Snitch Myth? Only To Orange County’s Reality-Denying Grand Jury

Rackauckas, Hutchens and Carmody at work (OC Weekly art)

Orange County’s local law-enforcement agencies—the district attorney’s office (OCDA) and the sheriff’s department (OCSD)—spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars annually to sell stories of their heroism to the public or, as in the case of the ongoing jailhouse-informant scandal, spread disinformation. Despite reams of evidence to the contrary, the DA and sheriff adamantly deny their offices cheated to win convictions. The county’s grand jury this month accused superior court judges, the California Court of Appeal and courthouse journalists of fabricating the existence of tainted snitch operations. For context exposing the absurdity of the grand jury’s claim, we’ve produced a non-exhaustive summary timeline of events.

June 9: Los Angeles Times questions the use of jailhouse informants in “more than 100 major cases in Orange County,” specifically naming deputy district attorneys Tony Rackauckas and John D. Conley for employing notoriously discredited snitch James Dean Cochrum in unconstitutional plots to save weak cases by allegedly obtaining confessions from government targets in exchange for hidden benefits.

Jan. 4: Rackauckas becomes DA.

June 16
: David Druliner, chief assistant California Attorney General, advises Rackauckas that his agency has been unethically defying court orders and hiding critical informant evidence in a death penalty case. The DA ignores the problem.

Jan. 8: Conley takes the oath as judge and will defend the DA in a future snitch scandal.

June: Orange County Grand Jury blasts Rackauckas for improperly protecting friends from prosecution and requiring deputy DA loyalty to himself, not the pursuit of justice.

Jan. 30: DA wins murder conviction against Henry Rodriguez after concealing records showing the government’s key informant, Mike Garrity, committed perjury by denying prosecutors promised secret benefits for his testimony. A decade later, forced production of that evidence overturns the conviction.

March 29: OCSD management brags that jail deputies possess “excellent expertise in the cultivation and management of informants. This expertise is recognized by the Orange County district attorney’s office.”

Sept. 19: Landon Horning of Newport Beach testifies as OCDA’s star witness in People v. Ricardo Salas, and prosecutors win a conviction after failing to surrender deputies’ TRED records and OCDA’s Informant Index showing the informant’s serious mental health condition and his secret deal for government benefits.

Feb. 28: OCSD internal memo celebrates deputies’ “cultivation of hundreds of confidential informants” in the jails.

Feb. 17: With OCSD help, Santa Ana cops David Rondou and Chuck Flynn meet with serial killer Oscar Moriel, who promises he can work as a jail informant producing needed memories “and make it seem like yesterday” if officials reduce his pending life-in-prison punishment. Moriel testifies for OCDA in three cases; juries are kept clueless about the deal.

Oct. 21: Though he is a clandestine informant working for the government, inmate Arthur Palacios is summoned to the witness stand by prosecutor Ebrahim Baytieh to say he accidentally overheard OCDA target Paul Smith confess to a murder. Jurors also would not be told that deputies had placed two additional snitches around Smith’s cell to extract alleged self-incriminating statements.

Dec. 2: Forced to concede it withheld powerful exculpatory informant evidence from arrested 14-year-old Luis Vega, OCDA drops two-year-old murder charges without apology.

Aug. 18: Jail deputy Seth Tunstall testifies for Baytieh in People v. Gullien, the case involving the gruesome jailhouse murder of John Derek Chamberlain, that he routinely cultivates informants.

Oct. 12:
Scott Dekraai kills eight people at a Seal Beach salon.

Oct. 13:
Rackauckas seeks state execution of Dekraai, who’d admitted guilt upon arrest.

Oct. 15: To ensure the death penalty, OCSD concocts scam to trick Dekraai, who has been charged and is represented by an attorney, into making more self-incriminating statements—a violation of the 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Massiah v. United States. Deputies place him in a cell next to prolific informant Fernando Perez.

Oct. 16
: A sheriff’s lieutenant allows inmates around Dekraai to read a Los Angeles Times article on the salon massacre before jail deputy Bill Grover secretly meets with Perez, a fact Rackauckas will later ignore to declare the government played no role in the snitch’s work.

