“We don’t have to listen to it, do we?” the judge asked before allowing Barnett to ask Rodriguez “a few questions” about the recording.

Over Alvarez’s continued objections, Barnett fired off this question: “Do you recall telling Mr. Simmons, ‘Fucking asshole, if there’s any chance of you workin’ with us, I’ll go fuckin’ take you right to county [jail], and you’ll go to prison ’cause you’re gonna go to prison in this case. I’ll make somethin’ up’?”

Before Rodriguez could answer, Alvarez interrupted to argue the question was unfair. Jones ordered the deputy to answer. “No, I did not,” Rodriguez said.

Illustration ©CSA Images/Design by Kelly Lewis

Barnett re-called Catalano and asked him a single question: Had he threatened to fabricate evidence prior to Simmons waiving his constitutional right to remain silent.

“I don’t remember saying that, no,” said the investigator.

Jones excused Catalano from the witness stand. Barnett told the judge that the audio was powerful evidence one of the deputies “is lying.” He wanted the court to hear the 13-minute recording, but Jones said no. She said she thought it would be a waste of her time. A relieved Alvarez called the audio “a charade” because the deputies had no reason to cheat. Jones cut off discussion and ruled the government’s case legitimate.

Though Jones wasn’t disturbed by evidence of law-enforcement corruption, the audio revelation wrecked the case. I obtained through California’s open-records law District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ May 11, 2009, letter to Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, which detailed the impact of the fabrication threat and, based on an interview with a top-ranking OCSD official, identified Catalano as the likely culprit. “Since an officer threatened that Simmons was going to prison and that he would ‘make somethin’ up,’ a court could reasonably find Simmons’ statement was a product of this threat,” wrote the DA, who also noted the public’s confidence in the sheriff’s department would erode if the incident became known beyond the two law-enforcement shops. The DA apparently never received a reply from Hutchens and was forced to drop all of the charges that relied on the investigator’s word. (An OCSD spokesman told me, “We have not yet found anybody who received or acted on [the DA’s letter].”) To avoid an embarrassing trial, prosecutors cut the sweetheart deal with Simmons—who insisted all along he hadn’t been dealing drugs.

It’s unknown what, if any, punishment Hutchens ordered. California’s politicians have drifted toward a police state by banning the public from knowing if a cop has been disciplined for misconduct. However, this much is known: Two months after the threat revelation, Hutchens held a ceremony at the Hyatt Regency Irvine to give Rodriguez and Catalano medals for “courage” after the deputies reported they disarmed a Costa Mesa drug dealer on the same day they took down Simmons.

The sheriff, who has promised to restore deputy accountability in the wake of the Mike Carona corruption scandals, refused to be interviewed for this story. Her command staff and media-affairs team repeatedly blocked my attempts to reach Catalano for comment.

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