Guardians Be Gone: Judge, DA Block Press Scrutiny of OC Snitch Scandal
Bob Aul/OC Weekly
Just after 7 p.m. on May 15, 2012, Hector Omar Rochas took his final breath while standing on a sidewalk outside his Anaheim apartment, located about 11 minutes from Disneyland. Men in a stolen, dark Honda sedan raced up; the front passenger door opened, and a gunman wearing a bandana over his face and sunglasses emerged, yelling, "Eastside" before firing two or three shots from a semi-automatic, 9 mm weapon. The unarmed Rochas, 29, collapsed with a bullet hole in his forehead. A sobbing woman standing over the body unsuccessfully pleaded in Spanish, "Don't go!"
In the weeks following the murder in Citron Street gang territory, Anaheim police separately arrested 20-year-old Gabriel Calderon and Richard Madriles, 22, and placed them inside the city jail, where they were targeted for a carefully concocted, government deception program. Officers claim they caught Calderon for possessing alcohol and Madriles, a convicted felon, for a parole violation. In truth, authorities hoped to tie the men, both alleged members of the Eastside Anaheim gang, to Rochas' execution.
As with Calderon and Madriles, most Orange County residents probably assume police must always issue Miranda warnings--the right to remain silent, etc.--before they question an arrestee about a crime. That's a mistaken notion. It is true cops are banned from playing any role in soliciting statements from defendants who've been advised of charges by a judge and have legal representation. (Circumventing such restrictions is known as a Massiah violation.) But judges have created a window of time between a suspect's arrest and a court arraignment when cops can employ lies and trickery to win self-incriminating statements.
One ruse occurs when an officer places detainees in a cop car, activates a hidden recording device, then leaves the targets alone under the assumption they can speak candidly about their situation. Another sham involves housing a suspect in a cell with a person pretending to be a fellow arrestee. That cellmate, however, is either an undercover cop or a confidential informant.
The authority for such deceit stems from a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court case, Illinois v. Perkins. By a vote of 8 to 1, the justices whittled away at the Founding Fathers' belief that the government shouldn't be able to force citizens to become witnesses against themselves. The court's stated logic for this expansion of police power was that if an arrestee erroneously believes he or she isn't speaking to the cops, then any subsequent confession can't be the illegally coerced product of state power.
Last year, the Weekly introduced two of the region's most prolific snitches used in so-called Perkins operations: then-39-year-old Raymond Cuevas and 35-year-old Jose Paredes, both violent, career Mexican Mafia-associated criminals who'd be serving life-in-prison sentences if they hadn't wiggled their way into the good graces of cops (see "Meet OC and LA's Law Enforcement's Favorite Rats," Sept. 10, 2014). Police have shuffled Cuevas and Paredes in and out of jails in Orange and Los Angeles counties for years with taxpayer-funded jobs to extract confessions.
On May 24, 2012, the Anaheim Police Department used Cuevas and Paredes on Madriles, then, two months later, on Calderon. Nearly double in age and possessing higher rank in the Mexican Mafia-run underworld, the snitches acted as if they were hardened, unflinching hoodlums who despised cops. First, they implied they were sympathetic to their targets' plight. Then they requested details of the killing, supposedly to help Calderon and Madriles beat potential charges. Detectives claim the chicanery worked. For three years, prosecutors inside the Orange County district attorney's office (OCDA) have worked to keep defendants, their lawyers, judges and juries near-clueless about the informants and the magnitude of their work. In some cases--including People v. Nuzzio Begaren, which involved a 1998 cop killing--they simply hid the records. In other cases, deputy DAs doctored records, supplying misleading, inaccurate or incomplete information. As I discovered, defense lawyers in the same courthouse were given contradictory snitch reports that, without extensive investigation and luck, couldn't be penetrated. In interviews and in court appearances, prosecutors insist the sole reason for secrecy is to protect the lives of Cuevas and Paredes--and, in their mind, that goal outweighs the constitutional rights of defendants.
But their argument is weak. The only folks who would want the rats killed are the ones who've known of their betrayal for at least half a decade: Mexican Mafia members and associates. These informants have appeared in open court. Publicly available transcripts contain their names and testimony. A 122-week-old California Court of Appeal decision features the pair and raises questions about their use. They've even garnered extensive newspaper coverage.
The real reason for the secrecy is to shield the Perkins operations from scrutiny. As my aforementioned story outlined, Cuevas and Paredes have routinely utilized illegal tactics to secure confessions. Government agents, even snitches, can't use the threat of violence (stick) or promise of illicit bounty (carrot). Prosecutors are aware of these restraints imposed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991's Arizona v. Fulminante, and yet they've chosen to shield the informants' abuses from disclosure rather than rebuke them. OCDA's willingness to cheat even when it's entirely unnecessary--such as in People v. Scott Dekraai--can't be overstated.
During the March 2014 preliminary hearing for Calderon and Madriles, defense lawyers Dave Swanson and Stephen Crandall asked deputy DA Gary LoGalbo, a former cop, to name the informants. LoGalbo refused. Superior Court Judge Scott Steiner, whose biggest campaign contributors are police unions, sustained the objection. Steiner also didn't care about the rats' tactics. "I just don't see how it matters," declared the judge, a former OCDA prosecutor.
Incredibly, LoGalbo remains steadfast that the public should not learn the informants' names because of the alleged "sensitivity of this information." On June 12, he refused to surrender long-withheld discovery involving Cuevas and Paredes--or even say their names--to Swanson and Crandall unless they met two conditions: They would limit knowledge of the records to individuals working on the case, and they would never enlighten journalists about the contents. (The Weekly was specifically mentioned during the hearing.)
Swanson and Crandall argued they oppose any ruling that limits their defenses--especially on who they can consult. Judge Steven Bromberg posed dumbfounded. He asked the deputy DA, "Haven't [the informants already] been ID'd in the press?"
LoGalbo paused and ominously replied, "I don't know if I can answer that in open court."
Swanson told Bromberg that restrictions weren't fair. "This is a request for a gag order by the prosecutor," he stated. "The purpose of this request is the elephant in the room--all those [embarrassing news] articles, the Dekraai hearing, and this is the weight of a free press."
The judge interrupted, asking, "What would be the compelling need for a guardian press?"
Swanson explained news coverage helped to reveal the extent of OCDA's discovery violations and illegal snitch tactics even to the defense bar. Bromberg didn't care. Claiming he refuses to "stifle" the defense "in any form whatsoever," the judge nevertheless imposed his pro-prosecution restrictions. Swanson and Crandall must limit whom they consult to individuals working on the cases: investigators, paralegals and assistants. Anyone else--and this could block future news reports--must sign a confidentiality agreement banning public disclosures.
"I'm not calling that a gag order," Bromberg told the defense lawyers. "I'm not hindering you from talking to anybody."
(This article first appeared on the Internet on June 17, 2014.)
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