Honest judges across the nation would be alarmed by the corruption that tarnishes Orange County's criminal-justice system. Unlike fictional TV court dramas, the process isn't being subverted by stereotypically devious defense attorneys. Though District Attorney Tony Rackauckas insists policing moves that tainted dozens of cases were accidental errors, evidence continues to mount that cheating against defendants isn't rare.
The latest disaster is People v. Daniel Ray Jones, a wild, late-night June 2013 shootout 2 miles from Disneyland. The ongoing case demonstrates the results of scant or nonexistent, meaningful law-enforcement oversight: prosecutorial willingness to trample ethical boundaries; unholy alliances with Mexican Mafia thugs; and judicial indifference to government lies, record tampering and buried exculpatory evidence. It also showcases Rackauckas' refusal to enforce what citizens expect: a zero-tolerance misconduct policy for his deputies.
The Jones case stems from a power struggle between La Eme associates over collecting taxes for cocaine, heroin and marijuana sales. According to court records, one side included Rafael Bernal, a man the FBI says is a lieutenant to legendary crime boss Peter Ojeda, and his crew: Michael Anthony Gallardo and Jones and his brother Donald Lee Jones. Those same records identify their counterparts in the spat as Juan Gonzalez and his cousins Daniel and Jose Luis Quiroz.
Police reports detail allegations that Bernal asked Gallardo to kill Gonzalez; hoping to win a coup, Gonzalez wanted Gallardo to slay Bernal. To add pressure, Gonzalez told Gallardo he could be taken off a Mexican Mafia hit list if Gallardo complied and paid a $10,000 extortion fee, according to statements police collected. When tempers temporarily subsided, negotiations called for a summit at Gallardo's Anaheim residence.
Fear and mistrust wrecked the meeting before it began. Shortly after arriving, Gonzalez panicked; ran back to a parked Cadillac Escalade holding his cousins, who'd stayed in the vehicle; and began shooting at the house occupants, who returned fire, according to court records. Though forensic evidence concluded more than 40 bullets flew in the working-class neighborhood, nobody was wounded.
You might expect prosecutors to file attempted-murder counts against the Escalade's occupants, who, according to the most believable witness accounts, arrived with extortion intentions and started the firefight. But that's not what happened. The DA's office charged Bernal–who hadn't been present–as well as house occupants Gallardo and the Jones brothers, plus Daniel Quiroz. Oddly not charged was Daniel's brother Jose, who'd confessed to firing his weapon and had been overheard talking about performing a hit before the shooting, or Gonzalez, their jefe.
How to explain the strange charging decisions? The answer is problematic for law-enforcement officials, who want the public to believe they always arrive at crime scenes as neutral players. In this shootout, they'd been an invisible third party with informants on both sides: Gallardo in the house and Jose Quiroz in the Escalade, according to court records. Cops had enjoyed oversight of the gangsters while they sold drugs, committed extortion and threatened murder–and they wanted this ugly fact to remain a secret.
That plan may have succeeded if not for Adam Vining, the deputy public defender representing Daniel Jones. From the outset, Vining became suspicious because the few records prosecutor Erik S. Petersen surrendered supplied evidence his client was not guilty. Namely, cops had placed Jones in an Anaheim Police Department (APD) cell in a ruse to convince him cellmates were higher-ranking Mexican Mafia mobsters arrested in separate incidents. In fact, they were government-paid snitches Jose Paredes and Raymond Cuevas, both serial killers. (See "Meet OC N LA Law Enforcement's Favorite Rats," Sept. 10, 2014.)
The police scam is psychologically brilliant. Targets believe they must boast, even fabricate, violent acts to impress their hardcore gang superiors, and then prosecutors use those captured statements, even if dubious, to seal convictions. That scenario collapsed with Vining's client, who fell for the trap, but labeled himself a victim. In response to snitch questions, Jones described how the other side fired first and how the house occupants fired in self-defense.
Those statements didn't jibe with law enforcement's desired scenario, as told by Kelly Phillips, the lead APD detective in the shooting. During an October 2013 preliminary hearing, Phillips omitted Jones' statements to the snitches. The detective claimed a lack of familiarity with the informant evidence when cross-examined by Vining, who asked, "Do you remember hearing the informant asking [Jones] who shot first and him saying, 'They did, homie; they did'?"
Phillips replied, "I would have to listen to it again, but yes."
Subterfuge by government officials didn't end with misleading court presentations or evidence hiding. Petersen wasn't truthful when confronted by Sergio Lopez Jr., Bernal's lawyer, who figured out the identity of one snitch: Gallardo.
Petersen interjected, "Your honor, that's absolutely untrue."
Judge Nicholas S. Thompson, a former OC prosecutor, adopted the deputy DA's outrage. "Well, I could not agree with you more," Thompson declared before thanking Petersen for his professionalism.
But Petersen knew Lopez was right. Gallardo had contacted one of his handlers, police officer Justo Capacete, shortly after the shooting. That evidence was contained in an internal APD report. An officer wrote, "I was in phone communication with Santa Ana police investigator Justo, [who] told me Michael Gallardo was his informant and added he had received a message from Gallardo at approximately 0300."
The Orange County district attorney's office (OCDA) and Petersen–featured in our Oct. 14, 2015, article "Prosecutor Erik Petersen Magically Finds Jailhouse Snitches to Save Troubled Cases"–gave Vining a doctored version of the report without advising him of the alteration. The new line stated, "Investigator Justo told me he had received a message from Gallardo at approximately 0300." As shown in this GIF:
The best proof of Petersen's deceit, however, is contained in the Orange County Informant Index. The OCDA's records system is usually hidden from defense lawyers because its contents often contradict police and prosecution stances. In January 2013–six months before the shooting–the index listed Gallardo as an informant.
Could Petersen have missed this fact?
The second index entry–dated Feb. 7, 2013, and obtained by the Weekly–records Petersen rewarding Gallardo's snitching with the dismissal of an earlier criminal case, ensuring the hoodlum was available to participate in the June 27 shooting.
As Vining continued to press for discovery, Petersen employed a clever stalling tactic. He visited Judge Gregg L. Prickett's chambers without the presence of a court reporter or Lopez, Bernal's lawyer, and asked that the accused gang boss facing attempted murder counts be released, incredibly, on his own recognizance. Prickett, an ex-deputy DA, granted the move without memorializing an explanation. The impact is undeniable. Federal agents immediately placed Bernal in their custody, giving Petersen more excuses for keeping key records from the defense.
With the case a mess, prosecutors in recent days quietly dropped potential life-in-prison punishments to give pretrial deals: Donald Jones, 10 years; his brother Daniel, eight. Daniel Quiroz walked out of jail with credit for time served. Bernal is awaiting a federal trial, while Gallardo, who has a scheduled Jan. 6, 2016, trial, is expected to get a gentle OCDA wrist slap.
"This case is saturated with [government] misconduct," says Vining. "They really don't want to reveal what happened."