OC Deputies’ Snitch Scam Playbook Revealed

OCSD’s fun playtime (OC Weekly art)

To a con artist with a badge, such as Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) deputy Ben Garcia, disinformation is the key to maintaining a respectable public appearance. A veteran officer in the Special Handling unit overseeing high-profile inmates, Garcia became an involuntary, vital witness in the 2014-15 hearings on law enforcements’ rogue informant program that secretly tilted untold dozens of cases in favor of the government. During double-digit hours on the witness stand, the deputy’s stance was as firm as it was disingenuous: There couldn’t have been any cheating because OCSD didn’t even operate an informant program.

“We don’t have informants inside [our jails],” Garcia testified under oath without cracking a grin on May 6, 2014.

The deputy likely believed jail-system intricacies would make enough of an indecipherable bureaucratic maze that no outsider could ever prove he’d lied repeatedly in People v. Scott Dekraai, a pending death-penalty case, no less. But he guessed wrong. Scott Sanders, Dekraai’s defense lawyer, probed for more than a year, pieced together long-hidden records, piqued Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals’ curiosity to call for testimony, and ultimately solved the mystery of why exculpatory evidence from the jails rarely, if ever, finds its way to defendants, as the law requires.

We now know brazen, systemic cheating has occurred for–and you can’t make this up–at least a quarter of a century. Wading in the deep end of this cesspool are Garcia and his unit partner, Seth Tunstall. On March 12, Goethals officially labeled the two deputies prolific liars. It would be one thing if they were jailers handling meaningless chores. But that’s not the situation: Garcia and Tunstall are steeped in major felony cases for Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, as well as for a U.S. Department of Justice/FBI task force.

An average citizen caught committing perjury would face consequences, but the deputies have a powerful sugar daddy and sugar momma: Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens. One keeps the liars on duty earning ample six-figure incomes, and the other, the only person with the power to file charges, remains idle. Rackauckas, who has no interest in discrediting his own cases, says everything is hunky-dory.

The absurdity of the situation can’t be overstated. Despite the perjury by Garcia and Tunstall, OCSD has been operating a highly active jailhouse-informant operation for prosecutors. There are so many in-custody snitches they are literally bouncing off one another in search of material they can use to win perks: dropped cases, reduced punishment, cherished fast-food meals, better housing, electronic-game sessions, longer dayroom privileges, taxpayer cash and clandestine trips outside their barbed-wire surroundings.

When in compliance with well-established laws, informant programs are a legitimate police tool. But our sheriffs, prosecutors and judges have permitted ever-increasing, unnecessary secrecy inside the jails. This allows warped deputies to operate as if the OC Jail were their personal dollhouse, with pretrial defendants as toys in their childish, illegal–even sadistic–games.

Imagine the hoot officers must have had on the night of Aug. 22, 2010. That’s when intake-center deputies–using their secretive classification system supposedly designed for inmate safety–arranged a lopsided gladiator-style contest without fear of accountability. They placed Brian Lee James, a mentally unstable, white-supremacist thug facing California’s Three Strikes Law, in a small cell with the type of person his gang, Public Enemy Number One Death Squad (PEN1), craves for attack: a man arrested for child molestation. Though the charge turned out to be false, guess which person nearly died from shoelace strangulation while deputies chatted nearby?

A landmark 1964 U.S. Supreme Court case, Massiah v. United States, prohibits the government from plotting ways to entice self-incriminating statements from charged defendants who are awaiting trial and have legal representation. It’s not advanced calculus; first-year law-school students and rookie cops can grasp the concept.

But Goethals’ special hearings proved that Garcia, Tunstall and the Special Handling unit routinely implemented scams to circumvent Massiah‘s constitutional protections. They manipulated informants’ housing locations to enhance chances they could elicit confessions from targeted inmates. They encouraged informants to ask questions on the government’s behalf. They altered informants’ color-coded wristbands from blue (considered likely snitches among the inmate population) to a less-alarming orange as a way to lure targets into talking.

They hid records of the plots, as well as the rewards they distributed, so that if informants testified, the deputies could falsely claim they’d aided the prosecution out of noble motivations, a move designed to prevent defense lawyers from claiming testimony had been purchased.

Consider this non-exhaustive list of Massiah transgressions OCSD employs:

• The dis-iso scam. In July 2009, officials masked Oscar Moriel’s informant role by funding his $1,500 payment to the Mexican Mafia; created fake, hostile paperwork; and moved him into a disciplinary/isolation cell next to the target, Leonel Vega, who was eventually fooled into talking about his pending murder case.

• The relocate-the-homies scam. Working in league with Special Handling deputies, informant Brian Ruorock penned a December 2011 note asking OCSD to “bounce” two inmates from the cell housing Oscar Najera, the government’s target. Najera’s cellmates had been warning him not to answer Ruorock’s questions about his charges. “I’m making positive progress with him and feel [getting a confession] will be wrapped up before I go, but this is slowing it down–he’s already talking to me,” the snitch advised deputies.

• The carrot/stick scam. In March 2011, Special Handling unit deputy Jonathan Larson made a secret entry into an agency database called TRED, a records system hidden from judges, juries and defense lawyers since 1990. The note regarded informant Alexander Frosio and stated that either Frosio “produce information” for the government or risk being forced to wear the inmate-reviled blue wristband that invites assaults.

• The confess-or-die scam. In October 2010, Mexican Mafia-tied hoodlum Jeremy Bowles and his white-supremacist pal Lance Eric Wulff, then posing as the boss of the OC Skins gang, used their lethal reputations to work on government-targeted inmate Derek Adams. Deputies moved Adams to a cell near Wulff and Bowles, both vociferously anti-snitch in public declarations but actually secret OCSD informants. Wulff later told officials how he secured the confession: “I told [Adams] that, I said, ‘Look, the deal is you explain yourself now, and you won’t have to worry about [attack] in the future,'” he recalled. “Then he explained everything [about his case].”

• The throw-caution-to-the-wind scam. In 2009, Fernando Perez, a notorious criminal tied to the Mexican Mafia and facing life in prison told Garcia he would do “whatever” it took to win benefits. In subsequent years, Special Handling deputies placed several government targets including Isaac Palacios and Fabian Sanchez next to Perez’s cell, moves the deputy called coincidences. Perez claimed to secure confessions from both defendants and, on May 3, 2011, sent a note to Garcia: “I believe I accomplished my mission.” The deputy testified in 2014 he had no idea what Perez meant.

In at least 36 cases, the answers to basic questions are identical. Did the OCSD violate Massiah? Check. Did it hide evidence? Check. Would hidden evidence have helped the defense? Check. Law-enforcement managers won’t clean up the mess? Well, Mr. Rackauckas . . . what’s the answer?

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