I watched the movie Mondo New York a few nights ago and Dean and the
Weenies’ raucous performance called to mind the strange death of Dean Johnson,
the group’s legendary frontman. Dean, 46, was a fixture
of downtown New York City nightlife; in addition to his musical endeavors he worked
as a doorman at several outré nightclubs and his parties,
most notably a weekly bacchanal called Rock’n’Roll Fag Bar, were notorious
for their decadence. Although Dean had been HIV positive
for 20 years he was, by all accounts, indestructible—he’d battled a
debilitating heroin addiction for the better part of a decade while simultaneously
dabbling in mescaline, marijuana and a bevy of
pharmaceuticals both illicit and prescribed.
By 2007 Dean had overcome his drug demons and embarked on a career as a
sex worker. Standing a cadaverous 6’6” and sporting a head shaved bald as a stripper’s pubis
Dean was, to say the least,
striking —his specialty was S&M fantasy role-play,
with Dean serving as the dominant partner (or “top,” in S&M parlance).
On September 19th Dean left New York to visit a client named Steven Saleh in Washington DC.
Saleh, who resided in the historic Envoy building located at 2400 16th St NW,
is a disabled former Commerce Department employee reportedly crippled with pain from a neurological disorder;
the profusion of pills
in Saleh’s apartment inspired Dean to describe the one bedroom flat as a “mini-pharmacy.”
Saleh, a prison role-play aficionado,
had previously sampled Dean’s wares—in sessions past Saleh’s apartment had been converted into a maximum security prison cell whilst Dean gamboled
as a sadistic corrections officer with a penchant for corporal punishment and verbal humiliation.
Dean’s sojourn in Washington was scheduled to last but a single day;
he held a return ticket to New York dated September 20th.
When he remained incommunicado and failed to reappear in the city
friends and family began to worry—though the lives of sex workers are notoriously peripatetic
Dean always stayed in touch.
When he missed a practice session for his new band Velvet Mafia on September 27th the situation was clearly dire;
fearing the worst,
Dean’s nearest and dearest began calling hospitals and morgues in the DC area.
Sadly, their suspicions proved correct—after several rounds of phone calls they were eventually informed Dean had perished in Saleh’s apartment.
His body had been laying unclaimed in
the DC morgue since September 20th, the day after his arrival in Washington.
The circumstances of Dean’s demise were passing strange.
Initial reports indicated Dean had likely suffered a drug overdose,
yet by all accounts Dean’s recreational drug use had ceased;
besides, a friend declared,
even if Dean had suffered a momentary lapse of sobriety it would have necessitated “a truckload” of drugs
to fell the lifelong illicit-substances enthusiast.
Dean’s week as a John Doe in the morgue was also nonsensical—Dean always traveled with his passport
and his name was certainly known by Steven Saleh,
in whose apartment he had died.
Why hadn’t Saleh or the police used Dean’s cell phone to contact his next of kin?
These confounding facts were dwarfed, however,
by the most staggering peculiarity of all—Dean Johnson was not the first person to die at Steven Saleh’s apartment
Jordan ‘Jeremy’ Conklin, age 26, had traveled from New York to the District of Columbia on September 15th.
Jeremy had become acquainted with Steven Saleh via Craigslist—Saleh was seeking a live-in caretaker
willing to toil in exchange for free room and board
and Jeremy had been pondering a move to DC.
Although he was estranged from his Mormon family in Arizona Jeremy possessed a close circle of friends;
he had also been blessed with an adoring boyfriend, John Allen,
whom he’d met the previous summer
while working as a bouncer in the gay enclave of Provincetown, Massachusetts.
When John Allen called on the 16th Jeremy’s phone was answered by a DC police officer
who curtly informed him Jeremy had died,
apparently of a drug overdose, in Steven Saleh’s apartment.
Like Dean, Jeremy had died the day after he arrived in DC
and like Dean, his identification had suspiciously vanished.
The results of both men’s toxicology reports furnished more questions than answers.
