For Orange County’s scandal-scarred Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, a shameless defender of her department’s corruption, Feb. 8 was a welcomed milestone. President Donald Trump gave a nationally televised, Washington, D.C., police convention speech that, after reminiscing again over his election feat, praised Hutchens and Thomas Manger, a chief of police in Maryland. “I want to thank Sheriff Hutchens and Chief Tom Manger for your leadership and, frankly, the service,” said Trump.
In addition to her day job, Hutchens is president of the Major County Sheriffs’ Association. Manger plays the same role in the Major Cities Chiefs’ Association. The outfits lobby lawmakers for pro-police legislation and plot methods to boost public trust in cops.
“You have had great service,” the president added. “Everyone has told me about you two legendary people. All of us here today are united by one shared mission: to serve and protect the public of the United States.”
The remarks, farcical regarding Hutchens, were surely a relief for our sheriff during her East Coast trip. She has been desperate to forget the ethical messes she helped to create back in the Golden State. But her reprieve ended abruptly.
During a Feb. 10 hearing in Santa Ana, superior court Judge Thomas M. Goethals woke Hutchens from her two-day-old, Trump-induced euphoria with a stone-cold announcement. He declared intentions to hold special evidentiary hearings at which the sheriff and her deputies could be placed under oath to explain multiyear defiance of his court orders, the issuance of deceitful statements and the reasons for mysteriously missing Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) records tied to People v. Scott Dekraai, a pending death-penalty case. Noting the existence of “odd” and “disturbing” police acts, including Hutchens quietly obtaining the Board of Supervisors’ approval to destroy key records, he wondered aloud what other mischief remains hidden.
“Our free republic depends on a system of justice that is grounded in the rule of law,” Goethals said. “So-called judges like me are required by our constitutional oaths to foster and promote the rule of law. . . . Due process is important. It is fundamental, and if we give up on due process, I don’t want to speculate about where we end up.”
Dekraai stalled in early 2014 after revelations of law-enforcement shenanigans that have become known as the Orange County jailhouse-informant scandal. Along with four-term District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, Hutchens is a villain in the controversy. These elected officials control organizations with badge-wearing staffers who concocted or condoned secret, unconstitutional scams to win criminal convictions and hid evidence as well as committed perjury in hopes judges and juries would forever remain clueless.
Though Rackauckas, the sheriff and their taxpayer-funded public-relations offices espouse an alternative reality in which they produce nothing but blemish-free heroics, their assertions are, at best, laughable given the 36-month-old, bombshell-loaded scandal. More than a dozen murder and attempted-murder convictions so far have been overturned as a consequence. Goethals and colleague Richard King, as well as the California Court of Appeal, ridiculed the cheating in unambiguous terms. The U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation in mid-December after legal scholars, news organizations and respected ex-law-enforcement officials nationwide complained.
Hutchens—whose predecessor, Mike Carona, landed in federal prison for 66 months—can blame herself for the upcoming hearings. There’s no doubt what drove a reluctant Goethals into the move. The sheriff repeatedly made public statements denying the obvious: OCSD operates a jailhouse-informant program. Those denials are cynically strategic, allowing her to argue to the less informed that a nonexistent program can’t be tainted.
“It’s hard to imagine an intelligent, experienced law-enforcement officer making such categorical statements,” the judge observed before identifying evidence that proves not only OCSD-informant operations, but also its vigorous deployment in underhanded missions designed to trick government targets into making self-incriminating statements.
For example, Goethals reported that deputy Jonathan Larson “unequivocally” testified in 2015 that his official daily duties in the department’s special-handling unit included developing and managing jail informants. “[Larson] was asked, ‘And is there a tank in the jail in particular where you tend to put some of your informants from time to time to collect information—is that fair to say?’ Deputy Larson, under oath, says, ‘Yes.’ I found Deputy Larson to be a credible witness. I thought he was telling the truth.”
In the judge’s mind, that credibility doesn’t extend to the sheriff, who proclaimed after that testimony, “We don’t have our folks working informants.” She also authorized underlings to write affidavits claiming OCSD couldn’t comply with Goethels’ order to surrender informant-related records because none existed.
“Does she know what’s going on in her jail?” the judge asked. “Every time she criticizes this court’s prior rulings in [media] interviews, I scratch my head and ask myself rhetorically: Does she know what I have heard? Does she know what evidence has been presented to this court? . . . I would note I have read thousands of documents generated by the [sheriff’s department] about jail operations involving informants. . . . This evidence seems to speak for itself to any rational observer.”
The upcoming hearings will allow Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, the man who discovered the scandal, to dig further, but he might face a new hurdle. Following Dekraai sessions in 2014 and 2015, Goethals accused two deputies, Ben Garcia and Seth Tunstall, of committing perjury by denying OCSD manipulates snitches. Rackauckas and Hutchens ignored the findings. Nonetheless, deputies fearing potential future prosecution have hired lawyers and expressed desires to assert their 5th Amendment right to not testify about their on-duty conduct. There’s an irony that can’t be lost. The officers’ plots with snitches stole those same constitutional rights from countless individuals. “[The deputies] can appear in this courtroom, and they can invoke in public, if that’s what they intend to do,” the judge said. “That’s an interesting conundrum, I guess, for the sheriff.”
If stonewalled at the hearings, Goethals might punish the government’s massive discovery abuses with what he called “the nuclear sanction” or “termination of the case” without the imposition of the death penalty. Many of the relatives of the victims killed by Dekraai during his 2011 shooting rampage at a Seal Beach salon now back a punishment of life in prison without the possibility for parole. Their change of heart isn’t out of compassion for the defendant, who has never denied guilt. They are increasingly disgusted that the DA and the sheriff wrecked what they assumed was a slam-dunk death-penalty case.
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.