Oct. 18:
Perez, a Mexican Mafia boss, tells deputy Ben Garcia, Grover’s partner, that he has lulled Dekraai into talking about his case. Garcia then relays to Bob Erickson, the DA investigator for Dekraai prosecutor Dan Wagner, that Perez is a “reliable informant.”.

Oct. 19:
Deputies launch seven-day recording operation after placing a hidden device in Dekraai’s cell to capture his conversations with Perez, who calls his “job” of questioning the government’s target “Operation Daylight” in hopes that it allows him to avoid a life in prison sentence.

July 26: Deputy DA Howard Gundy calls veteran jailhouse informant Mark Cleveland to testify in People v. Timothy Hurtado without telling grand jurors that the OCDA’s Informant Index labeled Cleveland “a problem informant” and included notations that he “cannot be trusted.” Five years later, Rackauckas tells CBS’s 60 Minutes Cleveland is a liar, but doesn’t explain why he’d personally used Cleveland to win cases without telling jurors of his opinion.

Jan. 11: Dekraai attorney Scott Sanders argues what will be a winning motion for Perez-related discovery that should, but doesn’t, result in the surrender of TRED records and the Special Handling Log, both secret OCSD databases that contain evidence of illegal snitch operations.

Jan. 18: Wagner files brief declaring that Perez isn’t seeking government benefits for his jail work, though, according to OCDA emails, he knows the snitch is facing Three Strikes punishment for his own crimes, is attempting to win confessions in at least nine separate cases and has worked tireless as an informant in the Orange County Jail (OCJ).

Jan. 22: Wagner tips Tunstall, who is under Sergeant Raymond Wert’s supervision in the jail’s Special Handling Unit, that Dekraai judge Thomas M. Goethals might order OCSD to surrender informant evidence.

Jan. 23: Wert suddenly terminates the Special Handling Unit’s Log containing informant program evidence and, according to documents that would surface three years later, deputies rename the Log “a document of important information sharing only” as a plausible deniability ruse to guarantee future court orders won’t specifically seek the entries.

Jan. 25: Over Wagner’s strenuous objections, Goethals rules the law requires OCSD to surrender informant evidence.

May 13: Santa Ana police detective Gonzalo Gallardo reminds Wagner that jail informants had been used to capture illegal confessions “under the direction of a district attorney,” a quote the DA’s office will later claim didn’t actually mean what it clearly states.

Aug. 15: Deputy Seth Tunstall files an affidavit in People v. David Zorich that states his duties include “cultivating, managing and supervising” jail informants.

Oct. 10: With Sanders on the verge of unraveling the illegal government efforts against his client as well the entire snitch scandal, OCDA Chief of Staff Susan Kang Schroeder attempts to generate public pressure for a quick resolution of the case by claiming he’s stalling without reason.

Jan. 31: In a 500-page brief loaded with facts, Sanders details systemic criminal-justice-system fraud by deputies who’ve helped prosecutors win cases with corrupt informant activities and hidden evidence.

Feb. 28: On KPCC, Schroeder repeats her claim that Sanders is performing a cheap defense attorney stunt to stall the case and can’t prove his allegations.

March 24: Wagner, who heads OCDA’s homicide unit, claims he conducted an intensive agency-wide probe into Sanders’ allegations but testifies under oath that none of his investigators took a single note or made a single interview recording.

April 10: Gundy tells Goethals that Sanders’ allegations of informant program abuses are “vile and outrageous.”

April 22: Sanders’ evidence forces Gundy to admit law enforcement cheated against Dekraai and that illegally obtained statements should be suppressed.

May 6: Deputy Ben Garcia testifies under oath, “We don’t have informants” and an angry Gundy declares government wrongdoing in Dekraai was only “negligence” and not intentional corruption.

May 21: Deputy William Grover says he spent “less than zero” time handling snitches.

June 30: Prompted by a supervisor, Grover advises a Riverside County deputy, “OC has been in the media recently for its inmate informants. OCJ no longer labels these inmates ‘informants.’ We now call them ‘sources of information’ or ‘SOI,'” a ruse to bypass court orders.

