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Ex-CHP Officer Slain in Ambush Is Recalled as a Muscular Enigma

Times Staff Writers

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

McKenna--a 46-year-old felon with purported ties to prostitution, gambling, narcotics, counterfeiting and topless bars--was gunned down Thursday while he slept in the back seat of his limousine as it pulled up to the gate of his isolated ranch estate in Brea’s Carbon Canyon.

So far, Brea police said Saturday, they have no suspects in the murder and only one witness: the chauffeur behind the wheel when McKenna was shot.

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

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‘Liked Flashy Clothes’

“He liked flashy clothes, fancy cars, gold rings and the ladies,” said a friend who first got to know McKenna 20 years ago, when both of them were California Highway Patrol officers.

“He was nice to the people he liked--didn’t take advantage of them,” said the friend, who asked not to be named. “But to people who crossed him, he definitely had a mean streak.”

Ron Isles, a Brea city councilman, described McKenna as “a great big guy (who) looked like Mr. Clean . . . one of those kind of people that if you saw him walking down the street at night, you’d be terrified.”

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Isles said that, despite appearances, you could tell when McKenna spoke that he was “a gentle person.”

Others were not so sure.

Investigators said that while they found some of McKenna’s many employees to be “extremely loyal” to him, others lived in “extreme fear” of the 300-pound, 6-foot, 6-inch giant.

Said Mike Tutty, a weightlifter friend 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?”

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 McKenna’s wife of nine 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.”

Isles said he got to know McKenna because of McKenna’s problems 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 in June. The animals’ future was to be decided in court on March 15.

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

Investigation Revealed

On the day before his murder, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office released documents detailing its wide-ranging investigation of McKenna for income tax fraud, gambling, narcotics and prostitution activities.

In addition, the district attorney’s office said, McKenna and the man believed to be his business partner, former CHP Officer Michael Woods, were alleged to be hidden owners of five nude and topless bars near Los Angeles International Airport, in Hollywood, in Lennox and in the San Fernando Valley.

McKenna’s criminal record shows arrests for running a prostitution ring and credit card forgery and convictions for assault on a police officer and involvement in counterfeiting.

That all happened in the twilight and aftermath of his career as a highway patrolman.

Records show that McKenna--along with Woods and Daniel Fenton Sully, a man identified in the affidavits as a functionary in one of the topless bars--all served together in the CHP in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. All three were assigned as motorcycle patrolmen in the West Los Angeles area.

“I broke Mac in on motors (motorcycles),” said the friend who asked not to be named. “He was a likable S.O.B., a real clown. So big I said they must have made his (leather) jacket out of an elephant. He had a good sense of humor.

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“We were working the (Sunset) Strip one night, and both of us stopped at a red light, side by side. This guy in an MG, next to Mac, crumples up a cigarette package and tosses it out on the ground.

“Mac reaches down, picks up the package, and stuffs in back in the car. ‘Don’t be littering up my streets, boy,’ he tells the guy.

“The guy looks up, sees Big Mac, and says, ‘Yessir!’ ”

The friend said he, McKenna and several other highway patrolmen used to stop by occasionally at a topless joint in Inglewood, near Los Angeles International Airport.

“We had a few squad parties there,” the friend said. “I think that’s where Mac started going awry.”

The friend said McKenna was seduced by the excitement, the sexy women and the money--"especially the money.”

It was about that time that McKenna was dismissed--and then was allowed to resign--from the department. Whether that dismissal came as a result of his concurrent arrest on a credit card theft count has not been made clear.

At any rate, the friend said, he pretty much lost track of him when McKenna left, although word drifted down that McKenna “had been locked up for something.

“Then, one night, my phone rings,” the friend said. “The voice says, ‘It’s me. Mac.’ I ask, ‘Where are you?’ He says, ‘Right in your driveway.’

“I look out, and there’s this big Rolls Royce--a black, 1962 Rolls Royce. He had a phone in the damned thing. We rode around for a while and that was it. That’s about the last time I saw him.

“When things started happening to him, he didn’t try to involve us. And I didn’t ask him about it.”

But while some of his friends saw McKenna as a good cop turned bad, others saw him simply as a nice guy.

Annie Null, 21, one of the four trainers McKenna employed to care for 11 Arabian horses at his 35-acre 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. She said some of the regular guests were sexily dressed young women he referred to as his “bimbos.”

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.”

And McKenna reportedly had some unusual habits.

Employees at his estate said that in an effort to lose weight, McKenna, a New Orleans native, lived on a diet of tuna and vitamin pills and kept no other food in his house.

He never drank alcoholic beverages, they said, instead favoring carbonated soft drinks, which he would pack in the rattlesnake skin briefcase he carried virtually everywhere. He was very concerned about his appearance, and had recently undergone a hair transplant.

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. The winner would be crowned “Mr. America Over 40.”

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.”

Times staff writer Boris Yaro also contributed to this story.


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