The Bad Detective

One PI with a questionable past has a captive audience: the OC jail inmates whose cases he handles

Szeles didn’t have to explain what would happen if he decided to show the other handwriting analysis to the prosecutor. “It would go in the discovery file and automatically go to the DA,” Ramirez says.

Ramirez had no idea what to do. Who would believe his story?

A week later, Szeles met with Ramirez again to hand over some paperwork for his case. Without realizing it, he accidentally handed the inmate the two competing handwriting analyses. Now, Ramirez had what he felt was proof to back up his claim that Szeles was trying to blackmail him.

Russell Bradford on his own handwriting reports: "I normally don’t do that."
Russell Bradford on his own handwriting reports: "I normally don’t do that."
Russell Bradford on his own handwriting reports: "I normally don’t do that."
Russell Bradford on his own handwriting reports: "I normally don’t do that."

The Weekly has obtained and reviewed the handwriting analyses. Recently reached by the Weekly, Bradford vouches for the results of the reports, but acknowledges it was odd he’d done two separate reports that mostly dealt with the same samples. “Yeah, that’s silly,” Bradford says. “I normally don’t do that.”

Bradford says that after he sent Szeles the first report concerning Dempsey’s handwriting, Szeles called him at 8 a.m. on June 23 saying he had new handwriting samples he needed examined. He says he actually wrote the second report concluding that Ramirez likely wrote the bank-robbery note on June 25 and misdated it June 22 (the same date as the first report).

He agrees it was odd Szeles asked him to do the second report, specifically asking him to compare Ramirez’s handwriting to the bank-robbery note. “He’s supposed to be helping [Ramirez]?”

Ramirez knew of only one person to whom he could turn for help: Ford. He called the PI and left him a voice message, which the Weekly has reviewed. “When you get a chance, will you please come and see me?” Ramirez begged. “Mr. Szeles did something very, very illegal in my case, and I got proof now. . . . I don’t know what to do, Mr. Ford; please come and talk to me!”

*     *     *

Nine months later, C.J. Ford Jr. is stretched back in his seat in his second-story office behind a liquor store near the intersection of Interstate 5 and the 91 freeway in Fullerton. He’s chuckling and shaking his head as he listens to a rambling, two-minute voice-mail message from John Lake, an inmate at the Men’s Jail whom Ford jokingly refers to as the dean of the pro per defendants. Lake calls Ford almost every day. Unlike other inmates, pro per defendants are allowed to use the telephone every day. Lake, for better or for worse, seems intent on exercising that right to the fullest extent possible.

“This guy calls up all these attorneys and government agencies, and then tells them to return his call at my telephone number!” Ford says, laughing. “So a lot of the time my phone rings, it’s actually someone calling for Lake, and I’m like, ‘Sorry, he’s not here right now!’”

Ford regularly gets telephone calls from Lake and other jail inmates, including Ramirez, because for the past several months he has been helping them document their complaints about Szeles.

Initially, he thought the inmates were just whiners, maybe even crazy, but as he dug deeper, he found some startling information about just how Szeles got into the detective business. He also found a wealth of evidence that Szeles was benefiting from an arrangement inside Orange County’s court system unparalleled anywhere else. Szeles appeared to be handling a dozen or more cases at any given time, and all of his clients were jail inmates who had no other option. Unlike Los Angeles, where no fewer than 97 licensed investigators are listed on the court’s website, Orange County has no such published list, and Ford could find no evidence that anyone other than Szeles was getting this work. Szeles did not respond to several requests to be interviewed for this story.

Ford has been a self-employed private investigator since 1984. He chose the career after experiencing one close call too many as a bounty hunter chasing often-violent fugitives. He specializes in cases that have already gone through the court system; his clients have already been convicted of a crime and are serving out their sentences either at the Orange County jail or in state prison. Two years ago, at the request of the Orange County chapter of the NAACP, Ford agreed to interview black inmates at the Orange County Jail who had complained about their treatment there.

It was in March 2009, while Ford was interviewing those inmates, that he received a telephone call from Edward McKenna, who had heard about him while awaiting trial for rape, robbery, use of a deadly weapon and stealing a car. “McKenna had been accused of assaulting a minor, a person not quite 18 years old, and he was saying he was innocent and that the victim had signed a false statement prepared for her,” Ford recalls. “He said he had this investigator, Joseph Szeles, whom he wanted to interview the girl, but that he wouldn’t do it. He said he wanted to fire his investigator.”

Ford’s wife, a school principal, had just told him that because of cutbacks, she wasn’t going to be working over the summer, so Ford was eager to make some extra cash. He told McKenna he’d be happy to take his case, but that he didn’t want to hear anything more about it until he was appointed as his investigator because without that protection, he could be called as a witness against McKenna. Ford knew that to work as an investigator for inmates at the OC Jail, he needed to be on the court’s panel. So Ford drove down to Santa Ana to fill out an application with Alternate Defense Services.

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