New Mysteries Mount in Old Murder Case 'Solved' by DA Tony Rackauckas
Two gunmen wearing wigs, sunglasses and grotesque facial makeup entered John Seigman's unlocked Los Alamitos-area residence not long after sunset in August 1976. Startled family members had been watching television in the den when the intruders ordered them to lie on the floor, then tied their hands behind their backs with twine. Hoping for a $70,000 windfall, the bandits ordered Seigman, the manager of a Long Beach grocery store, to return to the business, empty the safe and, without contacting police, surrender the ransom. In exchange, they promised to release his family—wife Johann and three kids—who were placed in back of the family's van and taken away.
Seigman drove to his store, retrieved about $8,000 in cash and waited for a call at a nearby, outside payphone. But he'd disobeyed orders by contacting cops, who sent an undercover narcotics crew to stake out the area. Perhaps keen to the hastily arranged trap, the thieves never called. A few hours later, authorities found the abandoned van with Seigman's unharmed children. Two days later, their mother's corpse was spotted in an oil field ditch adjacent to the Long Beach freeway near Dominguez Hills. She'd been shot five times in the head at a range of less than 10 inches.
Although suspects were arrested and sent to prison, they steadfastly maintained their innocence. Now, 39 years later, the issue of whether the Seigman murder case was actually solved remains an open question, one that has everything to do with a major, ongoing law-enforcement crisis in Southern California.
* * * * *
In late October 2015—two years into what has become known nationally as the Orange County snitch scandal—District Attorney Tony Rackauckas found another opportunity to prove his critics wrong during an appearance on KABC-TV. Has his office repeatedly trampled constitutional rights to secure tainted convictions by joining in alliances with dirty cops and even-more-warped jailhouse informants? For a 72-year-old politician accustomed to the media spotlight, such questions should have been easy to answer.
"Well, in general, I mean, I think that's, uh, uh, one of the things that we're, uh, that we're working on, uh, you know, at this point, but, but, uh, uh," uttered Rackauckas. "We've looked into that very, very deeply over the last year and, and over the last several months and, uh, uh, and, uh, and found very little of that."
In reality, evidence of law-enforcement shenanigans involving informants is overwhelming. Tens of thousands of pages of key documents were hidden from defense lawyers, juries and judges in dozens of cases. A sitting judge—once a high-ranking prosecutor—recused Rackauckas and his entire office in March from a death penalty case, People v. Scott Dekraai. Two deputies won labels as unrepentant perjurers. For more than a quarter of a century, the sheriff's department concealed an entire records system containing exculpatory evidence that exposes how officials used unethical tactics with snitches to nab confessions. Convictions have been overturned and, to keep other embarrassing records revealing corruption sealed, sweetheart deals cut freeing accused murderers.
Rackauckas and his public-payroll spin doctors angrily dismiss these facts, arguing nobody needs to be fired because in-house seminars can fix the problems. He hoped in July to dissuade calls for U.S. Department of Justice inspection by handpicking outsiders to investigate the messes. As the Weekly exclusively reported, the DA inserted a small-print clause into that committee's contract: Members must get his advance approval of statements given to reporters. Perhaps the suspicious maneuvering helped provoke last month's call by more than three dozen ex-prosecutors and legal scholars for Attorney General Loretta Lynch to launch a probe. On the eve of that development, Rackauckas sought to inspire confidence he's acting virtuously.
"Uh, we have, uh, commissioned a committee, actually, that's, uh, of people who are not in the DA's office and, uh, uh, uh, to, to look at, uh, uh, look at, you know, all, all of this information to, uh, and to, uh, uh, to make a basically [sic] recommendation, findings and recommendations," Rackauckas told KABC anchorman Marc Brown and producer Lisa Bartley. "And, uh, and they'll be making a report, and that'll, and that'll be public, and, uh, and, and we haven't hidden or, or, withheld anything from that, from that committee."
But how genuine are criminal-justice reform guarantees from a man who for five decades has been a powerfully entrenched character—homicide prosecutor, state judge and, for the past 18 years, elected DA in a county with a population larger than four states combined? And while the district attorney's office (OCDA) employs outstanding prosecutors and investigators who've rightly earned acclaim in the courtroom, what makes the less honest ones think they can betray their oaths to seek justice and suffer no consequences—or even win promotion?
* * * * *
Within days of Johann Seigman's murder, and based entirely on a tip, detectives arrested two Bellflower thieves, William Paul Gullett and Ronald Ewing. But cops had serious problems if the charges were to stick. No physical evidence tied Gullett or Ewing to the crime. And although multiple eyewitnesses, including a neighbor, saw the intruders who bound and abducted the woman, none of them could, despite police nudging, identify either suspect as a participant.
