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Given that track record, Ford believes that Szeles never should have been granted a license to work as an investigator. According to the state’s guidelines, licenses can be revoked if the applicant has committed “assault, battery, or kidnapping, or using force or violence on any person, without proper justification” or for “dishonesty, fraud or deceit.” Ford says he forwarded this information to the Department for Consumer Affairs and that the agency is investigating Szeles; the agency refused to comment for this story—or confirm the existence of an investigation.
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On Feb. 23, Ford filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against Alternate Defense Services and supervisor Matherly, alleging he was being discriminated against because of his race. “Plaintiff has been denied appointment to specific criminal cases involving pro per defendants,” the lawsuit states. “Explicit requests for Plaintiff’s appointment by 14 pro per defendants have been denied. During that same period, another less-experienced panel investigator [Szeles] . . . has been awarded and continues to be awarded all pro per cases. This practice continues even though that other investigator is under investigation by the Department of Consumer Affairs.”
In response to a Public Records Act request, the Orange County Superior Court’s media liaison, Carole Levitzky, provided the Weekly with a list showing that in 2008 and 2009, Szeles handled 98 cases for Alternate Defense Services—roughly the rate of one new client per week, a tremendous case load for a single investigator. According to the county controller, Szeles earned $200,816.84 in 2008 and 2009.
“There are literally hundreds of licensed investigators in Orange County who would love to be on the list, if there were one,” said one private investigator with more than 25 years of experience who also serves as an executive for a major professional association. (He asked to not be identified by name because it could compromise his ability to get work.) “The county needs to put out a request for proposal so everyone has a fair chance to get on the panel. There is no way you can have a legitimate, fair, unbiased system with nobody on a list and one man getting all the work—and it’s impossible for one man to do all that work.”
Because of Ford’s lawsuit, neither Goethals nor Matherly were made available for interviews, and neither responded to written questions the Weekly submitted to Levitzky.
The pro per defendants themselves were far more eager to talk. In a series of interviews both by telephone and at the Men’s Jail, four of them complained about the work Szeles had done in their cases. “Pro pers have no constitutional rights,” complained McKenna. “All this is straight-out fraud. I was framed, and Szeles says he won’t investigate this. I’ve been in this county jail for three and a half years now with no investigation, and they are just trying to wait me out, make me take a public defender and give up my pro per rights. They are using straight-up fraud against me.”
Ramirez has pleaded guilty to robbing the Bank of America on Sept. 23, 2008. He claims that after Szeles tried to blackmail him with the handwriting samples, he filed a motion to meet privately with Goethals so he could tell him what happened. But Goethals insisted on having Szeles attend the hearing. “This was supposed to be confidential,” Ramirez says. “I stood up and pleaded the Fifth.” A few weeks later, Ramirez gave up his pro per status. “I just knew I couldn’t get a fair trial with Szeles as my investigator,” he explains.
Ramirez’s new attorney told him that even if his co-defendant, Dempsey, took the stand and told the jury Ramirez had nothing to do with the crime, his past criminal record could be used against him. He’s scheduled to receive his formal sentence of seven years on March 15. “My attorney told me that this was the best deal I was going to get,” Ramirez says. He thought about going before a jury, but he figured that in Orange County, a Latino former gangbanger with a lengthy prison record would never get a fair shake.
“I didn’t want to go to prison for 23 years,” he concludes. “The only reason I took this deal is out of fear.”
Editorial intern Sandeep Abraham provided research assistance for this story.
This article appeared in print as "The Bad Detective: Some hapless OC Jail inmates are feeling burned by their own PI."