Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Mike Goodwin invented Supercross. Then, he crossed the wrong people

A little while ago, I got a letter from Mike Goodwin, the man who invented Supercross. I get one every six months or so; they come either hand-written or typed on a manual typewriter with a worn ribbon. They come in envelopes labeled 'Indigent Mail'. The return address is 'High Desert State Prison, Susanville', where Goodwin is serving a life term for the murder of Mickey Thompson, another motorsport legend.

His last letter was vintage Mike Goodwin. He opened by telling me he's filed a 48-page felony complaint against the Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys who prosecuted his case. He wrote that he might soon be out of prison, and in line for a settlement of up to $30,000,000 for his wrongful conviction. Then asked me to send him a couple of books of 'forever' stamps. Begging for stamps is a long way down from the heady days when Goodwin walked through race paddocks carrying a briefcase full of cash from the gate, and drove away in a Rolls-Royce or a Clenet. He was 6'3", 200 pounds, and he lived even larger than life; he once won a weekend of sex with porn star Gloria Leonard.

By the time I got to Southern California, Goodwin's good days were long over. I'll tell you about it, and hope that in doing so, I don't end my own days...
He was in jail in L.A. County awaiting his second trial. All I knew about it was what I read in the L.A. Times, which described the evidence against him as circumstantial at best. I was vaguely surprised when he was convicted. (For that matter, so was the District Attorney.)

The facts of Goodwin's rise as a Supercross promoter, the brief merger of his business with Mickey Thompson's (who was promoting stadium truck races), their falling-out, and the subsequent murder of Thompson and his wife have been written up often and well, so I'll just give you the executive summary...

Goodwin was a big, brash, aggressive guy. He wasn't a racer, but he rode dirt bikes for fun and had attended a few outdoor motocross races. He worked in the rough and tumble world of rock promotion in the 1960s. When he read about an indoor flat track race that had drawn 17,000 fans to Madison Square Garden in New York, he had a brainstorm: what if he put on a motocross race in a stadium? In 1972, he convinced the Los Angeles Coliseum to let him do it. He called the event 'The Superbowl of Motocross'. Marty Tripes won.

Goodwin wasn't the first guy ever to hold a motorcycle race in a stadium; there had been a couple of motocross races put on in soccer stadiums in Europe, and they'd already built a temporary track in front of the grandstand at Daytona and raced there. And of course, Speedway races had been held in stadiums for decades. But it was Goodwin who brought a rock promoter's hype and razzmatazz to the show. With his vision - and some elision - 'Supercross' was born. And until the mid-'80s, Goodwin owned it. Owned it? $#!+ man, he rolled in it.

Meanwhile, Mickey Thompson - the son of an Alhambra cop; an off-road (truck) racer and land-speed record holder who had promoted off-road races in the U.S. and Mexico - was trying to develop a similar series of stadium races for buggies and trucks. Thompson, like Goodwin, was an extreme 'Type A' personality whose on-track aggression had once resulted in a fatal crash. The two briefly merged their companies and you might have guessed they were destined to clash on personality alone. Within months, the lawsuits were flying. Goodwin lost. He managed to hide a few assets, but by late 1987, Thompson had put him out of business.

Then, on March 18, 1988 two guys on bicycles pedaled up into Bradbury, an exclusive suburb at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains. They glided into Mickey Thompson's driveway as he and his wife were leaving their house, and shot them dead. They then hopped back on their bikes and rode down into L.A. They might as well have been dissolved by the smog.

Over the course of those lawsuits, Goodwin had more than once vowed things like, "I'll take him out", and since he had a history of threatening and intimidating people he did business with, he was an obvious suspect. But his alibi checked out, and there were no witnesses or evidence that tied him to the crime. Los Angeles County didn't think there was a case to be made against him.

Enter Collene Campbell, Mickey Thompson's sister. She made it her mission to put Goodwin behind bars for the killings. She was once the mayor of San Juan Capistrano, which sounds quaint. She looked like any rich woman-of-a-certain-age from the moneyed precincts of Orange County. That was deceptive; Collene was also a power-broker in the Republican Party in the OC, and the wrong person to have as an enemy.

