The Case of the Dog That Couldn't Sniff Straight

Sloppy police work, callous prosecutors, indifferent judges doom dirt-poor Latino man

Tony Rackauckas' personality swings wildly between wooden and stiff, but ask Orange County's top prosecutor about the case of the canine catastrophe, and Rackauckas comes alive.

It was 1996, and Rackauckas, then a superior court judge, presided over a trial involving the brutal murder of an Irvine woman during a burglary. He allowed the testimony of Larry Harris, a police dog handler who claimed his bloodhound fingered a 17-year-old high school student, Earl Henry Rhoney, as the killer.

Except for Harris and his scent-sniffing dog, Duchess, there was no physical evidence that tied Rhoney to the crime. After a guilty verdict, Rackauckas shocked the district attorney's office. He declared that Harris lacked credibility and overturned the jury's decision. Without Harris' claim, the DA's case collapsed. Rhoney was freed after spending 42 months in jail.

When confronted with fabricated evidence of his guilt, Ochoa, seen holding his little brother, dismissed it as "UFO stuff"
When confronted with fabricated evidence of his guilt, Ochoa, seen holding his little brother, dismissed it as "UFO stuff"

According to Rackauckas, it was "crystal clear" that Harris had dragged Duchess in Rhoney's direction during identification, that Harris had used a questionable homemade device to allegedly capture Rhoney's scent from the crime scene for the dog, and that the retired McDonnell Douglas engineer-turned-cop-aide was as "biased as any expert this court has ever seen."

After he became district attorney in 1999, Rackauckas described the case for the Weekly as "ridiculous."

The DA apparently has amnesia. On Nov. 7, Rackauckas' office is scheduled to prosecute James Ochoa, a 20-year-old Buena Park man, for an armed robbery/carjacking in May. Like the Rhoney case, there is no physical evidence that ties Ochoa to the crime -- except for the controversial work of Larry Harris and his newest bloodhound, Trace.

But the case against Ochoa, a dirt-poor Latino who has been locked in a maximum security cell at Theo Lacy Jail for more than five months, isn't just the result of work by the 75-year-old Harris. It's a catalog of sloppy police work, callous prosecutors, indifferent judges and a brazen contempt for exculpatory evidence. The story would be comical if the consequences weren't so dire. An armed robber likely walks free today while Rackauckas' deputies are determined to send Ochoa to prison for the next 50 years.

At 12:30 a.m. on May 23, two men talked in a parking lot near the Ozz Supper Club in Buena Park. A bandit wearing a black baseball cap and gray flannel shirt approached, lifted his shirt to display a handgun and said, "Turn around. Don't look." An important fact: the man wore no gloves. He demanded their wallets and the key to a blue 2002 Volkswagen Jetta that belonged to one of the victims. After jumping in the car, the bandit pointed the gun at the terrified men, made a threat and drove away with $600 in stolen cash.

In his haste, the bandit left the victims with their cell phone. They immediately called 911, and three minutes later officer Kevin Gano arrived at the scene. The victims -- waiters who were 20 and 24 years old respectively -- described the bandit as a thin, twentysomething, 6-foot, 1-inch or 6-foot, 2-inch "half-Hispanic, half-white" male on drugs and suffering from facial acne. Asked to describe the color of the bandit's cap, one of the men said he didn't get a good look because "I was just looking at his gun." Neither victim volunteered any description of the bandit's hair, which was hidden underneath the baseball cap. Gano pressed on. Could the bandit's head have been shaved? "Yeah, maybe," they guessed.

This weak response led Gano and the Buena Park Police Department to a half-baked conclusion that the bandit was Ochoa, who stands 5 feet, 11 inches, shaves his head, lives a few blocks from the crime scene and had been released from prison a month earlier after serving time for a drug possession conviction. Eighty minutes before the robbery, Gano had found Ochoa sitting on his bicycle talking to two teenage friends. The officer frisked Ochoa, made an official report of the contact and ordered him home.

Ninety minutes later, Gano believed he'd quickly solved the robbery. Officers showed the victims three mug shots: two teenagers who didn't fit the suspect's description and Ochoa. The victims said Ochoa looked "like" the bandit but also noted it was not an identical match.

In the meantime, police activated the stolen car's LoJack anti-theft system. The Jetta had been abandoned two blocks away, just 50 yards from Ochoa's house and in the heart of an area dominated by the Eastside Buena Park gang, which police say answers to the Mexican Mafia. In the car, police discovered the bandit's baseball cap, shirt, the gun -- a BB pistol, it turned out -- and the stolen wallets minus the cash. Harris and his dog, Trace, were called to the scene in hopes of getting a scent for tracking.

Police would later report that Trace went "directly" to Ochoa's front door; that would turn out to be untrue. At 5:50 a.m., officers raided Ochoa's house, awoke his entire family, found the suspect barely clothed, placed him in handcuffs and stood him in his front yard. No evidence of the crime was found during a search. The victims were asked to identify the suspect again. This time -- almost six hours after the crime -- both were "positive" it was Ochoa who robbed them, according to police.

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