Public Defender Scott Sanders Explains How He Solved OC’s Snitch Scandal

Scott Sanders (Photo by OC Weekly)

As he walked briskly along a downtown Santa Ana sidewalk for our first meeting on a toasty, cloudless February 2014 afternoon, criminal defense attorney Scott Sanders’ brain generated waves of internal questions: What do I know about Moxley? What does it mean that over the years he’d authored the most favorable and most critical news coverage of the Orange County district attorney’s office (OCDA)? Will homicide prosecutors convince him to abandon his independence and treat me as a conspiracy-theorist nut? How much should I say about my discoveries of still-untold courthouse corruption?

But Sanders—an Illinois native with brown hair and a light complexion—had a more urgent concern: his nose, an appendage known to glow painfully red after nominal contact with the sun’s rays. A planner, this deputy public defender working simultaneously on two sensational death-penalty cases took precautions.

More pragmatic than fashionable, he’d caked his nose in a thick, white sunblock that resembled an inexplicable toothpaste accident. He also wore a straw hat that shielded his face from the heavens and—you can never be too careful—walked on the shady side of the street until he faced a dilemma with his hovering celestial nemesis. To get to his meeting, Sanders needed to enter a sunlit crosswalk and plaza. He paused, looked both ways at approaching vehicular traffic, half-joked to himself that a defense lawyer in the middle of a road makes an enticing target for a certain portion of the population and began speed walking until he reached the restaurant’s door.

At the time of his arrival at a well-worn, oval-shaped, wooden table in a corner of the Gypsy Den café, both of us were openly apprehensive. He’d never developed a relationship with an investigative reporter and frankly didn’t know if he ever should. I’d grown leery of hearing big but empty talk from some lawyers and felt overwhelmed by Sanders’ then-complex allegations against prosecutors, sheriff’s deputies and two-faced jailhouse informants he’d leveled for the first time a few weeks earlier.

Neither of us would have predicted we were on the verge of entering a 44-month educational whirlwind composed of relentlessly alternating periods of exhaustion and exhilaration that would produce startling revelations of law-enforcement cheating, historic court rulings likely to be studied for decades—upending the OCDA and Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD)—and an outcome that blocked OC’s worst mass shooter from landing on San Quentin State Prison’s death row.

* * * * *

Along with Disneyland, world-famous beaches and traffic jams, mega-mansions, year-round pleasant weather, eccentric televangelists, and mind-numbing teenage and housewife reality-TV shows, Orange County’s national image includes lurid criminal activity. We’ve seen a local college student and his half-brother mimic a scene from The Sopranos by strangling, then dismembering their mother in a bathtub. We’ve seen a Power Rangers actor tie a retired married couple to an anchor and toss them overboard alive somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. We’ve seen a bad guy from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery brutally kidnap, rape and torture a Huntington Beach woman. We’ve seen a former New England Patriots linebacker commit an ambush murder of a wealthy Newport Beach inventor in a plot to steal a fortune exceeding $20 million. Richard Ramirez, the infamous Los Angeles-based “Night Stalker,” didn’t spare our county’s quiet residential neighborhoods from his homicidal insanity in the mid-1980s either.

Thanks to network-TV broadcasts such as 48 Hours, 20/20 and Dateline, this region earned a reputation for successful law-enforcement operations. Prosecutors and detectives here have solved decades-old cold cases, tracked down dangerous fugitives hiding thousands of miles away and comforted victims’ families with genuine sincerity. I’ve stopped counting the number of times crime victims hug deputy DAs at the conclusion of trials.

Yet, for as much praise as frontline officials warranted, there have been nearly two decades of leadership woes at the OCDA and the OCSD. District Attorney Tony Rackauckas took office in 1999, quickly used his power to protect rich corporate-executive pals from prosecutions for business frauds, disbanded the agency’s organized-crime unit and announced he couldn’t care less about pursuing political-corruption cases. He’s never been able to adequately explain why even his supporters acknowledge his tenure has been stained by gross mismanagement. Employees who pledge allegiance to sworn ethical obligations instead of him personally have ended up fired. To bolster his campaign coffers, he sold real-appearing badges to contributors hoping the symbol might get them out of sticky situations with cops.

