Since his death last September, friends and relatives of Dean Johnson have tried to make sense of the strange details surrounding the demise of the six-foot-six, 46-year-old icon of New York gay nightlife.
On September 20, Washington, D.C., police took Johnson’s body from the apartment of Steven S. Saleh, a disabled former employee of the Commerce Department. Because of a police error, Johnson’s body then lay unclaimed for more than a week in a local morgue. Strangely, Johnson wasn’t the only tall gay New Yorker to die in the apartment that week. On September 16, four days earlier, the police had removed another body—that of six-foot-four, 26-year-old Jeremy Conklin—from Saleh’s one-bedroom in the upscale Envoy Towers.
Both deaths appeared to be the result of drug overdoses, and toxicology reports later confirmed it—both men died with large amounts of oxycodone (a powerful painkiller sold as OxyContin) in their bloodstreams. Police have indicated that they didn’t consider either case to be the result of foul play after talking with Saleh.
Johnson wasn’t only a nightlife legend who had started the weekly party Rock and Roll Fag Bar in the late ’80s and led the band, the Velvet Mafia; friends also knew he was proud that he could make a living as a prostitute well into his forties. As Radar reported last month, Saleh was a john willing to turn over about $1,500 for a night of rough sex with Johnson, even though he spent some of his time in a wheelchair because of intense pain associated with fibromyalgia. Conklin, meanwhile, was a young Arizona kid who had been visiting Saleh, and who wound up dead on his living-room floor. Radar’s account of what happened next had a somewhat romantic flair: Rather than abandon his john, Johnson jumped on a train to console his friend. “Most prostitutes would have immediately cut off contact. But Johnson, who was known to have a heart as big as his legendary member, frequently ignored the golden rule of hustling: never get attached,” Radar reported.
Perhaps. But the Voice has obtained Johnson’s e-mails to Saleh, which lay out in more detail what the three men had in mind for their weekend in D.C. before two of them turned up dead.
Johnson’s e-mails reveal that Saleh was a particularly needy john, sending him multiple messages a day. On one evening in August, after Saleh had sent several attention-seeking missives, Johnson sent back a curt reply: “I’m going back to bed, so don’t freak when I don’t answer ur emails.” Two days later, after several messages about problems with his pain, Saleh got another short reply: “I’m getting ready for my next client. I can’t answer any more emails today.”
Saleh wanted badly for Johnson to visit him, but money was an issue. On September 13, he acknowledged that Johnson would rather fly, but asked if he could purchase a train ticket for him instead. Johnson apologized for being “bitchy” in their exchange about the plans, but explained, “[No] one who isn’t freakishly tall can know how discomforting it is not to fit in a world that is too small so i get really sensitive about this particular issue.” Saleh assured him that he’d checked to see that the train seats were large enough for him.
This exchange settling the issue of Johnson’s train tickets occurred two days before Conklin first arrived on the scene, taking a cheap Chinatown ride to D.C. to meet Saleh. Conklin, ebullient and muscular, was interested in Saleh’s offer of free room and board for someone who would help take care of him, according to John Allen, a Massachusetts man who was Conklin’s boyfriend.
Allen and Conklin had been together over the summer, but the young Arizonan—estranged from his Mormon family—wanted to try a new life in D.C. Saleh’s offer, for about a month of boarding, seemed like a good way to make the transition, and Conklin wanted to make an initial trip to check things out. On the night of the 15th, at 10:30 p.m., Allen says Conklin called to tell him that he had made it to Saleh’s apartment. “He said he was doing fine. He couldn’t wait to see me after the weekend.”
Meanwhile, Johnson started getting e-mails from Saleh about his visitor. Saleh, sounding like he was apprehensive about Johnson’s reaction, at first claimed that Conklin wouldn’t be around when Johnson arrived, and emphasized that he wouldn’t be having sex with him. But Saleh later e-mailed a photograph of Conklin’s penis and suggested that the young man join in their activities. “Maybe he’ll learn something,” Johnson responded. But later, Saleh sent several more messages saying that Conklin had been drinking his Bacardi rum. Saleh says that it didn’t surprise him after looking at Conklin’s MySpace page. He concluded that Conklin was recovering from some kind of abuse in his background by turning to drink. He told Johnson that he was trying to get Conklin to relax.
The next day, September 16, Allen called Conklin’s phone from Massachusetts, and a D.C. police officer answered. Two attempts later, he was told by Saleh that Conklin was dead. Allen says he called back again demanding an explanation, and he says Saleh claimed that Conklin had been upset and that Saleh had comforted him. “Then he became dismissive,” Allen notes, “and he asked me, ‘What else can I do for you?’ ” Further calls to Jeremy’s phone went to voicemail.
Saleh told police that Conklin “must have taken some pills.”
According to the D.C. medical examiner’s office, a toxicology test showed that Conklin’s death was caused by “acute intoxication due to the combined effects of oxycodone and alcohol.”
The afternoon of the 16th, Saleh e-mailed Johnson: “Jeremy is dead please call me.”
Johnson replied: “Is this a joke?”
Late that night—and three days before he made his own trip to Saleh’s apartment—Johnson sent Saleh a consoling message that was less sympathetic than starkly philosophical: “I would be freaking out, too. But there’s no reason he would be mad at you. Whether his death was accidental or deliberate, he would understand that it was his choices that led to his demise, and he would forgive himself and move on. That’s what happens when we die. It’ll be okay.”
On September 20, police retrieved Johnson’s body from the same apartment. His seven-page autopsy report cites as the cause of death “acute intoxication due to the combined effects of amitriptyline, clonazepam, oxycodone, ramelteon and tramadol.” The manner of death was left “undetermined.”
Johnson was taking prescription drugs for depression, anxiety, and back pain, but William Closson, a forensic toxicologist who reviewed the autopsy report, tells the Voice that the oxycodone, at 1.1 milligrams per liter of blood, was more prevalent than the other substances.
“The oxycodone level found in this case is a significant finding, especially in the presence of the other drugs, and may have resulted in this individual’s death,” Closson says.
Ramelteon, another of the drugs found, is a sleeping medication sold under the name Rozerem. In a statement to police, Saleh acknowledged providing the Rozerem to Johnson. In an affidavit, police report that he also expressed his concern over being perceived as a “gimp black widow” after the two deaths.
Johnson’s autopsy report notes bruises to the buttocks area, including “three linear superficial abrasions,” as well as two superficial lacerations/incisions to the head area, a few centimeters in length. But with so much oxycodone in his system, it’s doubtful that Johnson would have been capable of rough sex (or any sex at all).
Saleh’s lawyer has advised his client not to talk to the press. Some of Johnson’s family and friends, meanwhile, have resisted romantic versions of what happened, and are frustrated that D.C. officials don’t seem more interested in questioning Saleh now that it’s clear both men died of high doses of oxycodone—a drug that is often prescribed for fibromyalgia.
Allen is among those who are angry that Saleh is no longer being questioned. “Isn’t it a little ridiculous that two people died the same way in the same place within four days?” he says.