By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
It’s not often in Orange County—or probably anywhere in California—that a prominent defense attorney becomes a prosecution hero. But Jennifer Keller, a self-styled “tenacious” Irvine-based lawyer who has delighted in occasionally defeating deputy district attorneys, accomplished that notable feat this month. Perhaps even more notable is that the man she assured would go to prison is Bradley Stewart Wagner, a corrupt Anaheim police officer and, for five years, her client.
Using his badge as a weapon, Wagner repeatedly stopped undocumented female motorists near Disneyland late at night and threatened deportation to Mexico if they did not satisfy his sexual appetites. The forced intercourse and oral copulation was often brutal. One terrified woman lost some teeth during an episode.
But fate caught up to Wagner, who is married. One distraught victim revealed the secret. Eventually, two more women came forward. Confronted by Anaheim detectives, Wagner first adamantly denied any sexual contact. He wanted to know why anyone would believe illegal aliens over a cop who had served 34 years.
The Wagner case is illustrative of a bigger problem. Every year, dozens in law enforcement here are revealed as liars and crooks. Most of these dirty cops escape real justice, protected by the silence of otherwise-good officers or police administrators who don’t want to publicly admit they’ve handed badges, guns and arrest powers to demented freaks.
At least in the Wagner situation, Anaheim Police Department brass removed the figurative shield protecting a member of their fraternity. The women turned out to be credible, so Wagner altered his strategy: He next argued that the on-duty sex had been consensual.
This is where Keller re-enters the story. Testifying against Wagner earlier this month in Judge Walter Schwarm’s Santa Ana courtroom, she admitted the ex-cop had privately confided to her that he planned to tell a jury that the women had targeted him for romance.
Don’t laugh. OC is home to some of the most cop-friendly juries in the nation. Recall the 2007 trial of Irvine cop David Alex Park, who tailed a Laguna Beach motorist out of his jurisdiction after disabling the GPS in his patrol car (so his supervisors couldn’t track his whereabouts), pulled the woman over, masturbated in front of her, ejaculated on her blouse and asked her for a date. An older, white-male-dominated jury decided, without any supporting evidence, that the woman, who immediately called 911 after the incident, had wanted Park’s semen shot onto her chest on the side of the road in the middle of the night.
Wagner desperately wanted to repeat Park’s success. But Keller testified she told him a jury would find it “highly unlikely” that women ending 12-hour manual-labor shifts in the wee hours of the morning would “then try to strike up a romance” with a “creepy” motorcycle cop.
“After all these years—five years [of stalling a trial], he’d never been able to give me a straight answer [about what happened],” Keller told Schwarm. She also said she recalled asking Wagner, “How much more are you going to lie?”
As it turned out, Wagner was only warming up. In May, he asked Keller’s law partner, Kay Rackauckas—the ex-wife of District Attorney Tony Rackauckas—to approach deputy district attorney Lynda Fernandez in hopes of cutting a deal. In exchange for a guilty plea—but not an admission he had been violent with his victims—Wagner got a four-year sentence, which was about one-third of the maximum prison exposure of 11 years and six months.
After getting the sweetheart deal, Wagner changed his mind and crafted a new set of tales: Keller and Kay Rackauckas were terrible lawyers, so he fired them. He didn’t sexually assault anyone, so he now wanted a trial after all. And, my favorite: The plea deal must be torn up because he had been high as a kite on drugs in the courthouse when he accepted it.
It was those moves that put Keller and Rackauckas on the witness stand against him.
During the final Dec. 16 hearing to determine if the plea bargain was valid, new Wagner defense lawyer Robert Corrado said “the interests of justice” demanded that Schwarm rescind the guilty plea.
“Yeah, he pleaded guilty,” said Corrado. “So what? Why deny him a trial?”
According to Corrado, he recently asked Wagner if he was sure he wanted to face a jury.
“And he says he wants a trial because he didn’t do it,” recalled Corrado. “He’s sticking with that story.”
Fernandez noted that Wagner had concocted another lie—his plea-bargain intoxication—and that justice required immediate sentencing, which annoyed Corrado. He claimed the ex-cop had been under “a lethal dose” of prescription painkiller Norco when he signed the deal.
“Dead men or men close to death don’t understand things,” said Corrado, who sought to bolster Wagner’s credibility about the incidents with the undocumented workers.
“He told the truth after he told the lies,” the defense lawyer said. “It’s not the brightest thing to do, to lie. But people tell them all day.”
The success of Corrado’s effort to repair Wagner’s credibility depended on Schwarm, a former prosecutor with a decidedly evenhanded courtroom demeanor. He patiently allowed the defense to perform what appeared to be obvious filibustering. Corrado tried to be sweet at one point, telling Schwarm that he was honored to work in his courtroom. When it didn’t look like he’d get a favorable ruling, he told Schwarm he didn’t “care” about the judge’s observations and demanded “more time” for Wagner.