Aug. 5: Goethals rejects law enforcement’s contemptuous stance against Sanders, ruling deputies were “credibility challenged.” But he refuses to remove the death penalty potential from Dekraai.

Aug. 27: Sheriff Sandra Hutchens’ aide Brent Benson swears to Goethals under penalty of perjury, “There is no jailhouse-informant program” inside OCSD.

Sept. 5: Sanders learns of the existence of TRED records. Unamused he’d been lied to by deputies and that the DA and sheriff refuse to punish the offenders, Goethals will reopen hearings.

Sept. 23: Assistant DA Marc Rozenberg states he wants to avoid another round of embarrassing snitch hearings and will allow killer Isaac Palacios to walk free in 2017, escaping a life-in-prison sentence for two murders.

Early December: Hutchens tells the Orange County Register there is “no deliberate effort” to hide evidence and blames poor training as the reason deputies, whose government pay pay package are $200,000 annually, didn’t know they must testify honestly after swearing “to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” while standing in front of Goethals.

Feb. 9: Tunstall claims he never used jail informants, but after Sanders confronts him with his 2013 affidavit, the deputy sheepishly replies, “I guess I put the wrong words in there.”

Feb. 17: Garcia swears he was ordered to conceal informant use and TRED records.

Feb. 17: Amending his 2014 testimony, Grover echoes Garcia’s story.

Feb. 17: Deputy Jonathan Larson testifies about jail-informant tanks and admits deputies cultivated informants.

March 15: Goethals, a former high-ranking prosecutor, rules deputies lied about snitch activities and, stating he can’t trust Rackauckas’ team to ensure basic ethics, recuses the DA and his entire office from Dekraai. The DA’s allies begin a behind-the-scenes effort to smear the judge as an evil Machiavellian character.

Playing now (OC Weekly art)

July 24: At a county supervisors’ special meeting, Hutchens, a politician who campaigned on possessing squeaky clean ethics, insists there is “no scandal” at OCSD, while Erwin Chemerinsky, UC Irvine School of Law’s dean, says the scandal is direly serious because constitutional rights have been trampled and an independent watchdog over the department is needed.

Sept. 30:
The New York Times reports on a multi-decade Orange County law enforcement “scheme” by “prosecutors and the county sheriff’s department” to win convictions with “illegal jailhouse confessions.”

Oct. 22: A sweating Hutchens tells Los Angeles’ KABC-TV reporter Marc Brown and producer Lisa Bartley there is no informant program in her jails and that Rackauckas’ prosecutors, who up to this point have been pretending not to know about TRED records, are fully aware of the database.

Nov. 18: More than three dozen ex-prosecutors and legal scholars nationwide announce that “compelling evidence of pervasive police and prosecutorial misconduct in Orange County has caused us great concern,” and call for an independent federal investigation.

Early Jan.:
Rackauckas’ hand-picked “outside independent” review committee issues 24-page report noting informant program “deficiencies” and the existence of a “win-at-all-costs mentality” in OCDA. The DA responds by appearing on KFI radio to declare his operation is near perfect.

Feb. 29: Posing as offended at a community forum, Rackauckas and Hutchens portray the snitch scandal as a nutty conspiracy theory because there is no jailhouse informant program.

March 4: Despite Wagner’s previous claim that Perez hadn’t been seeking benefits for his snitching, the career criminal avoids a life sentence in Judge Gregory Prickett’s court after OCDA failed to note their informant had committed perjury in his own case.

April 29: Portions of the Log emerge in a separate case, leading Goethals to learn of a second long-hidden OCSD database.

June 9: OCDA officials claim shock to learn of buried records and a jailhouse-informant program, though they’ve benefitted from the ploys for decades.

July: OC Grand Jury opens probe by first hearing denials of wrongdoing by government officials, and will wait six months to seek and then swiftly discard Sanders’ input. Revealingly, the panel never even bother to interview two other prominent defense attorneys whose clients were cheated by tainted informant testimony: Jim Crawford and Rudy Loewenstein.

