Hollywood knew him best as Random Task, the bowler-hatted thug who hurled shoes as deadly weapons in 1997’s Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. Mixed martial arts fans remembered him as a stocky combatant with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it UFC career who tapped out after being pummeled in the junk in an infamous 1994 pay-per-view brawl.
But even as actor and pro fighter Joe Son flirted fleetingly with fame in the ’90s as Austin Powers’ Oddjob knockoff, he was hiding a dark past that would only come to light in 2008—thanks to a DNA sample linking him to a brutal kidnapping, rape, and torture cold case that sent him to prison for life. Just one month into his life sentence, Son further sealed his fate as spy cinema’s most notorious off-screen criminal when he was accused of murdering his cellmate in yet another violent case likely to go to trial next year.
Justice tends to come swiftly to the most heinous of James Bond baddies: Boiled to death in a nuclear reactor, shot into space, sucked out of an airplane window at 30,000 feet. That also goes for the lampooning villains of Austin Powers and even Dave Bautista’s Mr. Hinx in the latest 007 adventure Spectre—another silent but brawny Oddjob dupe. In the biggest scene of his short career, Son is incapacitated by a penis pumping Mike Myers before Elizabeth Hurley lays him out with a bottle of champagne.
In real life it took authorities 18 years to connect Son to the vicious 1990 Christmas Eve gang rape that left its victim beaten, traumatized, and terrified for her life.
In that time the 5-foot-4, 230-pound Garden Grove-based South Korean bruiser had racked up an unimpressive 0-4 UFC record. He was better known for his octagon antics than his fight skills, spouting Bible quotes as the onscreen manager of fellow fighter Kimo Leopoldo and making a gimmicky entrance at UFC 4, literally lugging a cross on his back. He tried and failed to parlay his octagon experience into a pro wrestling career, but landed bit parts in direct-to-video actioners starring Lorenzo Lamas, Dolph Lundgren, and Don “The Dragon” Wilson. In 1997, he scored the silent role of Dr. Evil’s “Korean ex-wrestler-evil handyman extraordinaire” Random Task—the last acting gig he’d get in the movies.
Son’s crimes weren’t exposed until well after his Hollywood career had dried up, when he was arrested in August of 2008 for violating parole on a felony vandalism conviction. That’s when his DNA sample was taken under the provisions of Prop 69 and entered into a state database, where it matched to DNA collected from the scene and from the victim in a 1990 Huntington Beach rape case that had gone unsolved for nearly two decades.
Horrific details of the holiday assault emerged when Son’s trial finally began in 2011.
The victim, then 19 years old, had been out walking her dog on Dec. 24, 1990, after looking at Christmas lights with friends. Son approached her on the sidewalk around 12:30 a.m. He made contact, pretending to be lost. Then Son and Santiago Lopez Gaitan of San Antonio, Texas, dragged the woman into their car and drove off, violating and terrorizing her for hours at gunpoint.
According to prosecutors, Son and Gaitan repeatedly raped, sodomized, and forced the woman to orally copulate them while holding a gun to her head in the backseat of a car. Son pistol-whipped, kicked, bit, punched her, and penetrated her vaginally with a firearm. She was poked in the eyes and slammed into the ground. The victim remembered Son telling her that she was going to die, at one point counting the bullets in his gun. “He said he was giving me to himself as a Christmas present,” she remembered during the trial.
In court she recalled the moment her captors released her—naked, injured, and with her own pants tied around her eyes. “It’s Christmas. This is your lucky day,” offered one of the men she later ID’ed as Son. She ran to a nearby home where strangers called the police. According to a post-sentencing release issued by the Orange County District Attorney’s office, “Her dog was never found.”
Son was initially charged with 17 felony sexual offenses and up to 275 years to life in prison, but prosecutors determined the statute of limitations had run out on all but two separate counts. He was instead tried for murder and torture—but since he and his accomplice had taken measures to prevent the victim from seeing their faces or hearing their real names, his attorney successfully argued that they had never conspired to kill her.
Pleading guilty to five felony counts in a separate trial, Gaitan earned a sentence of 17 years in state prison. A jury found Son guilty of a single felony count of torture and he was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole.
Son’s victim was a mother of four by the time she faced her attacker in court. She spoke of the trauma that haunted her in the ensuing years.
“The post traumatic stress disorder is with me daily as I have triggers that set me off,” she told the court. “I feel debilitating fear come over me and am convinced a hand is coming from behind again. My emotional scars are intense. My twenties were stripped away from my life as I relearned how to walk, see, hear, and cope with the outside world again.”
“Joseph Son not only cost me my job at my salon but also my college savings… not to mention the impact it’s made on celebrating Christmas year after year.”
On the afternoon of Oct. 10, 2011, just under a month into serving his life sentence at California’s Wasco State Prison for the 1990 rape, Son was found standing at the door to his cell. The body of his cellmate, 50-year-old convicted child molester Michael Graham, was lying unresponsive on the bottom bunk. Graham was pronounced dead within 30 minutes.
During his MMA career Son invented his own style of martial arts called “Joe Son Do.” Authorities say he killed Graham with “a combination of kicks and punches.” Son pleaded not guilty to a felony charge of assault by a life prisoner with force causing death. The Kern County District Attorney’s office alleged in court documents that Son assaulted Graham “with malice aforethought,” resulting in the injuries that killed him.
Son, already on the hook for life in prison, escaped the death penalty this summer when the Kern County DA decided not to pursue capital punishment. His attorney reportedly told the court there is evidence that Son had acted in self-defense and suffers from social and mental health issues. “I told you I needed to get out of here,” he reportedly said to a responding officer on the scene.
According to a source familiar with the case, DA Lisa Green weighed input from Son’s 1990 rape victim and the family of the late Graham before opting not to push for a death sentence. Two hearings are set to take place this month before a judge decides if Son, now 44, will be tried for the prison death. “We’re taking it very seriously,” Deputy District Attorney David Wolf told The Daily Beast, “and I believe the evidence will show he’ll be held to answer.”