DA Tony Rackauckas (center) with two top aides. (Photo by R. Scott Moxley)

The cesspool in our sheriff’s department is deeper. Never mind that Rackauckas, a member of a criminal street gang as a teenager, held a press conference to vouch for then-Sheriff Mike Carona’s honesty or that TV host Larry King labeled Carona “America’s sheriff.” About a decade ago, after such ridiculous theatrics, the U.S. Department of Justice won corruption convictions against Carona and his management team: assistant sheriffs George Jaramillo, a former Garden Grove cop, and Don Haidl, a multimillionaire, Rancho Cucamonga used-car salesman.

Haidl—a booze-loving, foul-mouthed, piano-playing fellow who hated reporters, particularly me—paid cash bribes in suitcases to garner his position without a minute of formal police training. His son Greg and two high-school buddies brought years of national disgrace to Orange County after they filmed themselves in 2002 raping an unconscious 16-year-old girl on a pool table in the garage of a Corona del Mar house. After hiring at least 15 defense lawyers (including a former California Supreme Court justice), private detectives (including a onetime FBI field-office boss) and, yes, a publicist, the rapists claimed their victim wanted to create sexual assault/necrophilia footage she could someday parlay into a career in pornographic films. The trio landed in prison.

With the downfall of Carona, Jaramillo and Haidl, residents prayed a fresh face would reform the sheriff’s department. Sandra Hutchens, who’d retired from the command staff at the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and lived in Dana Point, assumed control over OCSD in 2008 with a non-unanimous appointment by the Board of Supervisors. Hutchens promised zero tolerance for unethical deputies. Though she skillfully projects authenticity, she wasn’t telling the truth. With Rackauckas’ partnership, the sheriff has spent years attempting to cover up one of the biggest criminal-justice-system messes in modern California history: the Orange County jailhouse-informant scandal that secretly robbed dozens, if not hundreds or thousands, of people of fair trials.

* * * * *

Inside the Gypsy Den, Sanders stared at me while contemplating my question: Given I am not a lawyer and the issues raised about informant use and discovery rules in his Jan. 31, 2014, brief of 505 pages, plus the 15,000 additional pages of exhibits, are intense, would he agree to open a regular, off-the-record line of communication?

Before answering, he had questions, too. Am I too close to prosecutors? Would Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals be offended if he learned of my briefings? Was I seeking sealed information or inside scoops on strategy? Could my enhanced knowledge somehow harm Scott Dekraai, his client who faced the death penalty after gunning down eight people, including his ex-wife, at a Seal Beach salon in 2011?

While understanding his concerns and giving a series of “no” answers, I explained that in my experience, defense lawyers too often unnecessarily shun contact with courthouse reporters, forcing them to rely almost exclusively on prosecutors. In this situation, however, my journalistic pursuit wasn’t about Dekraai’s innocence or guilt. He’d confessed to police minutes after his capture.

Sheriff Sandra Hutchens 

Though I’d already written my first news article documenting the infancy of the scandal and spent more than 40 hours trying to digest a court brief loaded with dozens of names, dates, locations and legal analysis, I still felt lost. My aim, I assured him, was to understand the intricacies of his allegations that prosecution teams had been operating unconstitutional scams with jailhouse snitches to win convictions against unwitting defendants, hiding exculpatory evidence from juries and, when necessary, falsifying official records to cloak their misdeeds. After all, prosecutors were insisting there was no need for media or judicial inquiries because a “paranoid” defense lawyer made nothing but “scurrilous” claims that would not withstand scrutiny.

Sanders—a husband and father of three gifted kids—knew he was under attack. He reminded me he had never worked with a reporter. There were long moments of silence. He remained worried about potential negative consequences. Before leaving, he gave me an answer about whether he was willing to work with me: “I’ll think about it.”

* * * * *

Few people realize police are allowed to lie and mislead during criminal investigations. For example, one common trick involves officers placing handcuffed suspects in the back of a patrol car and making a deceitful excuse for leaving them alone in the vehicle after activating a hidden recording device designed to capture self-incriminating statements. Another ruse, called a Perkins Operation, involves moving a newly arrested suspect into a cell with either inmate snitches working for police or an undercover cop posing as a fellow arrestee.

