at the 4 Star Gym that McKenna owned in El Segundo, “He was a very intimidating person. He had a big ego and he needed fodder for that ego. . . .

“We knew he was sent away (to prison) twice before, but most of us, we never discussed that kind of thing in here. You weren’t going to do that in front of Mac. I didn’t want to be a statistic, right?”

McKenna’s criminal record shows a string of arrests for running a prostitution ring and convictions for assault on a police officer, credit card forgery and assault with a weapon.

Richard Debro, a Los Angeles attorney who represented Sherry McKenna in the couple’s 1987 divorce, said that he saw the results of McKenna’s violent nature in the battered face of his wife of 9 years.


“He would use drugs and become incredibly violent,” Debro said, “I’ve seen (Sherry McKenna) after he had beaten her up. She’d have black eyes, things like that. . . . He was an awful person, a disgusting person.”

Debro said that although he and other attorneys advised McKenna that she had a legal right to half of the couple’s extensive community property, she chose to take a much smaller settlement out of fear for her life.

“She was very afraid of him,” he said. “She said she had no doubt in her mind that he would kill her or have her killed (if she did not take the settlement). He threatened to kill her with a gun to her head.”

Debro said that Sherry McKenna, whom he described as a “very sweet, attractive woman” in her mid-30s, has since gone into virtual hiding to avoid contact with her ex-husband.


But others who knew McKenna well grieved over his death Thursday.

Annie Null, 21, one of the four trainers McKenna employed to care for 11 Arabian horses at his estate’s Gone With the Wind Arabians breeding operation, broke down in tears upon learning of his death.

“He was a great man,” she said. “He was just a good boss.”

Dana Sermas, another trainer, described her employer as a fun-loving, good-natured man who would entertain friends by allowing them to ride his horses over the rolling chaparral-covered hills surrounding his spacious home.


Sermas said that in recent months, McKenna had been leading tours of the “ghost town” that he was building on his 30-acre property--called Tara Ranch--which included the facades of a saloon, bank and blacksmith shop.

She added that some of his regular guests were young women whom he referred to as “his bimbos,” exotic nightclub dancers.

Leah Newcomb, who used to sell McKenna feed for his horses, said that delivery people always made sure to call before approaching Tara Ranch, because “if not, these armed men would greet you. They had machine guns. . . .”

Some of McKenna’s other habits could be considered equally unusual. Employees at his estate said that in an effort to lose weight, McKenna, a New Orleans native, lived on a diet of tuna fish and vitamin pills and kept no other food in his house.


He never drank alcoholic beverages, they said, instead favoring carbonated drinks, which he would pack in the rattlesnake skin briefcase he carried virtually everywhere. His collection of expensive pairs of boots numbered 52; he owned two limousines, and in addition to the exotic animals confiscated by authorities, he kept an Amazon parrot, pythons and boa constrictors.

Bill Gray, owner of the Star Gym in Brea, said that he remembered McKenna working out at the gym on Wednesday morning, as usual.

Like himself, Gray said, McKenna was in training for the Masters Nationals, a body-building contest to be held June 9 and 10 in Atlantic City, N.J., whose winner would be crowned “Mr. America Over 40.”

McKenna, friends said, was very concerned about his appearance. He had recently undergone a hair transplant.


Gray described his friend as someone without “a mean bone in his body,” although he added that, “if somebody had a problem with him, the only way they’d get him is with a gun.”