By Jeremy Los
June 6, 2011 – James Johnson, a cab driver who survived a violent assault by Michael Eugene Richardson, has shared details of his harrowing ordeal with East County Magazine. Richardson, a Poway auto shop owner, will soon face trial for the murders of his wife, Thao Richardson, his mother-in-law, Phan Lai, and a former girlfriend, Jovita Collaza.
Johnson had his fateful run-in with Mr. Richardson in 1975 while as a cab driver in North Carolina. Richardson shot Johnson multiple times, including once in the face. Johnson’s tale reveals the ruthless nature of Richardson, then 22, who had been discharged from Pope Air Force Base three months before the attack.
In an e-mail to East County Magazine, Johnson said he had put his cab in park and bent over to check the fare amount--$5 and some change. “When I turned my head to tell him how much the fair [sic] was, he shot me in the face with a 32 caliber pistol,” Johnson wrote. “If I had not turned my head, he would have shot me in back of the head. I thought to myself that this guy is going to kill me.”
Johnson escaped only after handing over the little money he had, $10 in ones, and taking two more gunshots, one to the back and one to the shoulder. He was able to seek refuge at a nearby residence and eventually was taken to the hospital.
“It took about two years to recover from the injuries to face and shoulder. I still carry the bullet in the back,” says Johnson. “I lost my house, my car, and my job because I couldn’t work… I am now on disability.”
Police arrested Richardson while he was driving the stolen cab. Richardson pled guilty to the charges, much to the chagrin of Johnson who had wished to face Richardson face to face at the trial.
Richardson was sentenced to 28-30 years in prison. But he served only six years of his sentence before escaping while working on a roadside crew in 1982.
Richardson remained on the run for 18 years, finding his way out to California, where he worked and eventually established Mike’s Auto in Poway. In an ironic coincidence, Johnson also lived in Poway from 1981 to 1989.
"I never knew he escaped and bought a business in Poway," Johnson said. "I worked at Poway Ford and that's approximately 3 to 5 miles away. It's unbelievable."
Richardson was caught in 2000 and brought back to North Carolina to serve his sentence, but ultimately only served seven months and was paroled. He came back to California and finished his parole in 2004.
Johnson believes if his case had been handled properly, the more recent tragedies could have been averted. “It’s a shame North Carolina let him go… he only served seven months! These ladies would be alive today,” exclaimed Johnson.
The nearly 40-year wait to confront his attacker face to face will finally come to an end when Richardson’s murder trial begins, as the San Diego District Attorney’s office has invited Mr. Johnson to take the stand at the trial.
"I think I would tell him, ‘You know you need to go to prison and fry and pay for what you've done,'" Johnson said.
Richardson is accused of faking a car wreck on Highway 67 to cover the recent murders of his wife and mother-in-law. He will also stand trial for killing his former girlfriend two decades ago, although her body was never found. In addition, he is accused of the statutory rape of his niece.
Richardson’s arraignment is scheduled to begin July 14 at the East County Superior Court in El Cajon.