Who Wants to Free a Southern California Serial Killer? Orange County DA Tony Rackauckas

Oscar Moriel sees freedom in his future
Oscar Moriel sees freedom in his future
Andrew Hunt

The second most surprising fact about Oscar Moriel is his charisma, a trait you might not normally attribute to a scary psychopath. Supplemented by quick-study skills, an ability to manage high-pressure, competitive environments and innate cutthroat instincts, Moriel could have easily earned six-figure annual incomes as a professional salesman at, say, a swank Newport Beach Mercedes-Benz dealership. Instead, the Orange County native, who grew up not far from South Coast Plaza, chose to become the most dangerous predator in society: a serial killer.

Civilized folks abhor non-self-defense violence, but ending lives energized Moriel, who has gone by the nickname "Scar" since his teens. Anxious to never miss opportunities to inflict pain, the high-ranking member of the Delhi gang usually carried a knife and a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson. During 2014 testimony, he boasted about his incorrigible nature. "We committed a lot of robberies," Moriel said. "A lot of assaults. All kinds of stuff, man. Breaking and entering. Stolen cars."

At a Costa Mesa bar in 2004, "some black guys" allegedly disrespected him and paid the consequences. "I slashed their faces open," a satisfied, 5-foot-8 Moriel recalled. "You know, this is what we do."

He and fellow gangster Isaac Palacios decided to celebrate New Year's Eve that year with a homicidal rampage, according to court records. "We went out hunting, and I was driving," he said. "There was a house with a few people standing in front of it. . . . [Palacios got out of the vehicle holding a shotgun and demanded to know if the people had any gang affiliations by asking,] 'Where you from?' And they took off running. He started laughing and said, 'Why are you running?' [And he] just started shooting; [he] hit a few people, and we just took off."

One month later, in Long Beach, Moriel, who can be articulate and poised when it suits his aims, used a knife in a wild attempted carjacking of a fellow motorist he believed flirted with his female passenger. An unarmed boy riding a bicycle in Santa Ana later in 2005 became a successful handgun target because Moriel assumed he might be a member of a rival neighborhood gang, Eastside.

At other times, Scar's conduct verged on risky insanity: entering known Alley Boys' territory and "shooting up" the streets about a two-minute car ride from the Santa Ana Police Department (SAPD) and the Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD). "[We'd walk] up and down their streets with AKs, SKS, AR-15s, shotguns, .22-caliber rifles, you know, .40-caliber Smith & Wessons, .40-caliber Glocks [and] Berettas," he continued. "Just going out, taking control of their neighborhood. Walking up and down. Whoever we saw, we hit up. We robbed them. . . . We had done quite a few shootings."

Moriel viewed his crime spree, which included dealing narcotics and collecting street taxes for the Mexican Mafia, as a stable period in his life, stating, "I was actually doing good at that time."

Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, who was at the time questioning Moriel as an after-the-fact witness in People v. Scott Dekraai, couldn't contain his bewilderment. Asked Sanders, "[Committing those crimes] is your definition of good?"

"Yes," said the killer. "I was working."

"[So] at least you had a job when you were shooting people?"

"I had some form of foundation, yes."

Moriel admits that by the age of 23, he'd personally murdered at least six individuals, but when pressed, he acknowledges the true tally is likely much higher. He can't remember the number of times he's pulled the trigger trying to kill, describing it as "a lot." After his attacks, he didn't stay around to calculate the bloody carnage. Sometimes, he'd check the next day's Orange County Register and discover he'd been lethal; other times, he couldn't find news coverage and quickly lost interest, happy that even if the community at large didn't know of his feats, the criminal underworld learned by word of mouth that he was a bona-fide assassin.

Citizens expect a serial killer, once captured, will never again roam the streets. That's the probable outcome in most jurisdictions throughout the nation. But in a place with a rotting criminal justice system like Orange County, warped prosecutorial motivations can produce unexpected results.