In fact, third parties provided the men with alibis. The most important witness was 16-year-old Guy Donald Cooper. Clueless about the specifics of the crime, Cooper said he, Ewing and Gullett were at his home while he watched an 8 p.m. television show, The Bionic Woman, which aired during the abduction.
Store clerk Ricky Lee Tipton, another independent witness, told detectives he saw Johann in the backseat of a vehicle driven by "a Negro" and idling in a parking lot hours after the kidnapping, according to court records. Forensic scientists recovered hair fibers from an unidentified African-American male on the corpse. But because the information didn't fit the police theory, it was ignored.
Raids on property tied to both Gullett and Ewing also didn't aid the government. Recovered shell casings and twine failed to match ones used in the crime. Shoe prints collected outside the ditched van that held the Seigman children couldn't be tied to the suspects—neither could fingerprints discovered on a Marlboro cigarette box believed to be connected to the killer. Plus, several witnesses, all relatives of the victim, said the taller of the two abductors—the one cops assumed was Gullett—had rolled up the sleeves on his tan shirt. None of them, however, saw anything noticeable; Gullett has a massive, colorful tattoo inked on his left arm, stretching from his elbow to his wrist.
Police weren't empty-handed, though. They had a lone asset: Curtis Ray Eddy, a career criminal and heroin addict. Two days after the killing, Eddy allegedly discussed the possibility of nabbing a reward with his girlfriend, then contacted Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD) investigators. He claimed he'd helped plan the ransom plot with his prior crime pals, Gullett and Ewing, but he backed out of the job. Defense lawyers labeled Eddy's statement a grab for cash to fuel a daily drug fix, as well as a way to insulate himself from charges by becoming a snitch.
David O. Carter, a Vietnam War veteran who survived the Battle of Khe Sanh and who served as the original deputy district attorney on the case, tried to rely on Eddy to win convictions. But the more Carter learned about the informant, the more he didn't trust him. If portions of Eddy's statements to deputies were truthful, other parts were, the investigation revealed, misleading, false or self-serving. Internal OCDA documents reflect Carter's misgivings.
"In Mr. Carter's opinion, Curtis Eddy was the whole case," states an agency analysis in 1987. "He was critical. The rest of the case was built around him as corroboration." That same document also noted the prosecutor's belief that alibis provided by witnesses would end in an acquittal. It stated, "Hearing the alibi in court caused Mr. Carter to feel that the case was weaker than he had originally thought." According to court transcripts, Carter, who was appointed to the federal bench in 1998, thought that while the suspects might be guilty, Eddy was "a liar."
In November 1977, Superior Court Judge H. Warren Knight agreed. "There is no evidence or sufficient evidence that the two men were present or that they were personally present or personally committed the act which caused the death of the victim," Knight ruled to dismiss the charges against both defendants. "The evidence is not there."
Law enforcement didn't abandon the investigation, and in May 1983, seven years after the murder, the cold case landed on the desk of OCDA's then-hotshot prosecutor, or, as the Los Angeles Times characterized him, the agency's courtroom "ace": Rackauckas. The new prosecutor, who'd handled 35 prior homicide trials, didn't share Carter's moral quandary about Eddy. The snitch might be unsavory, but at least he would be OCDA's liar, so the thinking went.
But given the unsupportive physical, eyewitness and alibi evidence, Rackauckas knew he needed more that this snitch. He'd have to find other individuals willing to say one or both of the suspects confessed to the killing. In this mission, he turned to the one place where prosecutors can secretly buy the truth they are seeking: jail.
* * * * *
Based on their own experiences with a tyrannical monarchy, our nation's Founding Fathers used the U.S. Constitution and its amendments to ban government officials from forcing confessions from citizens. The Supreme Court determined in a case known as Massiah this means law enforcement cannot take steps to entice self-incriminating statements from suspects who have been formally charged by a judge and are legally represented. Nobody in the legal community being honest would act ignorant of the basic rule. It has been in existence for 51 years and is taught to every would-be cop and lawyer.
Thanks to Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders in late January 2014, court records began surfacing that Rackauckas' OCDA, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens' OCSD and local police departments—especially ones in Anaheim and Santa Ana—had exploited a lack of transparency in the criminal-justice system to systematically violate Massiah. Keep in mind cops realize that if defense lawyers, judges and juries believe a jailhouse snitch accidentally overheard a government target confess—a so-called "listening post" exemption—then the statements can be admissible in a trial.
