The Santa Ana Gang Task Force conducted two massive arrest campaigns–Operation Black Flag in 2011 and Operation Smokin' Aces in 2013–against the Mexican Mafia (or La Eme) and its Southern California associates. Task Force member agencies–including the FBI, Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD), Orange County district attorney's office (OCDA) and local police outfits–summoned journalists to victorious press conferences that garnered headlines and lengthy TV-news segments celebrating law enforcement's prowess. Following the 2011 operation, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas declared, "The only place [these arrestees] belong is in prison, and the OCDA's office is committed to keeping them there for the rest of their lives."
But the tough talk didn't lead to courthouse triumphs. Rackauckas' office has been struggling to win jury trials against gangsters caught in the ballyhooed undercover operations. Prosecutors nowadays just want the cases to quietly disappear. They've been cutting sweetheart, pretrial deals that are putting back on the street the very people Rackauckas claimed would never see freedom again. In recent days, at least seven of these defendants–Ronald Melendez, Estavan Cardoso, Victor Galaviz, Luz Gallardo, Ernie Garcia, Jose De Jesus Farias and Georgina Mendoza–have seen their cases dropped or ended with relative wrist slaps that include punishments such as credit for time served in jail while awaiting trial.
The situation is another embarrassment for an agency already recoiling from a historic March ruling by Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals, who blamed chronic prosecution-team ethical lapses for recusing the entire OCDA from People v. Scott Dekraai. Among those whom Goethals identified as cheaters were Deputy District Attorney Erik Petersen and OCSD deputy Seth Tunstall, Petersen's trusty sidekick working on the task force. In the seven recently dumped Mexican Mafia cases, Tunstall served as the key investigator. He's also the primary reason for the defanged prosecutions. With trials approaching and already trying to dodge a reputation as a liar–especially in regards to his illegal use of jailhouse informants–Tunstall indicated to Rackauckas' team he planned to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and would refuse to answer questions under oath. A cop remaining mum on the witness stand about his taxpayer-funded job doesn't engender jury confidence in the government's position.
OCDA's attack against La Eme was troubled from the outset, with the 2012-2013 proceedings against Jose Camarillo, Mark Garcia, Fernando Gallegos and Bernardo Guardado. When Deputy DA Petersen couldn't secure favorable jury verdicts, he dropped the heart of his cases–attempted-murder counts–and offered lopsided pro-defense deals. Camarillo, for example, faced a potential life sentence, but got an eight-year term; Gallegos and Guardado received seven years and Garcia just four.
It would only get worse. In 2014, Goethals recused Petersen in a trial involving Marcus Jeffries. The judge declared he'd lost faith in the prosecutor's willingness to surrender exculpatory evidence to defense lawyers. It took two jury trials and another prosecutor to finally convict Jeffries.
More recently, the Tunstall mess collapsed OCDA's case against Gallardo (a.k.a. "Lil Chino" from East Side Anaheim gang), Garcia (a.k.a. "Big E" from the Ready at War gang) and Farias (a.k.a. "Oner" from an Orange County tagging crew). OCSD video allegedly shows the men attacking another inmate, Jose Ruiz, inside the Theo Lacy Jail in June 2012, according to court documents. During a preliminary hearing, Tunstall told Petersen the hit, which resulted in injuries but not death, was ordered by the Mexican Mafia.
The cases against Galaviz, Cardoso, Melendez and Mendoza reached similar pro-defendant fates. The men were charged in connection with a September 2009 jail attack. The victim, Francisco Maldonado, suffered a fractured orbital socket but survived. In the wake of Tunstall's Fifth Amendment decision, Melendez and Mendoza saw related charges dropped; Galaviz, who faced 25 years to life in prison, received a suspended four-year sentence, plus three years of probation; and Cardoso walked out of custody with credit for time served.
Individuals with white-supremacist backgrounds have benefitted from tainted government acts, too. Last September, for example, prosecutors dropped 12 charges and enhancements including solicitation of murder and attempted murder against Joseph Govey, a onetime member of Public Enemy Number One Death Squad (PEN1). The move saved OCDA from having to release evidence of law-enforcement cheating in the case, although the Weekly obtained the records anyway.
Prosecutorial misconduct also forced the agency to cut another eyebrow-raising deal last year with Isaac John Palacios, a gangster OCDA asserted is a cold-blooded killer. To prevent a trial in which government misdeeds would be revealed, the agency enticed Palacios into pleading guilty to second-degree murder for a punishment of probation. No fool, the defendant accepted the offer and walked out of the Orange County Jail a free man.
Rackauckas and his aides can only blame themselves for their predicament. In late May, four national news outlets–Slate, Daily Kos, Al Jazeera America and National Review–featured the agency's deceitful use of informants to violate defendants' rights as well as the hiding of massive amounts of exculpatory evidence in dozens of felony cases. On June 1, the Washington Post's Radley Balko, a journalist who specializes in criminal justice issues, noted the scandal.
And there was this bombshell: We learned in late 2014 that for 25 years, the OCSD has hidden important jailhouse records called TREDs from judges, juries and defense lawyers. Those records, as I've previously reported, contain proof deputies lied under oath to help win convictions.
Kate Corrigan, a former prosecutor and now a prominent defense lawyer, believes OCDA must abandon a win-at-all-cost mentality and instead adhere to its ethical obligation to pursue justice. Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, Dekraai's lawyer, is incensed by the brazenness of the duplicity. Sanders hopes the revelations prompt defense attorneys throughout the state to intensify questioning of police assertions. Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of UC Irvine's School of Law and one of the most respected legal minds in the nation, said he is alarmed by the systematic violations of the Constitution. Chemerinsky is calling for a U.S. Department of Justice probe of the messes. Even crime victims traditionally in lockstep with prosecutors are outraged. Paul Wilson, the husband of a victim in Dekraai's mass shooting at the Seal Beach salon in 2011, says he is disgusted by all the law-enforcement cheating, especially because it was so unnecessary; Dekraai admitted guilt to police shortly after the crime.
In response, Rackauckas refuses to acknowledge any missteps have been nefarious. He claims mistakes can be attributed to an overworked staff suffering legitimate confusion about ethical and legal responsibilities, a condition he thinks in-house training seminars can correct. The DA, who has announced his intention to pursue a fifth term, is also trying to dampen cries for an independent probe by pondering the creation of his own panel.
But a sign of Rackauckas' lack of sincerity takes us back to Tunstall, a man caught uttering at least a dozen lies under oath. Goethals says the deputy is a serial perjurer. Perjury is a crime. Fourteen weeks have passed since the deputy won his label, and the DA, who presents himself as a stickler for law and order, hasn't filed charges. Sheriff Sandra Hutchens apparently isn't bothered either; she's keeping him on duty. Such inaction is instructive: You know your local criminal-justice system desperately needs reform when a cop lies on the witness stand and prosecutors look the other way.