Jeremy had died from a combination of alcohol and oxycodone and Dean from a cornucopia of pharmaceuticals including ramelteon (a sedative sold under the brand name Rozerem),
tramadol and oxycodone.
Jeremy was reportedly vehemently straight-edge;
he’d moved out of an apartment the previous summer because he was uncomfortable
with his roommates’ party-hearty lifestyle,
and there was absolutely no evidence of drug use or abuse in his background.
Why then would he consume not only drugs,
but a lethal dose of drugs, on his first night in the home of a virtual stranger?
As for Dean, it was established he’d ingested one or more of Saleh’s Rozarem pills at approximately 9:30pm;
why would such a notorious night owl take a sleeping aid so early in the evening?
And how could Saleh blithely dole out medication to Dean
when he’d experienced a drug fatality in his apartment only four days previously?
Furthermore, where had Dean and Jeremy’s identification gone,
and why hadn’t Saleh, who had access to both men’s cell phones,
informed the police of Dean’s identity or contacted Jeremy and Dean’s loved ones in a timely manner?
When the police questioned Saleh about the curious course of events in his apartment he reportedly said,
“What’s the media going to call me? The gimp black widow?”
He then lamented, “ I guess I won’t have any more dinner parties.”
Although I find Saleh’s flippant comments indicative of a chilling nonchalance regarding his houseguests’
untimely deaths law enforcement seemed
confident from the start that no crime had been committed.
The Metropolitan police conducted only a cursory investigation,
at the culmination of which they declared “no evidence of criminal wrongdoing”
had been discovered.
Obviously, furnishing prescription drugs to anyone other than the intended recipient is a crime;
although Saleh could ostensibly claim both men had taken his drugs without his knowledge
his failure to secure his medication after the first drug fatality seems, at best, reckless.
Was law enforcement’s relative disinterest
spurred by Dean’s occupation or his and Jeremy’s sexual orientation?
Although it’s impossible to say for sure,
I suspect the similar drug-related deaths of two virginal white college girls would have converted Saleh’s randy prison fantasies into an unpleasant
steel-barred and orange-jumpsuited reality—he would, I predict,
have been charged with negligent homicide at barest minimum.
Although I never had the pleasure of an introduction I do have a Dean Johnson anecdote to share.
My first few months as a college student in New York City were miserable—I felt adrift in enormous,
anonymous Manhattan (the small fish/big pond analogy is woefully insufficient—I
felt more like a tiny amoeba in the bottomless, storm-tossed sea).
Walking down East Houston Street one day, debating an ignominious return to my hometown,
I espied a dazzling vision off in the distance—nearly 7-feet tall, as thin and white as line of cocaine,
it was Dean Johnson in the flesh.
It was late afternoon,
and Dean was attired in a sleek black cocktail dress and stiletto heels—the glimmer
from his yoyo-sized earrings was blinding.
As I watched Dean sashay down the sidewalk I was awestruck.
In my hometown, hell, in anybody’s hometown,
the sight of a 6’6” bald man in a dress would cause a commotion—traffic would stop and passersby would gawk.
But not in New York; none of the other pedestrians even blinked.
A chrome-domed, cross-dressing colossus merited nary a second glance on Manhattan’s bohemian lower east side.
As Dean sauntered past me, his high heels clattering on the begrimed concrete, I had an epiphany.
I was, I suddenly realized,
in exactly the right place—anywhere such a vision of nonconformity could exist unmolested
was the place where I belonged.
I may not have shared Dean’s outrageous appearance but inside I felt freakish as a Coney Island side-show;
an environment tolerant of unconventionality was essential to my mental and spirtual well-being.
Thanks to Dean I stayed in New York and with time came to love the city immensely.
To me, the most tragic aspect of Dean’s death, regardless of its cause,
is that other NYU students will forever be deprived of the stunning sight I witnessed on Houston Street
that long-ago day.
If I hadn’t seen Dean in all his glory I might’ve dropped out of school and slunk back to my hometown.
Today’s NYU students will never share the transformative moment that marked the beginning
of my torrid love affair with NYC—regardless of whether Dean died as a result of murder or misadventure,
this loss is undeniably a capital crime.