In Orange County's Courthouse Scandals, Prosecutors and Sheriff Unite in Cover-Ups
Stomping Lady Justice: Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, DA Tony Rackauckas and Deputy DA Ebrahim Baytieh
Undercover Canadian police couldn't believe their eyes at the Tycoon Club in Vancouver. Oblivious to the surveillance, law-enforcement colleagues, including two cops from Southern California, partied inside a hangout for the Big Circle Boys, a violent, Asian, organized-crime family. The Guangzhou-spawned syndicate specialized in extortion, home-invasion robberies and narcotics trade—particularly heroin, international human trafficking and prostitution. At 10:55 p.m., agents watched as a pimp drove up and introduced a female escort to Police Constable Murray Phillips, who guided the summoned woman inside.
Minutes before midnight, 37-year-old Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD) detective Ken L. Hoffman, in Vancouver with detective Mark Simon ostensibly on official public business, emerged from the Tycoon. Officers spied Hoffman as he walked to his brown Budget Rent-A-Car vehicle, opened a door, grabbed a bottle of cologne, sprayed fragrance over his husky upper body and re-entered the bar. Not exactly a charmer, the veteran deputy with a near-permanent scowl didn't want to smell odorous for the wee hours of his Aug. 28, 1998, carousing with an Asian female.
Tracy Singer, who arrived at the Tycoon on Phillips' invitation, later told police she believed her constable friend and a "loud and pushy" Simon displayed obvious signs of cocaine use. She felt positive, however, all three cops were intoxicated by alcohol while in the presence of three prostitutes, according to law-enforcement reports obtained by OC Weekly.
"[Upon arrival], Singer noticed that all the men were drunk already," a police interview summary states. "Singer said Simon and Phillips were doing body shots with [one of the prostitutes]. Singer described a body shot as the following: the men lick the female's neck, thigh or other body part, drink a shot of tequila and then bite a lime wedge held in the female's teeth."
She also told investigators that Simon, who'd stripped to his underwear, danced around wearing a pink feather boa. Officers observed Hoffman—who'd consumed multiple Jack Daniel's and Coke—his preferred cocktail, tequila shots and beer—drive his colleague and a woman away at 2:55 a.m. By then, Simon had dressed and given the boa back to Leah, his tiara-wearing date for the evening.
The trio's excitability didn't always end at sunrise. Police reports memorialized the displeasure of Theresa Mitchell-Banks, a Vancouver prosecutor handling the Canadian portion of the investigation into a July 1998 robbery/murder at the Jewel Garden Jewelry Store on El Toro Road in Lake Forest. Mitchell-Banks recalled, "They were like cowboys, all three of them."
Phillips, Simon and Hoffman felt they'd earned congratulatory celebrations for supposedly solving the then-three-week-old homicide. Nouhad Sleiman, one of the store owners, died. Her husband, Michael, suffered a gunshot wound, though he did manage to shoot one of the two bandits who robbed him of rings, watches and bracelets worth more than $60,000 on the black market.
In reality, the OCSD probe didn't require Sherlock Holmes. A telephone call to a Crime Stoppers Tip Line in Canada correctly identified one of the two thieves as James Jordan Wayne Priel, a 21-year-old Vancouver and Laguna Niguel resident. Deputies merely needed to apply elementary Cop 101 practices to wrap up the case. After all, Priel confessed after apprehension, and a physical examination revealed a bullet wound to his waist.
Only one question lingered: Who'd been Priel's accomplice? Initially, Simon and Hoffman suspected Michael Hanus, whose criminal history included "beatings, breaking and entering, and torturing people," according to court records. Hanus helped Priel commit a 1993 robbery. Hardened cops feared him; he once stabbed a live cat to a wall with a knife.
Two eyewitnesses who saw the bandits identified them as white males, but Priel refused to implicate Hanus, a Caucasian from the Czech Republic. He instead fingered 23-year-old David Valladares of Dana Point and minimized his own culpability by naming the Latino of Mexican descent as both the mastermind and killer. He even claimed Valladares took all the jewelry, an assertion undermined by his own efforts to hide and fence the stolen loot in Vancouver. Seven months after the murder, Simon visited Michael Sleiman and recorded an updated memory: The victim, who'd been shot in the head and had recovered from a coma, now believed one of the assailants had been Mexican.
Forensic testing lifted Valladares' palm print from the jewelry-store display case, but who knows when it was left? Why were fingerprints of a third man possibly tied to Priel found in the ditched getaway car, a Honda Passport stolen from an Irvine Spectrum shopping mall valet? And who could trust the unconventional OCSD investigation?