July 26: Baytieh, whom Rackauckas picked as his frontman in the PR campaign against the scandal, tells a UC Irvine School of Law audience, “I can look you in the eye” and claim there’s no evidence of systemic law enforcement cheating with informants.

Aug. 18: Lieutenant Mark Stichter, Hutchens’ media flack, assures the Huffington Post, “There is no jail informant program in the jail.”

Sept. 13: Rackauckas and Hutchens propose law changes that would limit the ability of death penalty case defendants to discover law enforcement cheating.

Nov. 22: A unanimous California Court of Appeal backs Goethals’ DA recusal as legally sound, praises his special hearings a “search for the truth,” and observes there’s overwhelming evidence prosecutors and deputies ran a systemically contaminated informant program.

Dec. 10: Numerous relatives of the Seal Beach victims hold a press conference feet away from the Pacific Ocean to announce disgust that OC law enforcement wrecked an easy case and to call for an end to the mess by giving Dekraai eight consecutive life-in-prison without parole terms.

Feb. 10: Tired of Hutchens brazen defiance of his lawfully-issued court orders, Goethals announces a third round of special evidentiary hearings to determine the likelihood of the sheriff ever submitting to the rule of law.

April 28: Moriel, the government snitch who admitted to murdering at least six people, has his own attempted murder case continued for the 40th time as Rackauckas tries to wait out the “myth” that is the informant scandal before handing the killer a sweetheart deal that could put him back on the streets.

May 31: With a sheriff’s monitor watching, OCSD Lieutenant David Johnson testifies jail deputies never managed informants, even though he wrote a 2009 memo stating that deputies under his control “handle and maintain confidential informants.” An incredulous Goethals shakes his head and smiles.

June 5: Wert offers an innocent explanation for why he ended the Log in 2013: Without ever having looked at the records, he decided they were worthless. He claims his decision was aboveboard, as evidenced by him advising his boss at the time, Lieutenant Catherine Irons, who will drop three bombshells when she testifies.

June 5: Commander Jon Briggs becomes the first OCSD supervisor to concede “it’s obvious” the Log proved an active snitch program.

Evening of June 5: The 74-year-old Rackauckas tells a wealthy Turnip Rose crowd at a Costa Mesa fundraiser for his planned upcoming fifth-term in office that he’s been working “tirelessly” to “ensure the administration of justice in our county.” Peaceful protesters outside the event claim one of event attendees ran a vehicle into the crowd and fled. Police are investigating.

June 8: OCSD Lieutenant Lane Lagaret, now Hutchens’ media flack, testifies he never saw a memo addressed to him that states Special Handling Unit jail deputies were to “cultivate/manage confidential informants,” though the document had been prominently posted on the office wall for at least months.

June 11: Having received an advance copy of the upcoming grand jury report, Rackauckas grabs a guest editorial in the OC Register and hails Conley, his colleague in the 1985 snitch scandal and now a judge, for calling Sanders reckless.

June 13: Grand jury foreperson Carrie Carmody claims the panel found “no evidence” of a jailhouse-informant program during a yearlong probe that relied mostly on secret input from deputies and prosecutors. Carmody, who struggles to answer reporters’ questions, slams Goethals, Sanders and the news media for conducting “a witch-hunt.” She advises the judge to end his hearings.

June 13: Lagaret retakes the stand hours after the grand jury press conference and states he knew deputies falsely testified about informant use at 2014 and 2015 Dekraai hearings but remained mum.

June 14: Now retired, Irons breaks the witch-hunt wide open by testifying that, despite Hutchens’ plan to blame the scandal on a couple of “rogue” deputies such as Tunstall, Garcia and Grover, she saw the Log in 2013 and that during 2014 Dekraai hearings, OCSD management purposefully hid TRED records from courts. She also contradicts Wert’s testimony about ending the Log, stating she never authorized the action.

June 15: Paul Wilson, husband of one of Dekraai’s victims, ridicules the grand jury for labeling the scandal a “myth,” says the panel’s report is shameful and encourages Goethals to continue his “pursuit of the truth.”

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