Did Orange County's Justice System Imprison an Innocent Man for Murder?
After eating dinner and watching television at his girlfriend's Santa Ana apartment on Spurgeon Street, 17-year-old Charles Honea went to sleep outside on the second-floor balcony, his makeshift bedroom. It was an August night in 1992, and gunfire half a block away at a 7-Eleven parking lot eventually woke him.
"I heard several gunshots, and it echoed, so it sounded like it was very close, so I was definitely brought to attention," Honea recalled in 2011 for Mark Geller, a prosecutor in the Orange County district attorney's office (OCDA). "I was like, 'I just don't want to get shot.'"
The 6-foot-7, Boise native gazed over the balcony. "I'm standing there, and I'm looking around trying to figure out what was going on," he said. "Shortly after, I heard a vehicle kind of screeching. I heard running and somebody making a comment as to, like, you know, 'Let's get out of here. We got to get out of here!'"
That person jumped into the vehicle, which sped down the alley and turned onto 16th Street. Honea told Santa Ana Police Department (SAPD) officers he'd seen the man from a distance of 30 yards, with dim lighting from a lone streetlight, and provided details: the person was an African-American male with a "braided and twisty and scraggly-looking" hairstyle and wearing jeans and an oversized jersey.
Just moments before, a red SUV with three young men tied to the Crips—driver Stephan Strong and his cousins Scotty Strong and Terry Ross—had pulled into the 7-Eleven parking lot and backed into a space facing 17th Street. Scotty exited to purchase snacks and sodas, unaware that four angry males, all members of the rival Bloods, were walking side-by-side from an alley toward the SUV. In less than a minute, five 9 mm bullets slammed into the vehicle, leaving Stephan seriously injured and Ross, 20, dead.
As the assailants fled on foot, Scotty left the store and asked his cousin, who was lying on the pavement bleeding from a bullet hole to the abdomen, if he knew the identity of the shooter. Stephan immediately replied, "Unknown," which was the Bloods' moniker for Tommy Haslip, who had several underworld tattoos, including "CK" or Crip Killer. Haslip's personal motivation for the 7-Eleven assault isn't a mystery: Several hours earlier, Crips used a 40-ounce booze bottle to brutally maul the face of his half-brother Michael. He simply wanted revenge, an angle the SAPD oddly didn't pursue.
Instead, five weeks after the murder, cops asked Honea to identify the suspect. They showed him 48 photographs, but wrecked the credibility of the process by including just two pictures of men with Jheri-curl style hair. He searched through the images looking for someone with braids and, with 50-50 odds, confidently selected photo number 9: Darrell Lynn Booth.
Given the sloppy police work, as well as the lack of legitimate facial recognition and no physical evidence tying Booth to the crime, the identification didn't provide enough evidence to file charges. The investigation quickly waned and transformed into cold-case status. For 18 years, the file sat untouched, until Santa Ana police detective David Rondou and Geller, his OCDA pal, may have concocted a ruse to validate the faulty photo lineup implicating Booth.
How Tommy Haslip escaped accountability for two decades and pinned the shooting on Booth—whom multiple individuals insist wasn't even at the 7-Eleven during the incident—is a fascinating tale of how wily police officers and prosecutors can misuse eyewitness observations, rob jurors of key facts and doctor photographic lineups to secure highly questionable convictions. And in Orange County Superior Court, we have judges who wink at such moves all the way.
* * * * *
Partly thanks to a history of aggressively pushing the boundaries of constitutional protections while interrogating suspects, Rondou is legendary in Orange County law-enforcement circles. He began his career at the Los Angeles Police Department in 1993 and seven years later transferred to SAPD, where he says he investigated "thousands" of gang-related incidents, including murders, attempted murders and assaults. That experience once prompted him in open court to boast he knows "what makes [gangsters] tick."
Before retiring in 2015, Rondou won "gang expert" status in more than 100 trials. It wasn't just deputy district attorneys who cherished his work, especially his ability to dodge probing questions about police mischief. Superior court judges, usually former prosecutors, praised his "credibility." Even justices at the California Court of Appeal based in Santa Ana have eagerly accepted his word as gospel, regardless of dubious circumstances.
For example, according to court records, defense attorneys have accused Rondou and fellow SAPD detective David Rodriguez of employing a corrupt police tactic known as a "two-step strategy" to violate well-established Miranda protections for suspects. In such schemes, officers question a target without advising him or her of his or her right to remain silent. Later, having collected incriminating statements, cops return to the suspect, utter the Miranda warning, re-ask the already-answered questions and make an arrest. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Republican presidential appointment, believes "that a deliberate two-step technique . . . present[s] inherent temptations for police abuse" to circumvent the constitution.