This is where the most startling fact about Moriel emerges. He's won powerful government allies. Police and prosecutors—all self-described gung-ho, law-and-order advocates—have made sure juries never render verdicts against Moriel for the lives he took or attempted to take. In fact, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas has been working for years behind-the-scenes to set him free.

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What messy sweetheart deal will Rackauckas give the serial killer?
What messy sweetheart deal will Rackauckas give the serial killer?
Joshua Sudock/OC Register Pool Photo

 

Secret alliances between crooks and law-enforcement officials are nothing new. Every day in each state, individuals who've run afoul of the law are helping cops build cases against co-conspirators in exchange for some form of leniency: cash, jailhouse perks (fast-food delivery, free cigarettes and soft drinks, extra phone time, off-site trips, electronic games, etc.) or reduced (or even waived) punishment. In Anaheim in 2012, police gave a birthday cake to a Mexican Mafia informant, part of a taxpayer-funded duo placed in Southern California jail cells to trick newly arrested suspects into making self-incriminating statements.

Snitches can render assistance by surrendering evidence, offering damning accounts or wearing a surreptitious body wire like one of the nation's most infamous organized-crime informants, Gambino hit man Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano. In other situations, the police convert inmates into confidential informants, who serve as a listening post or, in particular circumstances, proactively dig for confessions. There's nothing inherently immoral or unethical about these types of arrangements, especially because snitches often help to nab a greater menace to society, as Gravano did in bringing down New York mafia boss John Gotti.

It's not shocking that government agents used Moriel as an informant. Employing him was undeniably genius, at least in concept. Because of his notoriousness, he had the perfect cover to dupe police targets into talking candidly so he could report back to detectives.

For future historians studying what has become known as the Orange County jailhouse-snitch scandal, law enforcement's deal with Moriel is a detailed roadmap to systemic corruption. More specifically, his story demonstrates not just that the authorities concocted numerous unethical schemes to win cases when they believed their conduct would be permanently protected by a wall of official secrecy. But it also underscores that these devious public employees will forgo solving multiple murders—even when they know the identity of the killer—to help cover up their misdeeds.

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SAPD detectives believe the Delhi gang began in the early 1960s, claiming turf northwest of the 55 freeway, which splits central Orange County. As a subsidiary of the Mexican Mafia, the outfit deals drugs and commits burglaries, assaults, robberies, vandalism, street terrorism and homicides. To publicly symbolize Delhi, members wear sports paraphernalia that features a "D," such as Detroit Tigers or Duke University baseball caps and jerseys.

A football and basketball enthusiast, Moriel attended Tustin and then Century high schools, but he dropped out in 1996 without graduating from the 11th grade so he could become a gangster at 16. He managed to stay off police radar for three years. On April Fool's Day 1999, gang cops created their first entry on his Delhi ties. He denied any affiliation, claiming he only "kicks back" with the gang to party because he grew up in their territory, according to law-enforcement records. An unconvinced cop noted "Orange" was tattooed across his stomach.

Police made their second report about Moriel's gang ties in October 2000 when he was arrested for attempted auto theft and possession of a firearm. His record demonstrated escalating criminal conduct. Six months later, while on probation, he threatened a key witness in a murder investigation and found himself under arrest again.

By the time detectives questioned him in December 2005 at the Twin Towers detention center in downtown Los Angeles for the aforementioned Long Beach attempted carjacking, Moriel had "DELHI" tattooed in 6-inch letters across his upper back. On the back of his calves was "D13," representing Delhi and the 13th letter of the alphabet, M, which stands for allegiance to the Mexican Mafia, La Eme. The tattoo on his right elbow signifies that he's been an organized-crime soldier. The black ink across his chest in 7-inch lettering symbolizes more frightening implications: "LOS ACES." That name honors Delhi's most crazed members.

"[To wear that tattoo], you have to kill somebody," Moriel told Sanders during the Dekraai hearing in 2014. "You have to pull the trigger quite a few times. You have to shed blood."