Believing their Canadian conduct would be forever cloaked in secrecy, Phillips, Simon and Hoffman performed three stooge stunts that jeopardized the case from the outset and prompted multiple lengthy probes in two countries. Allegations included falsifying a search-warrant affidavit, illegally seizing evidence, threatening a key witness in a bathroom, misusing taxpayer funds, committing vice acts, driving drunk, confiscating cocaine during a search but failing to book it into the evidence locker, accepting gratuities from a mob-tied establishment, and ordering four pizzas during a Vancouver house raid in which all three eventually fell asleep. Priel's sisters, the occupants of the raided house, added that the officers invited them out for cocktails after their brother had been arrested in Orange County. They declined.
While the trio denied wrongdoing, we will likely never know exactly what happened in Canada. Efforts by Valladares' defense attorneys to decipher events met a roadblock with OCSD internal-affairs officers, including deputy Michelle Hill. Unlike Vancouver police officials, who took the allegations against Phillips seriously, Hill and her partner, Sergeant Leo Vandor, wrote reports that attempted to largely defend Simon and Hoffman as victims of unfounded allegations. Phillips retired with benefits. The OCSD deputies received wrist-slap punishments of temporary loss of their positions in the homicide unit.
Hill then took the unusual, unauthorized step of taking files on the Canadian exploits home and locking them in her garage for several years. When forced to respond to a court-ordered subpoena, she claimed she'd destroyed the original records but offered a replacement: a heavily redacted version. Hill blamed memory loss for not knowing why she didn't keep the originals, why she made so many edits and what evidence she'd deleted.
Prosecutors inside the Orange County district attorney's office (OCDA) harbored a similar desire to protect the deputies' reputations. Deputy DA Dan McNerney, who nowadays is a superior court judge, refused to meet Vancouver police officials hoping to share their discoveries, evidence he would have been forced to surrender to defense lawyers. In 2005, with prosecutor Mike Murray in charge, the messy case resulted in the two defendents escaping the death penalty or sentences of life in prison without the possibilty of parole. Priel, who'd confessed, received a term of 25 years to life for first-degree murder. Because OCDA knew a trial against Valladares would likely produce more ugly disclosures, he received an even more discounted punishment that allowed him to be eligible for parole after 15 years for second-degree murder.
Taking a $59,000 annual pension, Simon retired before completion of the case. He is now director of security and investigative services at FULKRA Inc. in Costa Mesa. Meanwhile, fate put Hoffman on the path to plunge into a deeper ethical swamp. And, once again, he'd get OCDA's protection of himself and his colleagues.
When Michael S. Carona—the top-ranking bailiff in local courthouses—campaigned for Orange County sheriff in 1998, he assured me his victory would translate to the most ethical law-enforcement management in California. Carona and then-first-term district attorney candidate Tony Rackauckas, who used the same high-powered political consultant, won. Both shortly thereafter created fundraising strategies selling official agency badges to wealthy contributors. After nearly eight years' worth of documented revelations of Carona's corruption, Rackauckas, worried the U.S. Department of Justice would gain interest, held a press conference and, though he'd never made the sheriff a subject of real investigation, cleared him of any wrongdoing.
Nevertheless, the FBI and IRS criminal division arrested Carona in 2007 after a federal grand jury indicted him for thwarting its efforts to inspect OCSD operations. During the trial, we learned how the sheriff won office and why he'd named Don Haidl, a gruff if rich and hard-drinking Rancho Cucamonga used-car salesman without a minute of police training, assistant sheriff, overseeing about 4,000 employees and a $700 million annual budget. Haidl gave Carona briefcases loaded with $100 bills, luxury trips to Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas, a boat, an expensive suit, a bar tab and gambling cash, and use of his private jet to rendezvous with out-of-town women who were not his wife. The sheriff, once the darling of Southern California Republican circles and a man who'd aimed to unseat U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, landed in prison for 66 months.
Carona prefaced his arrest a year earlier by winning national ridicule for his mismanaged jails. Incarceration deputies ran a carrot/stick system that required inmates to divide by race and to obey a boss, known as a shot caller, as well as his assistant, known as a mouse. If an inmate annoyed a deputy, the officer notified the shot caller and expected to have the offender pummeled by a group of other inmates for about 10 or 15 seconds while deputies, who possessed powerful incentive for their wishes to be executed, looked the other way. Failure to carry out a beating meant every inmate in a particular barracks could lose their most prized daily privilege: access to the day room, phones and TV. As Nick Schou, the Weekly's managing editor, reported in award-winning coverage, deputies were also known to torment inmates facing sex-crime charges by asking them about their cases in front of other inmates, then walking away, creating plausible deniability about a forthcoming assault.
