Wearing dark pants, a black-and-white woven blazer, a haughty smirk, and a sculptured hairdo worthy of a Cosmopolitan shampoo ad, Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens drew all eyes in a packed courtroom on July 5. The ethics-befuddled Hutchens walked in front of a jury box occupied by Los Angeles-based TV station cameras and newspaper photographers for a special hearing at 9:44 a.m., stopped, swiveled slightly clockwise and raised her right hand for a superior court clerk with a lone question. "I do," the sheriff disingenuously replied, as Thomas M. Goethals—a judge she has publicly ridiculed as both rash and irrelevant in the ongoing messy jailhouse informant scandal—watched from his perch.
After spending years badmouthing Goethals, the California Court of Appeal, Scott Sanders—the attorney who exposed her department's illegal schemes to rob defendants of fair trials, and journalists who've dared explain the corruption to the public, this was Hutchens' moment in the spotlight to deliver a fact-based annihilation of her critics.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the sheriff's attempt at self-absolution.
Despite trying to maintain a smug attitude, she crumbled on the witness stand, conceding under questioning that her aggressive public statements denying the scandal have been based on little more than conjecture. According to her own testimony, Hutchens—an energetic critic of others she claims jump to conclusions before studying the evidence—hasn't bothered in four years to read a single transcript of testimony, a court brief, any of the judge's rulings or even one of the numerous critical documents generated by her staffers that destroy her false narrative.
Moreover, in one of the most stunning displays of wildly erratic bureaucratic arrogance in Southern California history, this sheriff bragged on the witness stand she possesses a government-generated memo that allegedly defends her PR spin as legitimate, but refused to release it for inspection, claiming through her taxpayer-funded lawyer, D. Kevin Dunn, that the document inexplicably must remain secret because, get this, "attorney-client privilege."
Don't let Hutchens' hollow sideshows fool you. The elements of this very real scandal are simple. The U.S. Constitution bans government officials and their agents, like informants, from circumventing a citizen's right against self-incrimination by questioning pretrial defendants who've been formally charged with a crime by a judge and have retained an attorney. Under Hutchens' watch, her jailhouse deputies secretly employed snitches, including a serial killer, to lure alleged confessions out of government targets and then, tricking judges and juries, pretended the statements were obtained without law enforcement aid. Read my prior news articles for details about numerous known murder and attempted murder cases where this scam helped District Attorney Tony Rackauckas' prosecutors win tainted convictions against unwitting defendants.
In hopes of covering up their misdeeds, Hutchens and her Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD) underlings made terrible errors underestimating Sanders' tenacity and Goethals' ethical backbone. Knowing the judge was on the verge in early 2013 of overruling Assistant District Attorney Dan Wagner's objection to support the defense attorney's subpoena for OCSD informant records in People v. Scott Dekraai, Raymond Wert and Marty Ramirez, two of the sheriff's sergeants then overseeing the jail's Special Handling Unit managing informants, made a suspicious move. According to department records, they quietly ended a secret jail log detailing snitch activities and renamed it a gobbledygook bureaucratic term ("important information sharing only" log) in an effort to create a plausible deniability story justifying the failure to turnover the requested evidence in case they were ever caught.
Though Special Handling Unit deputies Seth Tunstall, Ben Garcia and Bill Grover created multiple year-entries detailing their work with jail informants, including plots to place them near government targets to lure confessions, the veteran officers committed perjury during Goethals' 2014 and 2015 special hearings into the controversy. They insisted under oath during hours of grilling that they didn't employ snitches and therefore the OCSD had no records of snitch activities to surrender. The scandal accelerated in late 2014 when hidden TRED records emerged and again in 2016 when the equally-hidden log surfaced, developments that did not amuse Goethals, who felt he'd been played by cops supposedly committed to justice. In a formal ruling, he stated the officers "intentionally lied or willfully withheld material evidence from this court."
Neither the disclosures nor the eye-opening ruling drove Hutchens and members of her command staff from abandoning their spin that the scandal was an imaginary invention designed to unfairly wreck their reputations. During a late 2015 KABC-TV interview, she called Goethals' perjury findings nothing but "a couple of comments made by a judge." Their villain list included journalists who'd converted a non-existent story into "sensationalism" because, the sheriff asserted, reports about jailhouse snitches are "sexy."
Knowing of the explosive jail log as well as the fact that outsiders were then clueless about its existence, a sly Hutchens appeared on Rick Reiff's Inside OC TV show in April 2016 to label Sanders' documentation of OCSD's warped jailhouse information operation "laughable." A fawning Reiff, who called the sheriff's stance "very persuasive," asked if Sanders fabricated his claim that deputies moved informants next to government targets to lure confessions. "Yeah, and we don't, you know, we don't do that," she replied, dismissing, for example, the reality that two years earlier prosecutors conceded such a law enforcement scam occurred in Dekraai.
Hutchens got others to participate in her misinformation games too. Her supervisors signed misleading sworn affidavits in court. Her flacks issued press statements declaring the department had no jailhouse informant program and, so, couldn't have conducted illegal operations with snitches. At a February 2016 community forum, she teamed up with an equally deceitful Rackauckas to brand claims of an informant program merely "conspiracy theories."