While investigating a 2007 crime, Rondou and Rodriguez interviewed Jose Juvenal Camino without advising him of his Miranda rights. An unschooled Camino made damning admissions—including creating a document helpful to the government—under verbal pressure. The veteran cops then waited about a half-hour, moved the suspect to a different room, finally read him his rights and re-asked the same questions.
To explain away the two-step move, Rondou claimed he'd launched the intense, police headquarters interrogation without bothering to learn if Camino was a victim, witness or suspect. Never mind that SAPD internally listed the defendant as having onetime ties to the Hard Times gang. Or that patrol officers arrested him fleeing the crime scene in a car with its lights turned off. Rondou, who taught investigation strategies to fellow cops, alleged he didn't realize he was speaking to a potential culprit until deep into the questioning and therefore did not know he needed to advise Camino of his rights.
For Superior Court Judge John D. Conley, a former OCDA gang prosecutor, the key question in the Miranda dispute harkened back to Kennedy's use of the word "deliberate." Rondou testified he didn't intentionally withhold the warning to gain unethical tactical advantage. Conley—who does not mask his pro-government tilt—accepted the assertion and admitted the Camino confession into evidence. He reasoned that the cop's demeanor on the witness stand seemed so genuine he must have been telling the truth.
When the issue landed at the state appellate court in 2010, a three-justice panel of Raymond Ikola, William Bedsworth and Richard Fybel enthusiastically backed Rondou, too. They declared, "Substantial evidence supports [Conley's] finding that the officers did not deliberately use a two-step technique." Were the justices privy to secret, supportive information? No, in their minds, the "substantial" evidence was unimpeachable: Rondou's own cheating denials.There were derivations in Rondou's tactics. In a 2008 investigation, he questioned Damien Leonard Galarza and provided a Miranda warning only after already encouraging the suspect to self-incriminate. Defense lawyers once again viewed the incident as another two-step game, but they also believe the cop violated another constitutional tenet. Police are required to cease interrogations once the right to remain silent has been invoked. That's not what happened to Galarza.
Here's an abbreviated summary of that exchange:
"I'm done [answering questions], man," Galarza told Rondou and SAPD detective Charles Flynn.
Rondou replied, "You won't talk to us anymore?"
Galarza: "I'm done. I got nothing more to say. That's all."
Galarza: "I'm done."
Rondou: "You don't want to talk to us anymore?"
Galarza: "No, I'm through, man."
Rondou: "You don't like us? Talk to us."
Galarza: "That's all I got to say."
Galarza: "I'm done."
Rondou: "You're done." [Rondou then placed Galarza under arrest.] "You want to talk to me. I'll spend all night talking. . . ."
Galarza: "I'll talk.
Rondou: "You want to talk to us?"
Saying he was tired, wanted to go home and was innocent, Galarza added, "Yeah, but I, I, homie, I don't want to go to jail for murder."
Galarza was eventually convicted for first-degree murder. Judge James A. Stotler—a former lawyer for the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, a politically influential police union—decided Galarza hadn't intended to invoke his constitutional rights eight consecutive times to Rondou, as the record shows.
"My interpretation of that was this is the defendant saying, 'If you're not going to believe what I have to say, what else can I say?'" said Stotler. "I do not interpret that to be an invocation of the right to remain silent."
In October 2015, an appellate panel consisting of justices Fybel, William Rylaarsdam and David Thompson backed Stotler's stance as reasonable.
* * * * *
Throughout most of modern history, Orange County law-enforcement officials maintained stellar reputations in the community, while citizens dismissed sporadic corruption scandals as freakish but non-alarming deviations from the norm. That image began to erode in late January 2014, when Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders filed a 505-page brief exposing the largest courthouse scandal in county history. Naming names, Sanders outlined how cops, sheriff's deputies and prosecutors had been winning cases for decades by operating unconstitutional jailhouse scams with informants, burying evidence of their deeds and committing perjury when necessary.
A 1964 U.S. Supreme Court case known as Massiah established that the Constitution prohibits law-enforcement officials or their agents from interrogating pretrial defendants with legal representation about their charged crimes. Sanders discovered Orange County officials didn't see the well-established ban as a law to respect, but rather one worthy of disingenuous lip service. While simultaneously working on two death-penalty cases (People v. Scott Dekraai and People v. Daniel Wozniak), he pieced together a series of puzzling facts that unraveled the systemic use of benefits-seeking informants, who'd question unsuspecting targets and relay incriminating statements back to the government. Pretending Massiah hadn't been violated, prosecution teams would then introduce the evidence into trials by swearing snitches collected information without their knowledge.