Inside Theo Lacy Jail's F Barracks West in early October 2006, pretrial inmate John Derek Chamberlain, a 41-year-old Rancho Santa Margarita computer-software engineer facing misdemeanor child-pornography-possession charges, called his ex-girlfriend, asking her to have his lawyer, Case Barnett, get him placed in protective custody. A panicked Chamberlain, who couldn't afford to pay a $2,500 bail fee that would free him from custody until his trial, feared being outed and attacked. Barnett called OCSD and notified deputies.
Hours later, Chamberlain's severely battered corpse lay in a pool of blood. For as long as 30 or 40 minutes, waves of inmates fractured countless bones by punching, kicking and stomping him to death. They'd mocked him as a freak; stripped him of clothes; banged his skull on a steel bunk bed; sodomized him with a pencil, toothpaste tube and spoon; urinated on him; and poured scalding water over his body.
At the time of the incident, Jared Petrovich played shot caller for the barrack's white inmates. Stephen Carlstrom served as his mouse. Garret Aguilar shared a bunk with Petrovich. All three claimed in the aftermath that deputies Kevin Taylor and Jason Chapluk summoned Petrovich to a pre-assault powwow. According to Petrovich, Taylor asked him if he spoke English and could hear. When he got affirmative answers, he turned to Chapluk and said, "There's a child molester in J7 . . . and you know what happens when there's a child molester."
Chamberlain slept in bunk J7.
John Derek Chamberlain, who wasn't a child molester, before he landed in OCSD custody
For the first time in its history, OCSD defied a formal legal agreement that OCDA take the lead investigatory role in in-custody homicides to prevent a glaring conflict of interest. DA investigator Doug Kennedy told sheriff's lieutenant Robert Blackburn hours after the murder that OCSD wouldn't have credibility leading the probe. According to Kennedy, Blackburn replied he wasn't worried because his agency had already, in the very early stages of the case, eliminated any deputies as potential suspects. Meanwhile, deputy Phillip Le, who worked with Taylor, claimed he accidentally erased surveillance video of the barracks for the time surrounding Chamberlain's killing. Le also doctored a log about the deputies' activities.
Taylor, known to entertain himself by firing non-lethal rifle rounds at unsuspecting inmates using toilets, denied revealing Chamberlain's charges to Petrovich or seeing any hint of a frenzied killing while he sat in a nearby guard station. Despite the victim's call to his ex-girlfriend, the deputy produced another self-serving nugget: Before his murder, Chamberlain told him and Chapluk he didn't want a transfer because he felt "safe."
Even to some OCSD insiders, the situation appeared to be a mess inside a cesspool. Who could be trusted to figure out the truth or, depending on desire, cover it up? Remember Hoffman from that Canada scandal? OCSD selected him to head the investigation.
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The compromised choice of Hoffman couldn't have been lost on prosecutors or at the sheriff's department. Murray, who recommended against charging deputies in Chamberlain and is now a judge, saw Hoffman's Canadian misconduct impact the Priel and Valladares case. Blackburn, who was the OCSD's point person in the Chamberlain probe, oversaw the internal investigation into the deputy and shared the results with OCDA.
Hoffman—who'd seethed in response to the probe into his own conduct in Canada—quickly accepted his co-worker's denials of giving a "green light" for Chamberlain's assault, a move accepted by Ebrahim Baytieh, the prosecutor assigned to the case. Their efforts focused on laying all the blame on Petrovich and other inmates while protecting deputies from criminal charges that could have ranged from obstruction of justice to manslaughter or murder. After all, if the Petrovich-Carlstrom-Aguilar statements were honest, Petrovich and Taylor were in the same culpability boat: Both purposely uttered statements resulting in the natural and probable cause of placing Chamberlin in grave danger.
As when Rackauckas tried to assist Carona, the DA convened a grand jury to demonstrate that Orange County law enforcement could police itself without federal intervention. He issued a scathing report after the hearings. It turns out that jail deputies routinely used their work shifts to sleep, play electronic games, watch TV, conduct personal business, visit gyms, surf the internet, read books, chat with girlfriends, encourage inmate-on-inmate violence, ignore medical emergencies to minimize paperwork, fabricate logs to create phantom job accomplishments and apply for overtime pay. Those tidbits were fascinating, but they sidestepped the most important issue: Did deputies play any role in Chamberlain's demise?