Never mind the fact that she defied the judge's lawfully-issued court orders to surrender informant evidence from TREDs or the log for years.
Never mind the fact that hundreds of OCSD employees knew of the existence of the TRED records while the agency pretended under oath in Dekraai, a death penalty case, that the evidence didn't exist.
Never mind the fact that the sheriff claims it was "difficult" to discover over the years the existence of the Special Handling Unit log even though it was labeled "Special Handling Unit Log" on a shared department computer server used by supervisors in the paramilitary organization.
Never mind that as of late May—more than 225 weeks after Goethals' Jan. 25, 2013 discovery order—one of the sheriff's lieutenants, Andrew Stephens, was forced to admit that 6,800 jail files with potential informant evidence still hadn't been searched.
Never mind that OCSD Lieutenant Catherine Irons, who has retired, admitted that the department's management purposely hid TRED records from courts.
Never mind that current Assistant Sheriff Adam Powell, the person the sheriff named as her point person in the scandal, told Goethals that he could not find any serious flaws in Sanders' findings and, in fact, had used them to craft better agency snitch policies.
Never mind that the California Court of Appeal, home to some of the most conservative justices in the state, ruled that the illegal OCSD jailhouse snitch scandal is "well beyond simply distasteful or improper" but is "real" and "grave."
Going into the July 5 hearing, Hutchens' advisers, including the California Attorney General's office, informed her that the judge, who has put the penalty phase in Dekraai on hold until he figures out what to do about OCSD misdeeds, might remove the death penalty as an option if she did not convince him of the following: The agency innocently screwed up, was working on implementing reforms to protect defendants' rights and now understood the importance of obeying court orders. She heeded the advice.
"I have heard repeatedly that everything has been turned over, and yet time after time, that has turned out not to be true," Goethals said. "You know that?
Turning to face the judge from the witness box, the sheriff said in a conciliatory tone missing when she's talking about him behind his back to reporters, "I do know that . . . you've been frustrated at the pace of which we've been able to respond."
The judge continued, "Sheriff, is it your conclusion that over a course of years, rather than over a course of days or weeks or even months, sheriff's deputies operating inside the Orange County Jail system intentionally moved working confidential informants into close proximity with targeted defendants?"
"I would say yes," she responded, in direct contradiction to prior, non-sworn claims.
"And do you believe the goal in arranging such movements was to elicit incriminating statements from targeted defendants?"
"And we're not talking once or twice over the course of days or weeks—this happened for a long time, years, didn't it?"
"Yes," another answer devastating to all her prior pronouncements otherwise.
Lastly, she placed an sincere expression on her face to assure Goethals that OCSD management is committed to complying with discovery orders, isn't running illegal scams and will "continue to improve."
The judge, a former homicide prosecutor, isn't gullible; he's cautious. He is pondering his only two remaining options in Dekraai: Let the government's cheating go unpunished and proceed to the penalty phase with all options on the table. Or, take a stand, saying police corruption won't be tolerated, and give the defendant eight consecutive life-in-prison terms without the possibility of parole.
One thing is certain: Hutchens, who announced her 2018 retirement after the judge ordered her testimony, doesn't care about obtaining justice in the case, and Goethals, if he's being honest with himself, has the proof sitting on his desk.
In the best Perry Mason moment of the day, Sanders allowed the sheriff to deliver her saccharine sales pitch to the judge and then placed on a large courtroom projection screen a bombshell document leaked to him from OCSD sources: an internal memo not intended for public consumption and written just weeks earlier by Hutchens in praise of the Orange County Grand Jury.
The grand jury's June report issued by foreperson Carrie Carmody, a former T.J. Maxx sales clerk, regurgitated all of Hutchens' talking point as if the gospel. Carmody even reused the sheriff's line to KABC years earlier, calling the informant scandal a "myth" created by Goethals, Sanders and journalists because she supposedly searched and found "no definitive evidence of a structured jailhouse informant program." She obnoxiously advised Goethals to drop his judicial inquiry into law enforcement corruption and return his attention solely to punishing the Dekraai.
"This is an important finding," the sheriff opined in a memo that obliterates her sweet talk to Goethals. "We have never had a systemic program designed to circumvent constitutional rights as has been alleged in the courts and in the media . . . For well over a year a handful of local media outlets have relentlessly reported on court proceedings concerning the use of informants in our jail system. In my view, the media coverage has painted an inaccurate picture of OCSD."
Under Sanders' questioning, a sheepish, caught-off-guard Hutchens blamed memory loss concerning her thoughts in crafting the June memo.
This leaves us with a final question: Will the judge, who has repeatedly declared his commitment to discovering the truth and maintaining the integrity of due process rights, allow the sheriff's two-or-three-faced presentation to prevail?
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
His ruling is expected in August.
(Note: About 22 minutes after I posted this report on Sheriff Hutchens, a law enforcement helicopter (image below) raced down from the Los Angeles County line into Orange County, an area nearly 1,000 square miles in size, and looped at low altitude around my home. My exclusive reporting over the years has exposed both LA and OC sheriff's departments for corrupt jailhouse informant use to win questionable convictions. Later, when confronted, the crew claimed they innocently flew three miles directly to the airspace above me during a training exercise.)