In dozens of news articles published during the past 23 months, the Weekly disclosed specifics of how the scam operated in individual criminal cases. For this report, here is a rough outline of the scheming: Prosecution teams secretly employed informants—in some cases even prolific liars, psychopaths, Mexican Mafia bosses and serial killers—and moved them into close proximity to targets, then told them what questions to ask and got the snitches to commit two acts of perjury by denying any police role in their discoveries or promises of government reward.
There are recorded examples of government informants threatening violence against targets to win confessions, another illegal tactic. The August 2014 revelation made on these pages didn't prompt Rackauckas' lieutenants to clean up their acts, but rather to seek judicial sanctions—even jail time—for defense lawyers who help to expose the maneuverings to journalists. Nevertheless, the cheating has now wrecked at least 13 murder and attempted-murder cases under Rackauckas' leadership in the past year alone.
* * * * *
By early 1984, Rackauckas juggled several cases while working on the Seigman murder. The major contributor to his file remained Eddy. But detectives had accumulated other snitches. Their statements were contradictory, suspiciously vague and, as you might expect, given with expectations of benefits to make their own incarcerations shorter or more comfortable. Some claimed Gullett bragged about being the shooter. Others said he'd bragged about being an accomplice. All described him as remorseless, a line sure to inflame a future jury if deemed believable.
For example, a month after the murder, Orange County Jail inmate Richard Allen Robledo told investigators his story: "I says, 'You shot her?' and [Gullett] says, 'Yeah, I shot her.'" That same month, other snitches joined the bandwagon. Inmate Carl Richards alleged that somebody in prison named Bill admitted killing Seigman; a police detective noted the rumor in an official report and added, "possibly Gullett."
And William Earl Archibald, another inmate, reported he'd had "a long conversation" with Gullett in preceding days. "I can't recall all of it," Archibald stated, according to an interview transcript obtained by the Weekly. "Just, I think . . . [pause] . . . I'm convinced in my own mind that's what he said, although he didn't come out and say, 'I killed the woman.' He said enough to indicate that he did actually, you know, he was actually involved in it. Whether he was the one who pulled the trigger or not, I don't know. Uh, that's about it. That's what he had to say."
By the time he was done, Rackauckas had stockpiled a whopping 11 informants and, rightly or wrongly, accepted all their incriminating assertions as truthful. The most troubling snitch might have been James Dean Cochrum, who'd been placed in what we didn't know then but know now was an informant tank run by deputies inside the Orange County Jail (OCJ). That area housed more than half a dozen accused killers awaiting trial—including Gullett and, oddly, Cochrum.
The identity thief, forger and drug addict, now deceased, would have had us believe he was incredibly lucky. In a span of a few years, Cochrum claimed he repeatedly entered and exited jail and accidentally overheard five separate murder confessions. Even more remarkable given the obvious personal risk of squealing on suspected killers, Cochrum, who was dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Army in 1981 for devising a financial con game and partaking in a $1,000-per-month cocaine habit, insisted he'd relayed the statements not for any reward, but only because he believed aiding the government was the moral course to take.
In the fall of 1985, court records show Rackauckas was arguing that Cooper, the key witness who placed Gullett and Ewing with him during the abduction, couldn't be trusted—not because he was dishonest, but because he was a teenager inattentive to time. He told a judge, "If Guy Cooper's testimony is off by an hour, then it is consistent with Mr. Ewing and Mr. Gullett being available to commit this crime."
Perhaps momentarily forgetting the burden of proof rested with him, Rackauckas added that the absence of physical evidence tying the defendants to the crime proved only they were clever killers; dismissed alarm that a Long Beach police officer forgot to report he could tie Gullett to Seigman before the murder, a claim he'd supposedly recalled only after the case fell apart; and that while Cochrum was a hoodlum, his snitch testimony had not been bought by the government.
Before he finished, the prosecutor had blasted John Barnett, Ewing's lawyer, for what he saw as a despicable act: questioning the use of Cochrum as a snitch. Barnett, who has been one of the region's most successful criminal-defense attorneys for decades, returned fire. "The prosecution's theory depends on inferences, based on inferences, based on speculation," he wrote at the time.
Nonetheless, Rackauckas—who'd flown to Utah to lobby for his rat to receive no punishment on felony escape charges there and also secured Orange County confinement that allowed him sunbathing privileges—triumphed. He won separate trials against both suspects, who, by 1987, were serving long prison sentences. Inside OCDA, the rising star had solidified his reputation as a daring, courthouse miracle worker.
