A Huntington Beach man pleaded guilty Tuesday to beating and sexually assaulting a 64-year-old neighbor with a hammer, leaving her with permanent hearing and vision problems, and was immediately sentenced to 34 years to life in prison.
Thomas Clifford Johnson could have faced 146 years to life in prison if convicted at trial of attempted murder and other charges stemming from the Dec. 22, 2013, attack.
Multiple other felony charges and sentencing enhancement allegations against the 45-year-old defendant were dismissed as part of the plea deal he struck a day after jury selection began for his trial.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Gregg Prickett ordered Johnson to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. He granted the defendant credit for 733 days in custody, but Johnson will have to do 85 percent of his sentence before he gets a chance at parole.
The victim told the judge she has permanent hearing loss in her left ear, had to undergo $30,000 worth of reconstructive surgery from a broken jaw and also suffered vision loss that makes it difficult for her to read.
She had to have her mouth wired shut for two months, and doctors did not discover a sliver of wood in her ear canal for nine months. She also suffers from short-term memory and anger-management issues.
The victim has a doctorate and worked in the environmental sciences field. She retired shortly before the attack and had planned to start her own consultancy business, but cannot do so now, Deputy District Attorney Whitney Bokosky said.
The victim’s sister told Prickett that they could not forgive Johnson.
“Mr. Johnson’s actions have affected many lives, and her life will never be the same …,” she said. “But we refuse to give him any more power over our lives.”
The defendant offered his “most heartfelt apologies”
“I’m truly sorry,” he said. “I can only hope my sentence today provides some measure of justice and closure (for the victim).”
Johnson added, “I wish I could give some insight into the incident. Unfortunately, I can’t.”
Johnson got very drunk the night of the attack, and he told investigators he had lost his job and was having ongoing arguments with his wife over her infidelity, Bokosky said.
The defendant told the judge he had “memory gaps” about the night and choked up as he said he never “raised a hand in anger” to his wife over the years and never had any notions of violence before the attack.
Johnson noted that when he realized what had happened, he returned to the crime scene, dialed 911 and waited for police.
“The decision to go back, I don’t regret in the least,” he said. “I don’t expect (the victim) or her family to accept my apology, but I hope someday they’ll have the capacity to forgive me.”
Johnson beat the woman with a hammer so excessively that the head of the tool broke off, then used the handle to sexually assault her, Bokosky said.
The attack took place in a condominium complex in the 20000 block of Portview Circle. The two did not know each other, but they lived in the same complex, according to Bokosky.
Johnson’s attorney, Michael Molfetta, said his client led an “exemplary life” up until the attack.
“He has been a provider for his beautiful family and he has been gentle and caring. He has never once violated any laws. The conduct that he has admitted to on the evening in question is entirely out of character for him,” Molfetta said.
“He was going through a period of his life that was rife with personal struggles and turmoil and he turned to alcohol for consolation,” the defense attorney said. “After a night of binge drinking, something snapped inside of him. I don’t think we’ll ever really know why, and I don’t think we’ll ever know a lot of things. Skeptics will pass that off as just so much defense- attorney rhetoric, but the fact of th
—City News Service