As the Weekly revealed in a 2014 cover story (see “Meet OC & LA Law Enforcement’s Favorite Rats!“), law-enforcement agencies in Los Angeles, Orange County, the Inland Empire and San Diego have spent years paying two wily career criminals, Mexican Mafia hoodlums Raymond Cuevas and Jose Paredes, to lure confessions from government targets in exchange for cash, fast-food meals, video games and more comfortable housing. Taking advantage of their underworld knowledge, Cuevas and Paredes have been known to imply threats of violence or dangle personal enrichment to encourage targets to talk. Such dirty tactics get a shoulder shrug from Rackauckas, who runs a win-at-all-costs operation.

Despite those pre-arraignment games, the U.S. Supreme Court in Massiah v. United States established a bright line police aren’t allowed to cross without trampling the Founding Fathers’ aversion to arbitrary government: Law-enforcement officials and their agents, including informants, are constitutionally banned from questioning a person who has been informed by a judge of pending charges and is represented by counsel. There is a loophole of sorts. Prosecution teams can introduce at trial incriminating statements voluntarily made by a defendant to another pretrial inmate who isn’t collecting information for authorities on the sly.

To a devious mind, loopholes are meant to be exploited, which is precisely what happened inside the OCSD. Deputies, assuming permanent secrecy, shrouded their scams in which they routinely hired jailhouse snitches—often the most unsavory individuals residing in lockup—placed them next to targets and asked them to obtain confessions. Success required deputies and snitches to pretend information had been collected accidentally and to deny wink-wink promised rewards such as reduced sentences for their own crimes.

* * * * *

Unfairly downplaying his own legal prowess, Sanders likes to credit luck—”enormous luck,” “good luck,” “incredible luck,” “extraordinary luck”—for uncovering Orange County’s informant scandal that earned national attention all the way to The New York Times, CBS’s 60 Minutes and the Washington Post. In 2012, while working on Dekraai and People v. Daniel Wozniak, he made a puzzling discovery that—here’s the first appearance of good fortune—could have only been spotted by one lawyer handling both cases. Studying surrendered evidence, Sanders saw one inmate—Mexican Mafia boss Fernando Perez, who was hoping to avoid a life-in-prison punishment for his violations of Three Strikes laws—connected to both matters.

Assistant Public Defender Sanders

“We tried to figure out how big of an informant Perez was in the Orange County Jail,” Sanders recently recalled. He reviewed court minutes, saw the mystery man had been transported one day to the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse by OCSD Special Handling Unit Deputy Seth Tunstall and brought a January 2013 motion for all Perez records as an informant. Dan Wagner, head of the OCDA’s homicide unit, fought the move, claiming Sanders wasn’t entitled to the information because—if you recall the loophole—Perez supposedly hadn’t acted as a government agent.

“In a jail system with 6,000 inmates,” Sanders said, “Wagner wanted Judge Goethals to believe deputies had coincidently placed Perez next to Dekraai, and he wanted nothing in return for helping the government’s case.”

The judge ordered Wagner to turn over records of Perez’s informant work. When Sanders reviewed the information in January 2013, he immediately saw this prosecutor had to have known he’d made a disingenuous argument to Goethals. The documents showed Perez worked as an informant not only against Dekraai, but also at least nine other pretrial inmates. Later, the public defender obtained a 2012 OCDA email in which Wagner explored the idea of withholding Perez as a snitch witness in those other cases so he could be used more potently in Dekraai.

OC Weekly’s first snitch scandal cartoon in early 2014

Weeks later, Sanders’ law clerk noticed two styles of handwriting on jailhouse-informant notes. That discovery meant the government had a second key snitch: Oscar Moriel, another Mexican Mafia associate and serial killer supposedly working to obtain confessions without enticement.

Moriel’s handwritten notes included an entry that changed the Dekraai litigation, but also launched the scandal and led to reversals, new trials or reduced prison sentences in a whopping 17 separate cases. The snitch mused to OCSD Special Handling Unit deputy Ben Garcia about redeploying a scam to trick a government target into feeling comfortable talking about his charges by placing them together in Disciplinary Isolation unit cells.

“This is our ah-ha moment,” Sanders recalled. “The cheating inside the jail to win convictions was much worse than we ever imagined.”

Sanders spent 2013 studying thousands of pages of court transcripts, documents and notes. He found unethical conduct against not only his own client, but also numerous other defendants. One of those who’d been cheated was 14-year-old Luis Vega, an attempted-murder arrestee who spent two years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. Cops possessed solid exculpatory evidence of the kid’s innocence but nonetheless hid it from his lawyer.

