Is Orange County Jail a Pleasure Palace?
Most of us can only imagine the horrors of jail life. It involves cramped living quarters, awful food, demanding guards, lack of sunlight and fresh air, deranged neighbors, zero liberty, insulting clothing, countless hours of boredom coupled with constant danger, lousy beds, insane asylum-like painted walls, and an absolute deprivation of key human pleasures. But, oddly, that dark scenario wasn't true for one, incredibly fortunate Orange County Jail (OCJ) inmate.
While prosecutors worked to put Stephenson Choi Kim on California's death row, the ruthless killer enjoyed two years' worth of secret perks and privileges that made OCJ a pleasure palace. Prosecutors claim Kim was allowed to enjoy weekly sex dates with a visitor; sell and smoke marijuana; consume contraband food, tobacco and candy; possess a cell phone and charger; make three-way phone-sex calls with a guy named "David"; as well as collect pornography magazines and unauthorized razor blades. The San Gabriel resident, who'd threatened to assassinate court witnesses against him and uses the gang moniker "Dragon," even received a handcuff key.
In February 2013, the Orange County district attorney's (OCDA) office filed felony charges against David Lloyd Cass—a deputy assigned to the jail's attorney visitors' area—for accepting bribes from Kim, who in 2004 entered a crowded Cypress restaurant, began shooting people he'd never met to bolster his gang reputation, and left one young woman dead and four innocent people seriously wounded. The bribery case initially won widespread media coverage, and then it disappeared from the public radar while the county focused on the lethal Fullerton Police Department assault on Kelly Thomas. Without fanfare in the past year, Cass dumped his public defender and hired Lewis Rosenblum, a former heavyweight OC prosecutor known for his courthouse prowess. Last week, the deputy pleaded not guilty.
But a late-March preliminary hearing underscored the apparent strength of Senior Deputy District Attorney Aleta Bryant's case. Bryant doesn't just have surveillance footage, phone recordings and text messages supporting the charges; she also presented an eyewitness/participant to Superior Court Judge Thomas A. Glazier. Ha Duc Nguyen—who'd somehow secured a secret marriage certificate to the killer in 2010, and then tricked a judge into giving her "legal courier" status to enter the attorney visiting section of OCJ—distributed bribes and won special access to Kim in a semi-private room where lawyers usually confer with their in-custody clients.
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"We would have oral sex," said a matter-of-fact Nguyen of her relationship with the killer, who ultimately avoided the death penalty but, in 2012, won a punishment of life plus 255 years in prison. "We would have anal sex. We would have vaginal sex."
She also testified a thoughtful Cass turned the lights off for their privacy during the encounters, and Kim liked to get naked while she wore only a bra during sex that often lasted as long as an hour "on the desk, on the floor and on a chair" just feet away from a guard station.
Nguyen—who taught English in Japan from 2006 to 2008, sought out Kim in jail after his shooting spree and collected a long list of criminal charges for aiding the inmate—explained she easily smuggled sex toys inside the jail in a briefcase and illegal narcotics for Kim in her vagina. To bring the drugs back to his cell, the killer wrapped the packages around his genitalia. Their illicit operation had remarkable longevity. According to Nguyen, the sex romps totaled as many as 30 times—mostly on Saturdays—during the two-year period. It helped, she testified, that the deputy used his private cell phone to warn her in advance of planned inspections. On occasions when Cass needed to interrupt the sex because of the presence of other deputies, he sincerely apologized to the couple, she testified.
Bryant—a no-nonsense, seasoned prosecutor—alleges the deputy accepted bribes including $440 in Burke Williams spa massage and facial certificates, $300 in hockey match tickets, $100 gift certificate to Dave & Buster's, and a $25 In-N-Out Burger coupon. Nguyen tried to satisfy Cass' requests for "special attention" for him and other deputies from scantily clad Vietnamese waitresses at risqué Little Saigon coffee lounges. Kim used his private cell phone in hopes of retaining a high-end prostitute for the deputy, but the deal never materialized because of the officer's back surgery during the time frame, according to court records.
Arguably the most alarming claim against the deputy is Nguyen's report that he devised an escape plan for Kim before he could be hauled away to prison.
"[Cass] was saying all I had to do was bring a change of clothes [and a hat for Kim]," Nguyen testified. "Deputy Cass would leave the door open, and when I was going out, [Kim] would just follow me out the gate."
The couple discussed the escape idea, including the use of a potential route the deputy thought might minimize surveillance-camera coverage, according to preliminary hearing testimony. To help Kim flee the United States, Nguyen attempted to purchase a fake passport but failed. She told the prosecutor, "Nobody really had any connections to get one, and if they did, it would be much too expensive."
Ultimately, an internal sheriff's probe wrecked the party—the type of reality that MSNBC's Lock Up jail series usually ignores—after a December 2011 raid on Kim's contraband-loaded jail cell. Cass, who is no longer employed at OCSD, is free from custody on $150,000 bail and faces a future jury trial at an unknown date. Nguyen is in custody inside the Santa Ana Police Department jail while awaiting a July sentencing. On paper, the 33-year-old killer can leave his maximum-security housing inside California State Prison at Sacramento when he's about 328 years old.
Two years ago, I broke news of another OCJ sex scandal. That one involved almost equally audacious law-enforcement corruption. A black female deputy got caught having a lengthy sexual affair with a white-supremacist inmate accused of committing a hate crime against a black male victim in Costa Mesa. (See "Jennifer Tamara McClain Is a Prisoner of Love," Feb. 17, 2012.)
A 2008 grand jury investigation determined that in 2006, the same year jail deputies grabbed a whopping $15.8 million in overtime pay, guards routinely slept on the job, played electronic games, watched television, operated personal businesses, unnecessarily fired weapons at inmates sitting on toilets, chatted with girlfriends on the phone, left for workouts at private gyms, surfed the Internet, read books, ignored medical emergencies, refused to perform basic duties during entire shifts, doctored official logs to mask their depravity and lied when questioned. Pleasure palace, indeed.
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