It took over ten years (and the posting of a million-dollar reward for information) but Collene finally convinced Orange County to bring charges against Goodwin, on the flimsy premise that the conspiracy to commit the murders had taken place at Goodwin's OC home. There was, even at the outset, little physical evidence tying Goodwin to the crime. One of the L.A. investigators, Det. Mark Lillienfeld claimed that the bullets that killed Thompson were consistent with a gun registered to Goodwin, but that evidence blew up in his face when it emerged that the 9mm slugs in the bodies had six grooves in them, while the barrel in Goodwin's gun had five lands. The Hardy Boys would have concluded the slugs didn't match.

(As an aside here, let me note something: Remember O.J. Simpson's trial? People look back on that now as an example of money buying innocence, and of O.J.'s legal dream team outgunning the D.A.'s office. That's not the real take-away. The real takeaway was that the jury was stacked with people from poor neighborhoods who all knew that L.A. cops and D.A.s had been lying on the stand and fabricating evidence for years because that's easier than building actual cases. The defense argument that it was all a police conspiracy - which would have seemed preposterous in most other jurisdictions - was plausible, because after all, it was L.A.)

In the absence of evidence, Orange County argued that the murders had to have been ordered by Goodwin, because Mickey Thompson didn't have any other enemies. To the surprise of veteran court reporters, Goodwin was found guilty, although the conviction was overturned when the state ruled that Orange County had no jurisdiction.

Collene Campbell was not to be denied. Although her power base was in the OC, she convinced Los Angeles County to re-arrest Goodwin, and refile charges in L.A. By that time, Goodwin was broke and his defense was handled by Elena Saris, a public defender.

Again, the D.A. laid out a scenario in which Goodwin hired a couple of thugs out of south L.A. to go and do the hit (no one has ever claimed that Goodwin pulled the trigger himself.) They argued that, despite the absence of credible evidence tying Goodwin to the crime, it had to be him because Mickey Thompson didn't have another enemy in the world. I'm paraphrasing here, but Goodwin's defense was basically, "Did I say I was going to kill him? Sure. Am I an @$$hole? Sure. But I didn't do it."

By the time the jury found him guilty the second time, he'd already spent five years in jail. You think you have a right to a speedy trial? Not if you've crossed Collene Campbell.

The more I thought about it, the more I thought, I can believe Goodwin's guilty but I can't see a jury believing it beyond a shadow of doubt. I wrote Goodwin in prison and asked him if he wanted to talk about it. I didn't really have an opinion about his guilt or innocence, but like everyone else I was pretty surprised by the verdict that came down. It took a while to get his confidence; I knew people who knew him, and I got them to vouch for me. Eventually he wrote back to tell me he'd talk, and I applied for a permit to go and visit him. That permit wasn't granted. It wasn't even officially denied; for all I know, it went straight into the shredder. The next time I applied, it was denied. No reason was given. He sent me another application in the last letter. "This time, don't tell them you're a journalist," he advised. (What? They won't remember?)

Even though I couldn't get in to see him, I looked up Goodwin's lawyers. I talked with a few people off the record, who'd known him during the Supercross/Thompson years. And four things struck me: The first was, I found it odd that neither of the punks who killed Thompson was ever arrested on some other beef, and offered up the Thompson killing in trade. The second was that all Collene Campbell got by dangling a million-dollar reward was an egregious story from someone who claimed to have seen Goodwin casing Thompson's neighborhood and then picked Goodwin out of a lineup thirteen years later.

The third thing was this... If you're a criminal defense attorney, basically, all your clients are guilty. So you defend them to the best of your ability because that's the way the game is played but at the end of the day after a guilty verdict comes down, you'll have a drink with the D.A. in the bar and say, "I'll get the next one." That wasn't the case with either of the lawyers I spoke to; even years later, they're still chafing at Goodwin's convictions. Both of them feel he was railroaded, and both of them are sure that political pressure influenced the trials.