In the midst of 2014 special evidentiary hearings into the informant scandal, Goethals ordered the Santa Ana Police Department (SAPD) to surrender all records pertaining to Perez and Moriel. Another bombshell landed in Sanders’ lap. SAPD investigators Dave Rondou and Chuck Flynn recorded a meeting with Moriel in which the snitch promised he could concoct alleged memories for pro-prosecution testimony in weak murder cases if he received a sweetheart punishment for his own crimes. The sweeter the deal, the better his memories would sound to a jury, he indicated. The cops accepted the pact.

“The tape destroyed Moriel’s credibility as a witness, but it was never turned over to the defense in three life cases where he testified,” said Sanders. “What does Rackauckas do? Does he run over to Santa Ana PD and find out if there are other tapes just like this one? No, he doesn’t do a thing. He doesn’t say a word. He doesn’t care about justice.”

* * * * *

The next three years were a series of soaring defeats and victories for the public defender. On Aug. 5, 2014, Goethals responded to testimony from deputies and prosecutors that ridiculed the scandal as imaginary. OCSD officials ignored their own records, boldly claiming they didn’t use jail informants or an informant program. The judge found that deputies “undoubtedly lied” and had coordinated the housing movements of snitches to work against targets in violation of the constitution. But he declined Sanders’ request to dismiss the death penalty as an option in Dekraai.

OCDA prosecutors left the courtroom outwardly giddy; the scandal seemed over. But one month later, a relentless Sanders discovered in his work for Wozniak that sheriff’s deputies lied about never creating notes on snitch operations by hiding a records system called TRED. The concealment of this evidence, which documented the reasons for inmate movements and snitch work, convinced Goethals to reopen the special hearings in Dekraai’s case.

Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals

With a second chance to grill jail deputies in March 2015, Sanders began searching for other materials that contradicted the official denials of an informant program and hit pay dirt. He got Tunstall to repeat prior testimony under oath that he and the Special Handling Unit never employed informants. In a hushed courtroom, Sanders then showed him a search-warrant affidavit in a separate case for which he’d written that he’d cultivated, developed and supervised informants. Tunstall, who has earned a Ph.D. and two master’s degrees, stared at the document and weakly uttered he guessed he used the wrong words.

This development prompted Goethals to observe he’d lost confidence not just in the sheriff’s deputies, but also in prosecutors who angrily defended Tunstall. In a historic move, he recused Rackauckas and his entire office from Dekraai. The DA held a press conference denouncing the move as absurd and saying the real villain was Sanders, positions lame Orange County grand jury foreperson Carrie Carmody and her panel swallowed two years later after conducting a fake probe.

In league with Rackauckas, California Attorney General Kamala Harris, then campaigning for U.S. Senator, agreed to appeal the recusal. But in November 2016, the California Court of Appeal issued a blistering opinion supportive of Goethals as well as Sanders’ factual findings:

“On the last page of the Attorney General’s reply brief, it states, ‘The trial court’s order recusing OCDA from prosecuting Dekraai’s penalty phase trial was a remedy in search of a conflict.’ Nonsense [the justices’ emphasis]. The court recused the OCDA only after lengthy evidentiary hearings where it heard a steady stream of evidence regarding improper conduct by the prosecution team [involving jailhouse informants]. . . . These proceedings were a search for the truth.'”

That search helped Sanders discover other embarrassing facts the justices hadn’t yet considered. Within days of Goethals’ 2013 discovery order, deputies at a supervisorial level orchestrated a coverup with the aim of further masking the existence of widespread illegal jail-informant use by, incredibly, hiding a second major set of agency records, the Special Handling log.

“The log is more valuable than the TREDs because it shows daily informant operations, as well as the scale of the cover up,” Sanders said. “It meant that everyone—deputies, supervisors and leadership—knew what was going on and had been lying throughout the hearings. It truly is the most powerful evidence that people in OCSD should be going to jail for what they’ve done.”

In Wozniak, Sanders filed a 752-page motion with 25,000 pages of exhibits, which examined three decades of law enforcement misconduct with informants. However, Judge John D. Conley, a former OC prosecutor, tersely dismissed the evidence without allowing a single witness. This came as no surprise. The revelations implicated his own ethical lapses. In his former role, he and Rackauckas, his office colleague, won convictions using James Dean Cochrum, a notoriously unreliable snitch willing to tell juries lies to win government benefits.