* * * * *
While working on two pending death-penalty cases, Dekraai and People v. Daniel Wozniak, Sanders discovered widespread, systemic misuse of informants to sidestep Massiah requirements and to violate Brady, which requires the government to surrender without prompting evidence that benefits a defendant or harms the prosecution. Thomas M. Goethals, the judge in Dekraai, digested the defense lawyer's 505-page brief and, in February 2014, announced he'd conduct a special evidentiary hearing to explore the validity of the accusations. By the time the extraordinary hearing ended in March, the sheriff's department looked hopelessly corrupt, and a shocked Rackauckas and his entire staff found themselves booted from the case, a historic move that captured the attention of The New York Times and Washington Post.
Exposing ugly truths didn't win Sanders admirers on the bench. Indeed, during open court sessions, veteran judges such as William R. Froeberg, whose wife has been a high-ranking Rackauckas aide, openly mocked the public defender's findings. Froeberg bristled last year that Dekraai had become a ridiculous sideshow.
In Wozniak—which is completing jury selection as this story is being written—Sanders felt similar scorn. James Stotler, the original judge in the case, despised the public defender's work so much he silently prayed Sanders would suffer public humiliation. That's not conjecture: The judge announced those sentiments when he recused himself from the case in January.
This is not just where the past meets the present, but where Orange County's criminal-justice system demonstrates it is incapable of policing itself. After Stotler's departure, Wozniak landed with Goethals, but prosecutor Matt Murphy objected, and the matter went to Judge John Conley, a former homicide prosecutor. While researching the depths of the informant-program corruption, Sanders learned that Conley (in People v. William Lee Evins) and Rackauckas (in Gullett and Ewing) employed Cochrum to save faltering investigations by supposedly hearing case-solving confessions. While the two prosecutors were using Cochrum, OCDA sent a letter with false information to Utah officials, telling them the fugitive aided the government not to receive benefits, but out of the goodness of his heart, court records show.
To Sanders, such a revelation helps underscore his argument in both pending death-penalty cases: Prosecution teams here are so obsessed with winning they'll cheat, and therefore, the outcome of trials can't be trusted as righteous. With stone-cold eyes and no expression, Conley glared this fall at the public defender when Sanders asked to explore OCDA's deceitful use of Cochrum.
On Oct. 30, Conley discarded Sanders' motions for his recusal and to block the death penalty as a punishment option for Wozniak, who has admitted he slaughtered two people—Sam Herr, 26, and 23-year-old Julie Kibuishi—in May 2010. The judge could have written, as most do, a short rejection, but Conley was clearly unnerved by the defense lawyer's attempt to dig into OCDA's hidden files on Cochrum. He ridiculed press coverage and spent 14 pages describing how he was "not persuaded" that possible prosecution cheating in "40 other cases" is relevant.
The ruling brought Rackauckas, who has already announced plans to seek a sixth term in 2018 when he's 75 years old, and Conley together again—this time against Sanders. A delighted OCDA immediately pounced, issuing a 1,666-word press release. The judge and his ex-colleague were in agreement: Sanders failed to prove the existence of any OC corruption, it stated.
"Judge Conley has rejected the public defender's arguments," a Nov. 19 follow-up statement announced while ignoring his conflict of interest. "The OCDA will continue to seek justice in all cases."
* * * * *
In November, the Weekly reported on the puzzling case of Kenneth Clair, an African-American man convicted of the 1984 Santa Ana murder of a white babysitter, who had also been raped. Eyewitnesses firmly described the killer as a white man, but Clair nevertheless ended up on California's death row inside San Quentin State Prison. In 2008, DNA testing unavailable at the time of the trial conclusively determined that someone other than the defendant deposited genetic material inside the victim. Clair's lawyers have begged OCDA to share the identity of the DNA contributor in hopes of discovering the killer's true identity, but Rackauckas refuses, asserting the mysterious contributor's "privacy rights" outweigh Clair's right to investigate a potential huge crack in the case while he awaits execution.
Gullett is in a similar predicament. In 2011, his appellate attorneys asked Rackauckas to use modern DNA technology to test evidence collected from the Seigman murder. Such a move is necessary because the conviction rests entirely on a discredited snitch, argued Gassia Apkarian, who has since become a judge.
The request was DOA. Why would Rackauckas reopen his own eyebrow-rising victory? On his behalf, OCDA staffers successfully argued that even if Gullett's DNA is missing from the evidence, it wouldn't have changed the trial outcome because he'd confessed to the informants. He'll remain serving a term of life without parole. Ewing died in prison seven years ago.
For more OC Snitch Scandal stories, click HERE.
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