You might recall the case of Ha Duc “Mary” Nguyen, the young woman who smuggled pornography, razors, marijuana, rolling papers, lighters, sex toys, medication, fast food, expensive food, a cellphone and a phone charger to a convicted murderer living inside the Central Men’s Jail in Santa Ana. If not, would it jog your memory to know Nguyen and Stephenson Choi Kim, the colorful gangster inmate who attempted to murder an entire table of diners in Cypress but only succeeded in killing one with a handgun, had sexual intercourse and oral copulation more than 30 times in a public reception area? Or that Nguyen used her vagina as a transportation device for some of the contraband and that the duo created an amateur porno movie next to a guard’s station, allegedly without detection?
Like she tried to blame the massive jailhouse informant scandal entirely on a few low-ranking, “rogue” deputies, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, the reigning master of disasters at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD), fingered a lone deputy, David Lloyd Cass, as responsible for the embarrassing smuggling/sex debacle. Hutchens made sure District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, her befuddled ethics-tripping law-enforcement colleague, filed four felony charges against Cass stemming from his relationship with Nguyen and Kim, who is serving a life sentence in state prison. Her PR team enticed all seven major Los Angeles-based television-news stations to air the deputy’s mugshot after his arrest on bribery charges. Cass says Hutchens effectively fired him on the eve of his criminal trial—tellingly before a neutral jury could weigh in.
While it’s true the favor-seeking couple gave the deputy professional hockey game tickets, as well as gift cards from Dave & Buster’s and In-N-Out Burger, and there was evidence of offered but unused free Vietnamese prostitution services, a 2014 jury found the deputy not guilty of criminal conduct. Even the judge couldn’t contain his contempt of the charges, deriding the prosecution as sloppy in post-trial comments. Cass is now in the midst of a two-year, courthouse effort to clear his name and set the record straight.
In a pending wrongful-termination lawsuit county officials have unsuccessfully fought to derail before a trial, the deputy argues a narrative at odds with OCSD’s official version. Cass says he performed whistleblower functions before the 2011-12 scandal, repeatedly informing managers that the department’s policies on jail visitations were nonsensical and dangerous. For example, he claims OCSD banned male deputies from searching female visitors to the jail. To find a female deputy to perform the function, he’d have to leave his station to locate someone, but the department simultaneously prohibited him from leaving his post. Compounding that conundrum, legal couriers, as Nguyen pretended to be, and the boxes and bags carried by them are off limits from searches, per department policy. Cass also says that regulation allowed Nguyen private, naked time with the killer in the Attorney Bonds visiting section.
“Kim and Nguyen deliberately exploited and abused policies Cass had warned of regarding visitors to inmates by their legal runners,” the lawsuit alleges while claiming that instead of heeding his criticism that would have prevented the abuses, department officials sought to cover up their “corruption, bizarre policies, poor training and mismanagement” by shifting blame. “[The department] took action to make [Cass] into a scapegoat for the entire scandal because they believed it was better to ruin his life than to be publicly accountable.”
Cass’s attorneys say the deputy’s life became a nightmare. “[Sheriff’s department officials] began subjecting Cass to constant harassment, unfair treatment and lies,” his legal claim states. “He was told by his supervisors and co-workers that he should quit. He was subjected to discipline for matters that other deputies were not. He suffered personal insults. He was assigned the worst posts, despite his seniority. He was denied leave and assigned to rotating shifts so that it was impossible to get enough rest. His co-workers and superiors threatened and insinuated they would not protect him from inmate violence or that they might make intentional ‘errors,’ leaving him vulnerable to inmate violence. He was demoted, which included confiscation of his badge and gun. They spread false rumors about him: that he was incompetent; slept on the job; molested female [jail] visitors; stole from visitors and fellow deputies; was involved in criminal endeavors with inmates; had sexual relationships with visitors and inmates. . . . He suffered from fear for his life, his safety and his career.”
When the deputy tried to defend himself, OCSD officials removed him from the central jail, put him on administrative leave and placed him under “house arrest” for “almost two years,” according to Cass. During that period, he was ordered to remain at home Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. The deputy says that after his arrest, his colleagues callously booked him into the same jail section with inmates he’d once monitored and disciplined.
Though Cass asserts his criminal jury “vindicated” him, his “reputation is forever ruined” by the department’s smears. Finding a decent job is difficult. He has struggled with the emotional impact of his experience. His attorneys note OCSD “issued numerous press releases vilifying the deputy before trial and blaming him for everything that had gone wrong, but it did not issue a single press release after the trial.” They hope the next jury, a civil one, tries to compensate the 43-year-old Cass for lost wages and humiliation.
But attorney Shannon L. Gustafson with Lynberg & Watkins, the private law firm that specializes in defending California law-enforcement agencies, usually in excessive-force and wrongful-death cases, aggressively mocks Cass’s self-depiction as “a vigilant deputy who was victimized by the county in retaliation for alleged whistleblowing” activity. Gustafson, who is collecting dirt on the plaintiff, claims his story suspiciously fails to include specific dates and places where he blew the pre-scandal whistle. She also describes the lawsuit as “an incomprehensible mass of verbiage which [OCSD] frankly has no clue how to decipher.”
Despite Gustafson’s objections, Superior Court Judge John C. Gastelum this month ordered a May 2018 jury trial.
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.