Conley presided over Wozniak after Judge James A. Stotler, a former police union attorney, admitted in 2015 he loathed Sanders for bringing negative attention to local law enforcement. For his part, Conley made sure the public defender knew he detested him with more relish than his predecessor. He wrote an opinion falsely claiming Goethals had rejected as unfounded Sanders’ evidence of a 30-year conspiracy. As the record proves, that never happened. The original defense motion in Dekraai, the one Conley cited erroneously, only examined, as a fifth grader could comprehend, snitch cheating between 2009 and 2012.

Not that Conley cared, but Sanders’ Wozniak motion helped multiple defendants learn for the first time that law enforcement officials cheated against them, prompting habeas corpus challenges on the tainted convictions.

Grand Jury foreperson Carrie Carmody (Photo by R. Scott Moxley)

Conley’s shoddy worked impressed one person, however: the grand jury’s Carmody, a former T.J. Maxx sales clerk with an obnoxious personality and an overt determination to please Hutchens and Rackauckas . When Sanders met with a subcommittee of the panel earlier this year, the foreperson didn’t want him to explain the historic depths of the cheating because she said Goethals already discredited that stance. The deputy public defender tried without success to convince her to merely read the court rulings and the contaminated cases he’d cited because it was obvious she had done little or no meaningful probing.

* * * * *

Having worked as a homicide prosecutor, private defense attorney and judge, Goethals’ courthouse experience is unique. Anyone who has watched him for hundreds and hundreds of hours in multiple cases, as I have, knows he’s courteous, serious and thoughtful—and, most important, an ethical stickler. He’s also obviously despised in many offices inside Rackauckas’ DA headquarters, where the judge is dismissively labeled pro-defense.

“[Goethals] isn’t all that he’s cracked up to be,” one veteran prosecutor said. “I think we’re talking about a big ego here.”

In truth, Goethals isn’t biased. He simply gets offended when people, especially ones with badges, come into his court and commit perjury. His prosecutorial critics won’t admit they had dozens of chances to disavow the jail-informant cheating and OCSD lies and evidence hiding, but refused.

That reality isn’t so impossible to see. Even relatives of several of Dekraai’s victims—including Bethany Webb and Paul Wilson—were outraged not by Goethals’ special hearings, but with law-enforcement officials who’d taken a slam-dunk death penalty case and, because of their own warped ethics, unnecessarily prolonged and wrecked it. In what may have been a first in our courthouses, these victims summoned the courage after what they’d witnessed in the scandal to call the public defender a noble fighter.

* * * * *

I’m sitting with Sanders in an empty Long Beach Starbucks before dawn days after Dekraai’s emotional sentencing hearing. He’s eating a buttered everything bagel and drinking an iced coffee while telling me that when we first met, he couldn’t have imagined I would write 114 articles on the scandal. His enthusiasm remains high, though more than four years of working 80-hour weeks has taken a toll. On the verge of turning 51, his hair is in the early stages of turning gray.

Weeks earlier, Goethals made his third and final monumental ruling. After declining to accept Deputy AG Michael T. Murphy’s argument that the snitch scandal shouldn’t impact Dekraai, he removed the death penalty as an option. Instead, the defendant received eight consecutive life-in-prison terms without the possibility of parole. The judge justified his move by saying it would have been “unconscionable, perhaps even cowardly,” to ignore Sheriff Hutchens’ ongoing, remorseless violation of his 2013 discovery orders. At least in his court, he said, “the rule of law” triumphs.

Sanders explains historic courthouse victory (Photo by R. Scott Moxley)

But Sanders, who was recently named one of the “Top 100 Lawyers” in California by the Los Angeles-based Daily Journal, rejects the notion he’s satisfied.

“The state appellate justices and Goethals made such important rulings, but the mentality inside the DA’s office and sheriff’s department hasn’t changed,” he observes, dismissing proclaimed government reforms largely as window dressing. “I truly believe many of those officials are as comfortable cheating now as they have ever been. They just hate that we caught them.”

With the closure of his two death-penalty cases, what’s next? Sanders ponders an answer, takes a sip of coffee and gives a smile that is not an expression leading to laughter.

“Rackauckas and Hutchens hope Goethals’ ruling is the last chapter of the scandal, and if that’s true, they win,” he says. “But if we want justice in Orange County, the fight better not stop for decades.”

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