The son of a bodybuilder-businessman who was slain in a gangland style ambush Thursday said Sunday that his father was “a little flamboyant” but far from the portrait painted of him as a shady businessman who lived extravagantly.
“The man I knew and the man the family knew was a man who liked to joke around a lot, he was really nice,” Michael McKenna, 23, said in an interview on his father’s $825,000 estate in Brea.
Horace Joseph McKenna, 46, who had convictions for counterfeiting and parole violation, died in a hail of gunfire about 12:30 p.m. Thursday as he was sleeping in the back seat of his limousine. The ambush occurred just as McKenna’s chauffeur, Robert Berg, was pulling up to the gate at McKenna’s 40-acre estate. Berg was unharmed.
There are no suspects in the case. McKenna will be buried Tuesday, his son said.
The shooting occurred only hours after court records were unsealed unveiling a Los Angeles district attorney’s tax fraud investigation of Horace McKenna and a business partner, Michael Woods. Those records alleged that Horace McKenna and Woods were the hidden owners of several nude and topless bars in Los Angeles County.
Horace McKenna, who served in the California Highway Patrol from 1968 to 1972, was convicted in 1976 of counterfeiting and convicted in 1982 of parole violation after he was arrested on suspicion of assaulting an off-duty police officer.
Michael McKenna said he agreed to be interviewed because he wanted everyone to know “the true part, the way my father really was. Not the man they portrayed as some big Mafia leader.” He said his father “was as gentle as a kitten.”
None of the court records or police reports made public said that Horace McKenna was ever linked to organized crime or the Mafia.
Michael McKenna said that as far as he knew, his father “was not into anything that had to do with the Mafia, nothing to do with gangs . . . nothing to do with prostitution or with drugs.”
Michael McKenna said he lives with his father’s parents in Los Angeles County. He said he had spent weekends and other time with his father but never lived with him after his parents divorced when he was a child.
McKenna allowed a reporter and a photographer into his father’s rambling house. It is comfortable rather than elaborate, decorated with bronze statues of western scenes and stuffed animals that, according to his son, McKenna on big game ranches. It sits at the top of a green knoll in Carbon Canyon with a sweeping view of Orange County clear to Disneyland, where Michael McKenna said fireworks can be seen at night.
As the hazy afternoon grew dimmer, McKenna showed his guests the ranch’s many other buildings, including a 20-foot gazebo and stables with 16 horses, including his father’s favorite, an American saddle horse named Lord. The horse pulled away as McKenna stroked its nose, and McKenna explained, “My Dad rode him every day, so Lord knows something is not right.”
Just down the blacktop road is a small mock “ghost town” his father had built as an amusement for himself and his friends. The ghost town has a saloon, a jail, a general store and other businesses from an old western outpost. At the entrance to the town is a “cemetery” with “headstones” for Dead Eye Dick (“He ain’t fastest no more”) and other cowboys.
As a joke, there is even an out-of-era headstone for Superman, who, according to his marker, “tried to take on Mac.” The elder McKenna was known as “Mac” to his friends.
The hilly road up through the property that McKenna developed from rough acreage is peppered with Old West signs such as “Dead Man’s Curve.”
A full 3 inches taller than his 6-foot-6 father, the younger McKenna said he used to enjoy horsing around with his dad.
‘A 46-Year-Old Kid’
“We’d tear out around the house, tackle each other on the lawn or something, wrestle,” McKenna said. “He was a 46-year-old kid.”
McKenna said his father did not drink or smoke and did not take drugs, nor were there ever any drug activities around the ranch home that he saw. He said that while his father, who was twice divorced, sometimes dated women half his age, there was no hint of a party life style.
“People say it the way they want to say it,” McKenna said. He said his father “was a man who liked to have fun. He liked to entertain. He had all kinds of friends.” But he added, “He didn’t give parties in the sense of loud banging music with people walking around. He liked to have people up here in the daytime, go horseback riding, to walk around the ranch and just generally relax.”
Even the brand new pool was designed for volleyball--it is 7 feet deep in the middle and shallower at each end.
McKenna said he believes his father made his money breeding Arabian horses and from profits on the 4 Star Gym in El Segundo, which he owned. McKenna said his father also owned some apartment buildings.
Of reports that his father had beaten his wife of 9 years, Sherry, from whom he was divorced 2 years ago, McKenna said, “Baloney. Absolute baloney.” He said he and Sherry McKenna were not close, and that he “wondered why” his father took so long to divorce her. “If she was as cold to him as she was to me, I don’t see why there wasn’t a divorce the first day after they got married.”
The son said he saw no guns on the ranch except the shotgun his father used to shoot gophers. “I’d say out of every 10 shots, he may get one gopher, and we’d laugh about it,” McKenna said.
‘A Little Frightened’
Michael McKenna said he was “a little frightened, yeah,” to be on the ranch where his father was slain.
“I was in town for a while and I didn’t get back until dark and I had to stop and unlock the gate,” said McKenna, whose size might intimidate most intruders. “And I was petrified. I was very scared.”
But he said that he did not fear the murderers would return for him.
“In my heart, (I know) it was just somebody who wanted my father,” McKenna said. “Who, why--I don’t know.”
McKenna said that in the last several months his father had been dieting on low-fat yogurt, tuna fish sandwiches and water, bringing his weight down to 265 pounds.
He said that as he was driving to Brea after learning of his father’s death, he thought about the ranch.
“I knew how much he loved the horses. I knew how much he loved the ranch. This was his dream. Right then and there my main concern was to keep it alive, to keep the dream alive.”
But he said he has not figured out how he will do it. The police and federal officers took his father’s papers even before they allowed McKenna in the house, so he has no idea of what his father’s assets are, or even how he might be able to pay the ranch hands. He said he was to have started a job as a security officer, but decided to delay that until his father’s estate is straightened out.
“There are too many unexplained questions, too much paper work,” McKenna said. He said quietly, “My father and I were really good friends. We loved each other. . . . He was there for me whenever I needed him.”