Rackauckas didn't take on Taylor or two other deputies whom he handed immunity from prosecution, Chapluk and Le. His staffers asked zero questions of Hoffman, the man in the middle of the sham investigation. Most telling, as the grand jury report noted, the DA let three other deputies on duty during the incident lie and hide records without consequences. None of them were charged with perjury or obstruction of justice.
At trial, defense lawyers for the accused inmates were kept in the dark about two key issues: Hoffman's background and OCSD's then-secret employment of jailhouse informants to help secure tainted convictions. Special Handling Unit deputy Seth Tunstall testified on Aug. 18, 2011, that he developed and managed in-custody snitches and possessed specific OCSD records (called TREDs) to prove that Sean James Pough, a serial thief, told the truth when he claimed he lived in various modules with as many as six of the inmates suspected of attacking Chamberlain, and, supposedly without any government prompting, tricked the government targets into making incriminating statements.
To bolster Pough's credibility with the jury, Baytieh got Pough to testify he "never had any expectation" his work for OCDA would be rewarded with a reduction of the pending nine-year prison punishment in his own case after compiling eight felony convictions in the span of 12 years. "You were surprised [when my office lowered your sentence to just four years]?" Baytieh asked.
Pough responded, "Yes, I was."
Hoffman, who seemed to make it appear in records as though Pough decided to work as a snitch out of the goodness of his heart, felt the need to supplement his own trial testimony. During proceedings, three witnesses in audience seating, including Schou, saw the detective signaling Chapluk as he fielded questions about Chamberlain on the witness stand. (Taylor refused to testify.) They saw Hoffman nod his head affirmatively before Chapluk answered, "yes"; shake his head to indicate the negative before Chapluk said, "no"; and shrug his shoulders before Chapluk stated he didn't know an answer. Presiding Judge James Stotler gingerly cautioned Hoffman, but he took no further action.
Baytieh used his closing statement to mock defense attorneys' belief prosecutors protected dirty deputies. "Taylor, Taylor, Taylor, Taylor, Taylor, Taylor, Taylor," he said before labeling concerns about the deputy as "bashing the badge" through unfounded insinuation. "Lots of talking about Taylor. . . . This is not about Taylor. It's easy to take shots at him. There's nobody here defending him."
Except, of course, for himself and Hoffman.
The case's outcome elated OCSD and OCDA officials. All the inmate defendants charged either accepted a plea bargain or were convicted. Though Taylor would leave the department followed by Hoffman, no deputy tied to the Chamberlain case faced even a misdemeanor charge. A California Court of Appeal ruled the OCSD's biased investigation and outrageous government conduct didn't impact the rights of the defendants. Tunstall and Baytieh proceeded to the next ethical disaster.
Following Carona's conviction, courthouse observers hoped first appointed, later elected Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, a Dana Point resident and retired veteran of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, would reform the scandal-scarred OCSD as an outsider. In the wake of the Chamberlain fiasco, Hutchens promised to hold deputies accountable for misconduct, curtail their ability to doctor department records and make the agency more transparent. "I am an agent of change," Hutchens said at her 2008 appointment on a 3-2 vote of the Board of Supervisors. "I will be a change agent for the sheriff's department."
While she hasn't been mired in sex and bribery scandals akin to her predecessor, Hutchens' lack of integrity guided the department into its messiest quagmire since Chamberlain: the nearly 4-year-old Orange County jailhouse-informant scandal that has won national embarrassment. Jail deputies systematically trampled long-established law to violate the rights of pretrial, in-custody inmates who couldn't afford bail or were denied it. A half-century-old U.S. Supreme Court ruling (Massiah v. United States) states the constitution prohibits law-enforcement officials—and their agents, such as informants—from questioning charged defendants who have legal representation. There's a loophole, of sorts: If an inmate not working at the direction of law enforcement accidentally overhears another inmate making self-incriminating statements, that evidence can be used to win convictions.
Taking advantage of a general public belief in their honesty and the loophole, OCSD deputies secretly ran "capers" that involved moving informants near government targets and tasking them with collecting incriminating information. Later, snitches testified in court they'd operated without assistance and were motivated solely by altruistic societal aims. In other words, juries were duped into believing law enforcement hadn't cheated and that the informants' testimony must be credible since it hadn't been bought with perks and punishment reductions.
