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
Five years ago, Oscar Moriel's résumé contained impressive Mexican Mafia credentials: burglar, robber, carjacker, thug and convicted felon. Then 28, Moriel was also a serial killer with a body count of at least six, including one person he shot four times in the back and others he assassinated in drive-by shootings—or, as he calls it, "hunting."
Despite those accomplishments, the Delhi Gang member hoped to add snitch to his professional repertoire. The goal made sense. Already in pretrial custody for four years for a 2005 attempted murder, he faced California's Three Strikes law and the well-earned prospect of never returning to freedom.
To launch his informant plan, Moriel asked for a Feb. 17, 2009, meeting with Santa Ana Police Department (SAPD) officers David Rondou and Charles Flynn. The two homicide detectives came with all the sarcasm they could muster after years of working among lowlifes. Ignoring the officers' bravado, the gangster observed that SAPD appeared "stumped" solving killings, needed assistance to win convictions and could secure his memories for a price.
"I might be able to help you out if my memory can fall back in place," said a cocky Moriel. "It might not be able to fall back in place because [the killings occurred] a long time ago. People forget. If I can grab spots of my memory and make it seem like it was yesterday, then . . . I think a little bit more than consideration [in my own case], I'm looking for. Uh, options would be nice. Right now, I'm in a place with no options. I'm looking at a third strike. I'm looking at life in prison. So, the more options I have to work with and to choose from, the better position I'll be [in] to think more clearly."
With that offer, law-enforcement officials—including the FBI—partnered with Moriel. He'd supply "memories" of hearing confessions prosecutors needed to win convictions and serve as a mole inside the Orange County Jail (OCJ). In return, the cops promised they'd work to allow the killer to quietly emerge into civilized society.
Five months after that first meeting, detective Flynn and Orange County Sheriff's Department deputies Ben Garcia and Bill Grover met with Moriel. There was no cop chest-thumping this time. All the players were now teammates. "You're doing stuff for me, and then I'll be doing stuff for you," Flynn told the sociopath. "You'll get maximum consideration [in your own case] for everything you do. You do a lot, and we do a lot. You do little, and you get a little. . . . Understand?"
"Yeah, I understand," replied Moriel.
Because a jury is entitled to know of government witnesses' motives to gauge testimonial credibility in the pursuit of justice, prosecutors can't hide their deals with informants. That tenet is common sense. But Deputy Public Defender Scott Sanders spent a year studying the lack of prosecutorial disclosure in multiple murder and gang cases, and he concluded officials systematically cheated before hiding evidence of their misdeeds. Revelations made during unprecedented, ongoing evidentiary hearings inside Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals' courtroom repeatedly bolstered Sanders' argument.
In my column "Public Defender Makes Snitch Filet" (March 28), I reported that Sanders won the release of a bombshell document written by an Orange County district attorney's office homicide investigator who cautioned colleagues to hide key evidence from defense lawyers because the concealment "will likely greatly enhance the prosecution."
More recently, the Goethals hearings produced a recording between Flynn and Moriel in which the SAPD officer assured the informant his mission and reward will never be open to outsider inspection. "This [deal] just goes in my file, in my safe at the police station, and no one has access to it," Flynn said.
Moriel responded, "Good. . . . This is important."
It's also well-established law that police and prosecutors can't violate a pretrial inmate's constitutional right to not talk to authorities by secretly employing surrogates, such as other inmates, to ask the government's questions to obtain damning information. There's theoretically no problem when an inmate stumbles upon valuable information or squeals on another inmate if the evidence is not obtained at the direction of law-enforcement officers. But, as with ex-Mexican Mafia shot-caller Fernando Perez, Sanders uncovered evidence jail deputies rotated targeted defendants into cells next to Moriel, as inmates can use plumbing for communication. They also provided the snitch fake court and OCJ documents to maintain the appearance of a loyal hoodlum.
"I want fresh chitchat from [inmate and homicide suspect Isaac Palacios]," Flynn told Moriel. "I'm going to put you on that."
According to new evidence, the killer hoped his work would win him an off-the-books payoff of $50,000 in public funds, the expunging of his lengthy criminal rap sheet and a recommendation by law enforcement to enter the U.S. military.
"That's good shit," a satisfied Moriel said.
Grover replied, "You want to legally kill some people, huh?"
"Yeah I want to go. I want to go fight, if that's possible."
Detective Flynn said, "It's, uh, much nicer when it's Uncle Sam behind you on it."
"That's what I figured," said Moriel.
Replied the cop, "Then, you know, you get away with it."
Flynn recommended the Army and observed, "Put your fucking hand up, and bam! You know you're on the way."
Moriel didn't hide his excitement, but Flynn reminded him "the sooner" he obtained alleged confessions, "the better" his chance for reward. For five years, prosecutors including Erik Petersen made "persistent efforts to conceal" the informant's "writings and other relevant discovery in order to manipulate the presentation of Moriel as a witness," Sanders told Goethals.
The informant might not yet wear a military uniform, but he has already won benefits. Though charged in the 2005 attempted murder, Moriel's case is in suspicious, never-ending hibernation. District Attorney Tony Rackauckas' office has delayed the trial 37 times in nine years, according to court records.
OCDA officials, who in February insisted they complied with all legal obligations and bitterly attacked Sanders as an unhinged conspiracy nut, conceded after Goethals' forced document production that prosecution teams fouled up more than 11 cases—including, incredibly, ones involving the death penalty—by robbing defendants of evidence during trials. In March and April, prosecutors softened attacks to argue all errors had been innocent (or to blame underlings or ignorance of the law or secrecy-obsessed federal prosecutors). But as Sanders continued to stockpile favorable evidence, outright anger resumed in May, with prosecutor Howard Gundy labeling the public defender's work "vile" and "outrageous." SAPD's Rondou testified he "prays" for Sanders' soul when he's not seething about the disclosures.
Because he has given Sanders the chance to make his case—a nod few other OC judges would have had the courage to permit, Goethals faces a potentially costly decision: How to punish years of government abuses? Whether he will cave to the dominant force in the county's legal system—the prosecutors—or slams them remains a topic of courthouse chatter. Either way, expect the political/legal establishment to kill his judgeship when Goethals—a 62-year-old former defense attorney and high-ranking OC prosecutor—faces the end of his term in January 2017. The public must believe our criminal-justice system is beyond reproach, right?