Inside a surreal Orange County courtroom today, 37-year-old serial killer Oscar Moriel turned to prosecutor James Laird, smiled and quietly mouthed, "Thank you." Laird replied with a reciprocal, warm happy face to the man who admits he murdered at least six people (he's not sure; it could be "a lot more," he testified in 2014) and tried to kill a seventh. District Attorney Tony Rackauckas' high-ranking staffer undoubtedly earned Moriel's appreciation. Instead of spending the rest of his life locked in a prison cell, the remorseless killer incredibly will be walking the streets again in less than four years.
That's the sweetheart deal Laird formally made this morning as reward for Moriel betraying his Delhi criminal street gang as well as the Mexican Mafia, and turning into a paid confidential jailhouse informant who aided federal and state law-enforcement officials in winning convictions against mob bosses.
An FBI agent and two assistant United States attorneys, Robert Keenan and Joseph McNally, appeared in Judge Patrick Donahue's Santa Ana court to support the arrangement.
Though "Mr. Moriel has committed very serious crimes," McNally said, his snitch work was vital to the government's ability to understand the gang's notoriously secretive operations, rules and hierarchy.
Laird called him "instrumental" for playing his life-risking role.
Such praise means Moriel, who uses the moniker "Scar" and was known to walk down residential streets shooting an AK-47 at unarmed targets, will never face punishment for his murders, but after Laird weakened the charges stemming from the 2005 attempted-murder case and the killer acknowledged his guilt, Donahue formally sentenced him to 17 years in state prison.
After deducting 4,832 day credits for time already spent in Orange County's Theo Lacy Jail, Moriel will likely emerge in 2020 from state prison custody as a free man hidden in the federal witness protection program.
What could go wrong?
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Rackauckas' office, which hails itself as a "law and order" operation and amazingly held a self-congratulatory post-sentencing press conference with DA media flack and wannabe future DA Susan Kang Schroeder, should know.
It rewarded Daniel Escelara, another Mexican Mafia-tied killer turned government snitch in the 1980s. Despite his own violent crimes, Escelara didn't spend even one day in prison. He was put back into the community, where his mayhem resumed with a robbery and a murder.
Perhaps the Escelara disaster is one reason Rackauckas stalled the Moriel sweetheart deal more than 70 times and then announced the pact on the Friday launching a Christmas weekend.