Verification of the achievement meant bringing witnesses to the murder or making the bloodshed so brutal it was guaranteed to appear in media reports that would be clipped and given to gang bosses as proof. In Los Aces, he earned rank to give orders and served as a mentor to Delhi juniors. His objective? Teach them to kill. "We were definitely promoting it," he explained to Sanders. "Definitely."

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Scott Sanders, a relentless OC public defender, exposed prosecutor and snitch lies
Scott Sanders, a relentless OC public defender, exposed prosecutor and snitch lies
Josue Rivas

In the aftermath of Moriel causing havoc in the gang world in 2005, the first stage of a vicious battle for Mexican Mafia control over Orange County began with Armando Moreno becoming a "made" member. About four years later, Moreno, who was in his thirties, challenged longtime boss Peter Ojeda, who was twice his age, for leadership of the lucrative regional drug trade. The war presented the FBI with an opportunity to secretly play each side at ground zero in the battle: the Orange County Jail (OCJ), where Moreno and Ojeda (a.k.a. "The Big Homie") loyalists plotted to kill one another.

 

To build cases against both gang factions, FBI special agents hired jailhouse informants, including Fernando Perez (who has been repeatedly featured on these pages) and Moriel. The gangsters, working separately, provided federal agents valuable intelligence by identifying gang hierarchy, sharing "hard candy" lists of persons to be beaten or killed and providing information about past and planned crimes. They also deciphered complex gang communications for baffled investigators.

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"I was told to write down everything that comes [my] way and that's what I did," Moriel told Ojeda's federal jury about his snitch work in December 2015 testimony.

He proved creative in finding ways to question government targets in custody with him, explaining, "You empty out the water in the toilet and you can speak [to the person in the next cell] through the toilet."

Inside Orange County's Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse, there's no question Perez and Moriel risked their lives to help the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) bring down Moreno, who is awaiting sentencing, and 74-year-old Ojeda, who was ordered in May to spend 15 more years in prison on a racketeering conviction.

The life-risking gamble wasn't too complicated, despite both Perez and Moriel initially insisting they'd become rats out of a sudden moral conversion to forevermore do right. In reality, the motivation proved less noble for the two men who faced nearly guaranteed life-in-prison sentences by qualifying for California's severe Three Strikes penalties. Snitching not only resulted in cash payments and jail perks like $8,500 in free dental work for Moriel, but, most important, the possibility of regaining freedom, as well. Three months ago, Perez, a dangerous career criminal currently in the Federal Witness Protection Program, went from the probability of dying in prison to a nabbing a mere seven-year sentence.

Moriel—described as "a cold-blooded killer" in a 2007 OCSD report hidden from public consumption until this year—is hoping for a similar deal, only better.

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Before hunting for victims on Oct. 27, 2005, Moriel and several other Delhi gangsters stopped to eat chicken dinners at a KFC on Main Street in Santa Ana. When they resumed driving a gray Toyota Camry through nearby neighborhoods, they spotted a potential victim—Joel Elias, who had just left his girlfriend's house and was walking westbound on Hobart near Maple. The Camry came to a sudden stop in the middle of the street, causing a backup of vehicles. Moriel opened the right-rear passenger door, walked up to Elias and asked, "Where you from?"

It's not clear if the unarmed victim answered before Moriel raised a handgun and began firing.

The horror of the incident got captured in a police report. "The witness saw the eventual victim fall down on the sidewalk and kind of roll up in a ball, and the suspect basically stood right over the victim and continued shooting him."

Moriel ran back to the Camry and ordered the driver to speed away. Medics eventually took Elias to Western Medical Center's intensive-care unit for treatment of what detectives noted as multiple bullet wounds.

An eyewitness who'd known Moriel prior to the shooting positively identified him as the perpetrator, according to SAPD reports and testimony.

Reminiscing on the witness stand in 2014, Moriel didn't dispute that he tried to kill Elias. He did, however, object that the police allegedly botched their account of his handiwork. "The [SAPD] paperwork says [I repeatedly shot Elias in the] back," he said, worried that version lessened his manhood. "But it was in the chest."

After a 2006 preliminary hearing in which a judge agreed the Orange County district attorney's office (OCDA) possessed enough solid evidence to take Moriel to trial for the attempted murder, the agency quietly had a change of heart. Prosecutors decided he was more valuable to them without that felony conviction. Rackauckas still hasn't put the gangster in front of a jury, winning 30 delays for trial to date.

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A 2015 stage for Moriel: Orange County's Ronald Reagan Federal CourthouseEXPAND
A 2015 stage for Moriel: Orange County's Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse
Photo by R. Scott Moxley

The FBI's probe into the Mexican Mafia in OC was a relatively textbook operation using informants, wiretaps, surveillance, decoy tactics and property searches to build cases. A key 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Massiah v. United States, bans law-enforcement officials and their agents, such as informants, from questioning individuals about pending charges once a suspect has legal representation on the matter. The prohibition didn't concern the agency because none of their targets had yet been charged in the racketeering case. In other words, snitches could legally question other inmates about potential federal crimes, and that evidence could be introduced at trials.

 

In comparison to that success, the OCDA and OCSD side of what had been billed for the media as a joint federal and state probe of La Eme has been a catastrophe, with Moriel at the center. Officials inside the local agencies repeatedly employed the snitch (Perez as well) to question pretrial inmates who'd been charged with a state crime and who had lawyers. First-year law students and rookie cops know such conduct tramples Massiah's constitutional protections established by this nation's Founding Fathers.

But believing nobody would ever learn of their secret maneuvering, prosecution teams hoped to use Moriel as a key government witness in multiple cases by exploiting a listening-post exemption in Massiah. They claimed the snitch either acted without their assistance or never asked targets questions. Instead, so the story goes, he merely listened intensely without prodding. Hundreds of pages of previously hidden government records prove that history—one stubbornly maintained by Rackauckas—is a blatant lie.

As the Weekly reported in June 2014, one piece of that evidence—a Feb. 17, 2009, SAPD recording never intended for public release—shows Moriel telling officers he'll create pro-prosecution memories in front of juries for a price. "I might be able to help you out if my memory can fall back in place," he said. "It might not be able to fall back in place because [the crimes occurred] so long ago. People forget. If I can grab spots of my memory and make it seem like yesterday, then . . . I think a little bit more than consideration [in my own case], I'm looking for. Uh, options would be nice. Right now, I'm in a place with no options. I'm looking at a third strike. I'm looking at life in prison. So, the more options I have to work with and to chose from, the better position I'll be [in] to think more clearly."

Detective Charles Flynn responded, "You'll get maximum consideration for everything you do. You do a lot, and we do a lot. You do a little, and you get a little. . . . Understand?"

Moriel, who made clear he wanted to clear custody as soon as possible, answered, "Yeah, I understand."

After suggesting the murderer should join the U.S. Army so he could legally kill people and "get away with it," Flynn promised "no one" will ever learn of their pact.

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Theo Lacy Jail in Orange
Theo Lacy Jail in Orange

Entering into disastrous arrangements with snitches isn't new in Orange County. For example, to convict William Charles Payton in 1982 for a Garden Grove rape/murder, then-district attorney Cecil Hicks okayed the hiring of Daniel Escelara, a Mexican Mafia associate in custody on robbery charges, as an informant. Escelara obtained incriminating statements in violation of Massiah, a fact hidden for years after the defendant landed on San Quentin State Prison's death row.

The cheating didn't end there. Payton prosecutor Michael Jacobs, whose ethics have come under fire in recent years for hiding evidence, artificially bolstered Escelara's credibility. Jurors, who'd accepted the informant's testimony as truthful, never learned the full story: While working for law enforcement, he'd committed a second robbery and ordered a murder, according to court records.

Aiding OCDA's courthouse win against Payton translated into a reward. Escelara received probation as punishment instead of going to prison even for one day in his own case. But dire consequences resulted. Once freed, the thug robbed a third store, killing an innocent victim in the process.

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It's not just luxury-car salesman capabilities that Moriel possesses. He could have also been a superb investigative researcher. Once employed as a snitch, he didn't disappoint, collecting critical information on a series of crimes. He recorded his findings in handwritten notes. Those notes helped to solve a series of Orange County murders.

But law enforcement faced an ugly problem. Moriel, the serial killer, was too good at note taking. His extensive records contain ample damning evidence of OCSD conspiracies to violate Massiah and to create plausible but fraudulent cover stories if defense attorneys or reporters became suspicious.

 

In hopes of overcoming this hurdle, sheriff's deputies and prosecutors such as Erik Petersen surrendered small portions of the notes, portions that supported the government's cases against defendants but omitted sections that outline the legal abuses.

Sanders, the public defender, figured out the scheme in 2013 after comparing discovery in multiple cases; he realized prosecution teams were shortchanging defense lawyers with incomplete sets of records. But getting all the notes was a monumental task. OCDA homicide-unit boss Dan Wagner objected strenuously before Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals ordered their release.

"My heart raced for a week," Sanders recalled. "Moriel's notes are so good. They give us an ability to decode what [the government] was doing. We finally had a window into everything that happened. Interestingly, deputies claimed on the stand that they had no explanation for [how the snitch was used unethically]; they babbled. But their own guy, Moriel, destroyed them with his truthfulness in the notes."

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More than three dozen renowned legal scholars throughout the nation have been demanding a DOJ investigation into OC's 29-month-old snitch scandal, but Rackauckas continues to proclaim the county as California's legal-reform capital. The five-term, 73-year-old DA supports a November ballot initiative that strengthens the power of prosecutors in death-penalty cases by significantly reducing the amount of time to five years for appellate lawyers to study law enforcement's moves. A cynic might say his stance is an effort to end future embarrassing leaks such as the ones that have emerged in recent years to undermine the righteousness of at least three OCDA capital convictions from the 1980s. Last year, a federal court announced it had lost confidence in the office's 1987 death-penalty conviction against Kenneth Clair; attorneys are now battling over what to do in the case.

While the messes mount, Rackauckas maintains he operates with only two goals: justice and protection of the rights of crime victims and their families. At an April victims' rights rally, the DA bemoaned the state's "dangerous trend of letting convicted criminals out of prison early" and noted "it's simply cruel" to rob families of murder victims of "closure" that he says the death penalty brings.

"We dedicate our public life and service to all those harmed by crime, to bring justice, to fight your fight, and to defend your rights," said Rackauckas, who has threatened to seek a sixth term in 2018 while critics call for his resignation. "Thank you for coming to this rally, which reminds us each year of all that we must do and strengthens our resolve to not give up. By speaking up for victims, you empower all victims to have a voice."

But what about the rights of Moriel's murder victims and their families, who are likely poor and Latino? Why don't they matter to Rackauckas, Wagner and the rest of his top assistants? Why haven't those families been given closure? Why do Daniel Wozniak and Scott Dekraai, two OC men who committed horrific murders on just one day of their lives, deserve the death penalty—but an assassin who kills for years doesn't even face trial?

The DA's office was pondering a response at press time.

At this point in the scandal, one answer is obvious. Having cheated with an unethical informant program, and then lied about cheating, government officials felt they needed to protect Moriel—and protecting their snitch meant disgraceful dereliction of duty: purposely not solving his murders.

Don't worry, the serial killer has said in court. He's a changed man. He now knows taking lives was wrong. With the audacity of Ted Bundy, he asserts he "struggles a lot" with his murders: "It eats at my conscience."

Though not a single law-enforcement official has shown any interest in solving his killings and he's in their protective custody at Theo Lacy Jail, Moriel insists he will bring closure to his victims' families after the DA rewards his snitch work with a sweetheart deal, which could theoretically take place this month.

"My hopes are, yes, I hope to get out soon," he said in court in 2014. "Who is to decide that scale of justice?"

Lucky for him, it's Rackauckas, who now has delayed officially resolving Moriel's lone attempted-murder case for nearly 11 years.


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