Does Collene Campbell have the kind of juice you'd need to pressure a judge? Let me put it this way: In the second trial in Los Angeles County, Superior Court Judge Teri Schwartz wouldn't start proceedings unless Collene Campbell was present, even though she had no official standing. Once, the judge made Elena Saris wait until Campbell arrived before she could argue a motion. Campbell was delayed, because she was at another meeting. With George W. Bush. (That's a pretty good example of political connections, but it's nothing compared to stories I've heard but can't repeat. Kansas City's a long way from the Collene Campbell’s turf, but motorcycle journalism doesn't pay me anywhere near enough to justify getting on that woman's $#!+ list.)

Last but not least, I've always had this romantic notion that criminal trials were like the old Perry Mason TV show, in which the defense lawyer got the defendant off by proving - or at least accusing - someone else of the crime. On TV, that other person's usually in the courtroom, and confesses on the spot.

That's not how it works. Before your lawyer can present evidence to the jury that someone else might have committed the crime you're accused of committing, they have to get permission from the judge. And time after time, as the judge let the prosecution paint a picture of Thompson as a motorsports saint, without another enemy in the world, Saris was prevented from presenting evidence that, while Goodwin might have been one of Thompson's enemies, he wasn't the only one.

She couldn't point out that during the days when Thompson was promoting races in Mexico, there were rumors in the racing community that it wasn't just race vehicles and equipment coming back across the border. And in fairness, those were just rumors. But there was no doubt at all that Thompson's nephew (Collene's son) was deeply involved in the drug trade, and that he was murdered, too, in a - let's call it a misunderstanding - between drug dealers. Or that lots of people believed that Thompson fronted some of his races with money borrowed from mob loan sharks in Las Vegas.

Now, I have to lower my voice for this part... In the course of talking to people about this case, I've had some very interesting conversations. For example, conversations about other murders, and about the way contract killers work. These were conversations with people who made me think, OK maybe you haven't ever actually hired a hit man, but you know people who've done it.

I've heard things that I can't write here, because they can't come from me. And I can't quote the people who've told me these things because they don't want to be on Collene Campbell's $#!+ list any more than I do. I've heard things that would make Oliver Stone salivate. But the only way I can ever tell you those things will be if I can get into High Desert State Prison to talk to Mike Goodwin, and I can quote him.

As of now, even though I've worked this story on and off for years, I've still never spoken to him. Mike's told me that he'd like to send me that 48-page documentation of prosecutorial misconduct, but that it can only be mailed to member of the California bar. The lawyers I've asked to receive it and pass it along to me have demurred.

I'm already sure of this, though: even if Goodwin's guilty, he did not get a fair trial. There are people - including most of the cops and prosecutors in L.A. - who are fine with a system that works that way. Sometimes I am, too. But I don't like being prevented from talking to him because I'm a journalist. He's been convicted; he's trying to appeal but it could be denied or his conviction could be upheld. There's still a chance that he's innocent. Isn't his last recourse taking his case directly to the public? I think that if the California prison system's denying my applications to see him because they know I'm a journalist, that it's a denial of justice.

So, after I hit 'send' on this edition of Backmarker, I'll fill out another application to visit him. When I go to the post office to mail that off to the warden, I'll pick up a couple of books of stamps, and send those to Goodwin.

If I can ever get in to talk to him, I'll tell you the rest of the story. Unless he gets out. Then, he'll tell you himself.


  1. Interesting read... I do remember the MT race series, crash fests most of them and Mickey was always in the articles in my Pick up, Van & 4 wheel drive mags back in the day... Goodwin, don't know him or of him except for your articles as I was too young when MT was knocked off. I'm not sure I want to comment more than that though...

    S.. never mind my name
    Somewhere in Northern Cali

  2. Supercross is an offshoot of the sport of motocross, which takes place on natural terrain. Supercross Live Steam racing, while related, involves off-road motorcycles on an artificial, man-made dirt track consisting of steep jumps and obstacles. The tracks are usually constructed inside a sports stadium