Nobody questions the use of informants to legitimately solve crimes, but Sanders found long-buried evidence of the tainted deals cops and informants made. For example, in February 2009, Rondou and Flynn met with Oscar Moriel, a Mexican Mafia serial killer. Moriel, who would become one of the most prolific snitches in the Orange County jail system, wanted a sweetheart deal that would put him back on the street. The officers wanted evidence to claim they'd broken unsolved cases.
As the Weekly previously reported, a bombshell audio recording revealed how Moriel promised the quality of his testimony helping prosecutors depended solely on perks, though the government-backed reason for his snitch work was ultimately listed as a God-fearing conversion to living a law-abiding life. "Options would be nice," Moriel was recorded saying. "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 chose from, the better position I'll be to think more clearly. . . . I might be able to help you out if my memory can fall back in place. It might not be able to fall back in place because it's a long time ago. People forget."
If properly enticed, he suggested he could become the government's star witness in cases by grabbing "spots of my memory and [making] it seem like yesterday [for juries]."
The offer proved enticing. With Rondou by his side, Flynn promised a deal, saying, "You're going to get consideration for the level that you perform."
Sanders described this as "pay for play" and noted that Rondou never disclosed the memory trade in two homicide cases in which Moriel testified.
According to court records, special evidentiary hearings resulting from Sanders' findings produced evidence of Rondou's misleading testimony—"I don't work [confidential informants]"—as well as his ties to numerous tainted cases, including:
• In People v. Luis Vega, the detective left the 14-year-old defendant locked up for two years, long after obtaining convincing informant evidence of his innocence.
• In People v. Guillermo Brambila, the detective identified Henry Cabrera as a participant in a drive-by murder done by the Delhi criminal street gang. Meanwhile, in a separate case, People v. Henry Cabrera, Rondou colleague Detective Ronald Castillo successfully assured jurors that Cabrera belonged to the Highland Street gang, a lethal enemy to Delhi.
• In People v. Eric Ortiz, Rondou claimed he'd found a person who would testify that Ortiz confessed to a murder. When those claims fell apart, the cop found a separate informant to make the same assertion. Those statements collapsed, too, and—what luck!—SAPD found a third individual who claimed he also managed to capture an Ortiz confession—one used to win a conviction that was later overturned when Superior Court Judge Richard M. King figured out he and a jury had been played.
But perhaps People v. Leonel Vega best demonstrated Rondou's mindset when he asked veteran snitch Mark Cleveland, who also carried out jailhouse information-collecting missions for District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, to violate Massiah. Here's a portion of the transcript:
Rondou: Let's cut to the chase, man. No sense playing games. Would you [snitch on Vega]?"
Cleveland: "Yeah, if the situation was right."
Rondou: "The situation is right. . . . You know what I mean?"
* * * * *
To allege Darrell Lynn Booth shot Terry Ross, Rondou formed an unholy alliance with someone he knew was undoubtedly tied to the killing, had been in the 7-Eleven parking lot during the crime, had run in the alley to the getaway vehicle and wore Jheri-curls at the time.
That man was the aforementioned Tommy Haslip, whose half-brother Michael had been assaulted hours before the attack on the Crips.
Six years after the murder, Haslip, a founder of the Bloods El gang in Santa Ana, moved out of state without ever having been interviewed by SAPD about the shooting. He got married and had six children by 2010, when U.S. marshals arrested him on a warrant from OCDA. There was no new solid evidence in the cold case, but deputy district attorney Geller nonetheless charged him with murder.
In April 2010, Rondou and a fellow detective flew to Arkansas to "take a run at Tommy Haslip and see what he had to say," Geller later recalled in court. That run included the officers voicing an unmistakable willingness for him to implicate Booth as the shooter. Here's an abbreviated version of their discussion:
Haslip: I didn't shoot anybody, sir.
Rondou: I agree with that . . . You're standing next to the guy that's doing the shooting and people think it's you. That's not fair.
The cop then claimed he sympathized with Haslip "being at the wrong place at the wrong time" and stated that "doesn't necessarily mean you're in trouble." The ruse worked. He named Booth the shooter.
Rondou: How do you know it was Darrell?
Haslip: [Pause] . . . I don't remember seeing him shoot. But I know he shot him.
Rondou repeated his question.
Haslip: [Pause] . . . I'm thinking.
Rondou: Take your time. We got all night.
Haslip: [Pause] . . . Can I get some water, please?
After pondering his situation, Haslip said he'd approached the Crips' SUV without carrying a gun even though he knew his rivals were almost always armed. He recalled repeatedly punching Strong, who was sitting in the driver's seat. That's when he heard gunfire and supposedly saw muzzle flashes coming outside the passenger-side, rear-door area. Haslip claimed he, Booth, and two other cousins, Lemaine Timms and Terrance Timms, then ran back to the getaway car. As they fled, Booth put the weapon in the glove box and threatened to kill everyone if they didn't keep their mouths shut, Haslip alleged.