In January 2014, Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders exposed the scams in People v. Scott Dekraai, a death-penalty case stemming from the worst mass killing in Orange County history, the 2011 massacre of eight people at a Seal Beach salon. Rackauckas and Hutchens didn't need to cheat. Dekraai confessed immediately after the shootings. Nonetheless, hoping to learn potential defense strategy against the defendant, OCDA and OCSD violated Massiah, wrongly believing that nobody would ever figure out their behind-the-scenes maneuvers.
Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals, who presides in Dekraai, conducted special evidentiary hearings in 2014 and 2015 after Hutchens defied his court orders to surrender evidence of the department's illegal scheming; she insists to this day that OCSD doesn't employ jailhouse informants. Summoned to the witness stand to explain informant use against Dekraai, Tunstall—and his colleagues in the Special Handling unit Ben Garcia and Bill Grover—were in a bind. Tunstall, you may recall, testified in Chamberlain that he'd used snitches for years and memorialized their cell movements. Grover received an employee commendation for cultivating snitches. Thousands of pages of internal OCSD records spanning years recorded Garcia's handling of the agency's most prolific informants.
But during Goethals' lengthy evidentiary hearings, Tunstall, Garcia and Grover testified under oath that they couldn't answer questions about nonexistent informants and nonexistent records of informants. Sanders thoroughly exposed the lies before Goethals steamed that deputies committed flagrant perjury. The DA and Hutchens refused to punish the misconduct, alarming the judge—himself a former well-respected homicide prosecutor. In March 2015, Goethals recused Rackauckas and his entire office from the case, believing they wouldn't stop condoning law-enforcement corruption. The DA labeled the move ridiculous, but a unanimous state appellate panel disagreed. The California Attorney General's office assumed prosecution responsibilities for the pending punishment stage in Dekraai.
Lost in the ongoing enormity of the snitch scandal, which so far has overturned 15 murder and attempted-murder cases, is a point that underscores why Orange County law enforcement direly needs a cleansing. While Hutchens and her deputies denied using informants for more than three years, Baytieh, who'd taken Tunstall's testimony about snitch use in Chamberlain, stayed silent about the deputies' perjury. He also remained mum when his OCDA colleagues repeatedly labeled Sanders a conspiracy nut in the media, despite overwhelming proof otherwise surfacing in the form of long-hidden government records.
Baytieh wasn't just knowledgable about OCSD's highly active informant program. He'd participated in the scheme. For example, court disclosures made this month by Sanders accuse the senior prosecutor of orchestrating an eight-year cover-up to protect his tainted cold-case murder convictions against Paul Gentile Smith. Deputies had placed Smith in Mod L-20, which housed him with three other inmates—all secretly OCSD informants. If Baytieh had disclosed that fact during Smith's 2009 trial, the snitch scandal would have been born five years earlier. Only a fool would believe that a government target accidentally landed in a jail area surrounded only by snitches. So, the deputy DA gave the judge, jury and Smith the impression there'd been only one informant, Arthur Palacios, a move that robbed the defense of arguing Palacios' claims were inadmissible.
In June 2016, Baytieh made a huge cover-up blunder in response to forced disclosure of once-hidden OCSD Special Handling Log entries, which further confirmed extensive unethical law enforcement scams using jail snitches willing to say anything to win perks. He wrote a letter to Smith's defense counsel explaining the log showed deputies had strategically placed informants (Palacios, "Inmate X," and "Inmate Y") around their then pre-trial client. According to the prosecutor, he'd learned of this particular cheating a month earlier on May 3, 2016, or six years after he secured Smith's convictions.
But Baytieh wrongly assumed Sanders would never discover his fabrication. Proof emerged in a Columbo episode moment for the public defender: Inmate X had to have been a snitch because, despite his role in a planned murder of a deputy, the prosecutor didn't charge him and, in fact, let him walk out of jail, according to court records.
An irony-deaf Rackauckas, whose prosecutions benefitted from all the OCSD cheating, named Baytieh to conduct in-house ethics training and head his public-relations campaign to portray the scandal as "baloney."
The senior deputy DA delighted his boss by spinning an audibly skeptical UC Irvine School of Law crowd in July 2016, "I can tell you categorically, the notion there is a systematic effort or a systematic program by prosecutors in this county to hide evidence and lie about it in court is absolutely, categorically false."
Despite efforts by folks like Baytieh, Rackauckas and Hutchens, the scandal has aged 172 weeks and shows no signs of soon disappearing from public discourse. Coming clean is apparently not an option for our top cops. They hope federal prosecutors lose interest in their unconstitutional conduct. Thankfully, there is Goethals. His search for the truth will continue in coming days with a new round of special evidentiary hearings.
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