At first, Brian Stacy believed everything Lyza Johnsen told him. He originally hired her as a process server in his lawsuit against French Hospital Medical Center. Soon, though, Johnsen was providing him advice and putting him in contact with experts who would help his case—or so he thought.
When Johnsen first told Stacy she would put him in touch with a clever Santa Monica-based paralegal named Hope O’Connell, he didn’t think much of it—he just wrote a check. When he saw that O’Connell’s e-mail was a Gmail account, he didn’t think much of it—and he wrote some more checks. After writing about $24,000 worth of checks to Johnsen, a woman who was recommended to him, he started to get suspicious.
That’s because Hope O’Connell may not exist. On top of that, Stacy had also been paying Johnsen to hire other experts. The problem was those people didn’t seem to know who Stacy was.
There was the medical specialist and expert witness for hire, Dudley Danoff, a urologist with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
“It doesn’t sound familiar to me,” Danoff told New Times, adding that Stacy’s case probably wouldn’t fall under his field of expertise.
San Luis Obispo attorney Terence Schubert had supposedly provided advice on Stacy’s case, but he couldn’t recall doing so when asked directly.
“I never spoke to her about Brian Stacy’s case,” he said.
And then there was O’Connell, a paralegal who was said to specialize in pro-per cases (translation: “I’m representing myself”). According to an investigator’s report filed with the District Attorney’s Office, the address listed for O’Connell’s office in Santa Monica doesn’t exist, and the business name had never been registered in California. The closest thing found was a tire store sandwiched between other industrial lots. In fact, there is no Hope O’Connell in Santa Monica, according to LexisNexis. An e-mail to email@example.com, supposedly O’Connell’s contact information, bounced back with a failure notice.
Those missing pieces led the investigator to the conclusion that “Lyza Johnsen used this fake person and company to steal approximately $24,000 … by way of fraud and false pretense.”
So who is Johnsen?
Johnsen, of the SLO-based Johnsen & Johnsen Legal Support Services, was Stacy’s go-to in his pro-per lawsuit against French Hospital for general negligence. While searching briefly through the phonebook for a process server, Stacy eventually landed on Johnsen & Johnsen after being told it was a company that would take pro-per cases. He had about nine doctors to whom he needed to serve legal papers, and when he called Johnsen, “She’s like, ‘Oh yeah,
I could do that; it won’t cost you too much,’” he said.
Stacy is a good-humored fisherman out of Morro Bay, the type of guy who now laughs at his situation and how, as he tells it, he got duped into shelling out the last of his money.
“I laugh and try to be jovial, but I don’t know, they just wiped me out,” he said.
At first it was about $300 to serve the papers, according to the investigator’s report. Then Johnsen helped him revise and re-serve his papers—another $125. She later told him he would need a nurse to review his medical records for $750. Within months, Stacy was writing checks as high as $7,200 in order to have a doctor write a report that would help his case, and $1,000 so Johnsen could have his “cause of action” reviewed.
The catch: All checks were written to Johnsen, according to the report. Also according to Stacy, Johnsen never contacted the people who were supposed to be helping Stacy’s case, which Schubert and Danoff verified to New Times.
“They both agreed that all the bills that come up would be paid with checks written to Lyza Johnsen and then she would in turn pay for the services needed to get his case off the ground,” the investigator wrote. “Lyza Johnsen told me this was the first time she had ever done this for a client.”
The investigator obtained receipts showing Johnsen cashed Stacy’s checks, but wasn’t able to locate the invoices, receipts, or documentation to show the money was being funneled to the right people, according to the report. The investigator did verify one $200 payment.
Johnsen’s SLO County public defender, Ron Crawford, declined to talk about the case. When asked if there were any invoices or receipts that could show Johnsen had hired other experts, he responded, “I have no comment.”
With French Hospital attorneys pouncing on Stacy because he wasn’t filing the proper paperwork, he settled the case for $5,000 on Aug. 9 after coming to the belief that Johnsen wasn’t in fact fighting for him.
When contacted at her office, Johnsen asked to know who had leaked the information about her cases and then declined to comment on the specifics.
“I work with the community,” she said. “I don’t need any bad publicity.”
Asked about O’Connell and Danoff—specifically how to contact them—she responded, “I’m not going to give you any information.”
Though the Stacy case is the most recent, Johnsen is fighting legal battles on multiple fronts. On July 14, the District Attorney’s Office hit her with a felony charge including nine counts of grand theft in relation to Stacy’s complaint. On May 11 in SLO County, she was also charged with one count of felony grand theft and seven felony counts for non-sufficient funds (writing bad checks). On March 9, she was charged with four felony counts of writing bad checks. And in January she was charged with two misdemeanor counts of writing bad checks.
A District Attorney employee said the office filed the misdemeanor as a sort of warning, but hit Johnsen with the felonies when it seemingly had no effect on her.
Now Johnsen will face the three felony counts simultaneously, with an arraignment scheduled for Oct. 20 in SLO County Superior Court. She pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor, which is scheduled for an Oct. 20 trial setting conference.
Then on Oct. 21, Johnsen is scheduled to appear before a Santa Maria judge for one felony count of “preparing false documentary evidence.” She pleaded not guilty to the charge.
And less than a week before her latest SLO County felony charge was filed, Johnsen pleaded guilty to a felony non-sufficient funds count in Santa Barbara on July 8. She was sentenced to three years probation, 30 days in jail, and fined, according to the Santa Barbara County Superior Court.
Grand theft is punishable by “imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year or in the state prison,” according to the California Penal Code.
The investigator further found that Johnsen had provided an address in SLO County, when she was, in fact, living in Santa Maria. A search warrant was executed at the Santa Maria home on May 12, resulting in the seizure of seven computers as well as a server and external hard drive.
News Editor Colin Rigley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.