Weeks after the Arkansas talk with Haslip, Rondou arrested 47-year-old Booth. SAPD celebrated itself to the news media. KCBS broadcast that "good, old-fashioned detective work" had unmasked a killer.
* * * * *
Most often defense attorneys delay trials to search for holes in the prosecution's case. But Early Hawkins, Booth's Huntington Beach-based lawyer, thought the charges were so "weak" he rejected a private investigator's advice to delay the late-November 2011 trial while alibi evidence from 20 years earlier could be developed. Consequently, jurors didn't learn that multiple witnesses said Booth couldn't have been the shooter because they had been with Michael Haslip for four to six hours at a Riverside County Kaiser hospital following the Crips' attack that prompted the murder. Michael, Tommy's half-brother, confirmed the information for the defense. Michael Sellers, a panhandler who saw the killing, didn't recognize Booth as a participant and poked a hole in Tommy Haslip's story, observing he saw no punches before the shooting and said the shooter fired while standing near the front of the SUV, where Haslip placed himself. Ellis Bradford, who knew Booth from high school, claimed he witnessed the incident too and didn't see Booth present. According to court records, Terrance Timms admitted his role in the crime, cleared Booth of involvement and named Haslip the killer.
Going into trial just three months after charges were filed, Hawkins believed he didn't need an alibi defense when he could use a "cut-and-dry" strategy to "destroy" the government's case. "They had one witness [Haslip], who I believe was a liar," he explained in a 2015 post-trial hearing. "And I believe I could get a jury to not believe him, and if that were the case, then my client would walk."
For the jury, Geller took the opposite stance about the credibility of Haslip, who pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter and accepted a 14-year prison deal for testifying that Booth committed first-degree murder, deserving a prison term of 26 years to life.
"The bottom line is there's absolutely no incentive—an absolute absence of incentive for [Tommy] Haslip to frame a family member in this case," he said. "Why in the world is he laying it on his own flesh and blood, his own cousin, unless, in fact, it was true? Unless, in fact, it was Mr. Booth who was [the shooter]?"
Geller also ridiculed Hawkins' challenge of Booth's photo-lineup identification, saying, "Whatever."
In his closing argument, Hawkins said, "The prosecution has presented a case to you which is based entirely on Tommy Haslip's testimony."
The deputy DA acknowledged that neither the Honea testimony nor Haslip's contribution alone could meet the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard, but he believed that when used in conjunction, they produced "sufficient" evidence of guilt.
On Dec. 6, 2011, after less than a day of deliberations, the jury indicated it didn't fully buy either side by convicting Booth of second-degree murder and rejecting the gun enhancement. They'd somehow believed Tommy Haslip's placement of Booth at the crime scene, but not that he'd been the gunman.
Following the verdict, Judge Daniel J. Didier heard about unused alibi witnesses and Hawkins' frank admission of botching the defense by rushing to trial, but he rejected a 2013 motion for a new trial filed by attorney Mitchell Haddad of Palm Desert. Adopting OCDA's argument, Didier opined that Hawkins' trial performance had been more than adequate. He sentenced Booth to a punishment of 15 years to life in prison.
* * * * *
To Sanders, corrective action is needed. He said, "OCDA turned a blind eye to Rondou's conduct because he helped get convictions, and now it should be their burden to prove he didn't cheat on every single case he investigated."
The 7-Eleven killing issues now sit in a place fawningly cozy with Rondou: the state court of appeal in Santa Ana. In July, the parties offered oral arguments. Booth is seeking to overturn the conviction, while Kamala Harris' California Attorney General's office accepted Haslip's statements and Honea's identification as accurate.
"The denial of the new trial motion was rational because [Hawkins] may have had a strategic reason for choosing not to present a weak [alibi] defense," Deputy AG Meagan J. Beale advised the justices. "The trial court found 'that the defense was very competently and skillfully presented.'"
But Suzanne G. Wrubel, Booth's Pacific Palisades-based appellate attorney, is equally passionate in insisting that a travesty of justice occurred. "The prosecution's case was extremely weak, and [Hawkins] admitted he was ineffective by failing to investigate and produce critical defense witnesses that could have established that Booth was not involved in the shooting and that the prosecution's chief witness was lying," argued Wrubel, who says Haslip's account defies common sense. "The only way that Strong, who was in the driver's seat, and Ross, who was in the back seat, could have been hit by gunshots to the front of their bodies was if the shooting came from the front of the car [where Haslip was standing]."
The appeals court is scheduled to rule on Booth's conviction in coming weeks.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss OC Weekly's biggest stories. Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts