Brazen lies and half-truths aren't supposed to be told during exchanges between a prosecutor and a cop sitting on the witness stand during Orange County criminal proceedings, especially ones involving government officials' determination to win a death penalty case.
But on May 13, Howard Gundy, a senior deputy district attorney, and Ronald Castillo, a longtime Santa Ana Police Department (SAPD) gang detective, worked in tandem to perpetuate, at best, misinformation—at worse, a life-changing lie—in court.
Five years before his 2010 retirement, Castillo served as a gang expert for the Orange County district attorney's office (OCDA), which filed a complaint against Henry Cabrera, then an 18-year-old suspected of attempted murder in a Jack in the Box parking lot not far from South Coast Plaza on July 31, 2005. Law-enforcement officials weren't sure of Cabrera's gang affiliation, so in the original felony complaint, they simultaneously placed him in rival outfits: "Delhi/Highland/F-Troop."
Castillo knew SAPD documents showed that in 2002, at the age of 15, Cabrera was suspected of spray painting "Highland" on a school door, though he denied gang membership. The following year, a cop wrote a note, claiming the defendant voluntarily admitted ties to Highland. But a more revealing incident overshadowed that entry and earlier speculation.
At 3 a.m. on Dec. 14, 2003, SAPD officers found a large group of individuals they labeled "Delhi gang associates and members" spray painting over graffiti on a Santa Ana liquor store. The suspects, Cabrera among them, had also tagged "D-13," a Delhi reference, on city trees at Memorial Park minutes before the liquor-store incident. In the underworld, falsely claiming gang membership can result in death.
Gang cops couldn't confuse Delhi and Highland, groups with lethal, rival histories; dozens of bullet-riddled Delhi and Highland corpses found since the 1980s underscore the point. Placing a cholo in the wrong outfit in this scenario would take either profound laziness or warped resourcefulness.
Two years after his SAPD colleagues caught Cabrera committing the two acts for Delhi and without new, intervening evidence that contradicted the obvious conclusion, Castillo nonetheless opined at a Nov. 28, 2005, preliminary hearing in the attempted-murder case that the defendant belonged to Highland. A defense lawyer asked if Cabrera's work for Delhi during the liquor store and Memorial Park incidents had meaning. The cop replied, "No."
Identifying Cabrera as a Highland gangster had legal ramifications. If the cop said the defendant—who lived in Delhi territory with his older brother, Moises Cabrera, a well-known Delhi member—belonged to Delhi, then prosecutor Mark Geller's gang enhancement charge wouldn't make sense. Steven Lopez, the other defendant stemming from the Jack In the Box incident and the person authorities believed fired on Cabrera, was a member of United Assassins Krew (UAK), a feeder organization to and ally of Delhi. Lopez and Cabrera wouldn't shoot at each other to benefit their own gang.
But the enhancement looked legitimate by naming Cabrera a member of UAK/Delhi rival Highland. As if his case were airtight, Geller pounced in his closing argument, declaring there was no doubt "for goodness sake" that Cabrera belonged to Highland. "Truth is the truth," he assured the jury.
The ploy worked. Though it rejected Geller's attempted-murder charge, a jury found Castillo credible and convicted Cabrera of committing street terrorism on behalf of the Highland gang. In December 2006, Judge Richard Toohey imposed the gang enhancement and issued punishment: three years and eight months in a California prison.
Law-enforcement officials had won the battle, but altering the gang label to fit their 2006 wishes would ultimately result in nightmarishly embarrassing consequences for Geller and his gang-expert pals at SAPD.
On Nov. 27, 2007—just weeks after Cabrera emerged from prison—Delhi members Jonathan Dizon and Guillermo Brambila spent time at Cabrera's house and later were standing on Bradford Street in Delhi territory when a vehicle filled with rival Alley Boys approached. Dizon died of multiple wounds in the ensuing gun battle.
The next day, a grieving Cabrera—a.k.a. "Stomper"—and Brambila, as well as fellow Delhi gang members Augustin Abonce and Eddie Garcia drove a pickup truck to Anaheim to order T-shirts honoring Dizon's life. According to court records, the group got worked up over the killing, looked for a revenge target in Alley Boys and found 26-year-old Ruben Cabanas sitting in a blue Nissan on West Pomona Street. Bullets pummeled Cabanas' body, leaving him dead and the case, at least temporarily, unsolved.
Get ready to enter the Twilight Zone. Less than three weeks after the killings, SAPD arrested Cabrera for a Dec. 15, 2007, carjacking. That year, the SAPD gang unit received numerous informant statements identifying Cabrera as Delhi. A police search of Stomper's residence had also recovered Delhi gang paraphernalia.
Yet in July 2008, prosecutor Erik Petersen—who would be tossed off an unrelated case this year for ethical violations—employed Castillo as his gang expert. The supervising officer of the SAPD gang unit opined once again that Cabrera undoubtedly committed the carjacking to benefit the Highland Street gang, a declaration that resulted in strikes landing the defendant in prison for the rest of his life on a false charge.
The OCDA/SAPD trouble got worse. Both agencies had repeatedly won convictions against Cabrera for Highland activities. But the probe of the Cabanas murder added contradictory entries to law-enforcement records. Cabrera was identified as a Delhi by Brambila in 2007, Damien Galarza in 2008, and Juan Calderon—an informant handled by Geller—in 2009. Then, in 2010, Delhi informant Oscar Moriel not only told SAPD that Cabrera was a Delhi, but also gave detailed notes of Stomper's role in the Cabanas killing.
Seven years later, Cabrera has not been charged in the murder. Geller and law-enforcement officials were self-paralyzed. Records of the mess somehow went missing for years from judges, juries and defense lawyers, a move OCDA labels innocent mistakes and not evidence of a cover-up. Prosecutors had spent more than half a decade insisting that Cabrera served in Highland, yet multiple witnesses named him a participant in the Cabanas killing, and everybody knew Delhi was responsible for the crime.
Well, not everybody.
Assistant public defender Scott Sanders rattled the government's hypocrisy during recent, death-penalty-related hearings in People v. Scott Dekraai, the Seal Beach salon shooter. Authorities haven't managed to conjure up a reasonable public explanation about Cabrera escaping murder charges, other than any mistakes must be because they are overworked bureaucrats.
During a May 13 Dekraai hearing, prosecutor Gundy asked, "[Cabrera] may be driving a car that contains a bunch of Delhi gang members who may be shooting up somebody, [but] that doesn't make him a Delhi gang member, does it?"
"No," replied Castillo, ignoring SAPD-possessed photographs of Cabrera standing with Delhi members while consoling a paralyzed Delhi gangster in a hospital bed.
Sanders—unable to hide his astonishment—asked the retired cop if Cabrera, now 27 and living in Calipatria State Prison, ever had Delhi ties.
Defiant to the end, an annoyed Castillo—the so-called expert repeatedly used by appellate courts to uphold gang convictions in Southern California—replied, "In my opinion, no."
R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.