An internal log released Monday that was kept by sheriff’s deputies in a special-handling unit that managed confidential informants revealed a pattern of moving “snitches” around to help investigators and flush out plots against guards and other inmates.
The log was made public by Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals in the case against Scott Dekraai, the worst mass killer in the county’s history.
The internal log of memos was apparently meant to be passed on from shift to shift so the deputies in the unit could brief each other on what happened during their day as they worked to manage the informants and keep them and others out of trouble. Since it was shut down and its existence was revealed in another death penalty case earlier this year it has become fodder for Dekraai’s attorney to dig deeper into his claims that his client’s constitutional rights were violated.
The log also indicates that some of the deputies who were quizzed in evidentiary hearings regarding ethical violations in the case against Dekraai were not forthcoming about the unit and the records being keep for it. Dekraai’s attorney, Scott Sanders, has repeatedly argued that prosecutors have failed to turn over, as legally required, information about the informants who worked against Dekraai.
Goethals recused the entire Orange County District Attorney’s Office from the case against Dekraai, which is awaiting the penalty phase since he has pleaded guilty to eight murders and an attempted murder in the Seal Beach beauty salon massacre five years ago. Dekraai faces the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed Goethals’ ruling this month. The Attorney General’s Office said it was reviewing the appellate court’s ruling and it has until Jan. 3 to decide whether to appeal to the state’s high court, but the defense attorney who worked on the appeal said the deadline is Dec. 30.
Sheriff Sandra Hutchens released a lengthy statement detailing what her department has done since February this year, which has included shutting down the special handling unit and instead forming a “Custody Intelligence Unit.”
Sanders filed a more than 500-page motion requesting recusal in January 2013, and by the end of the month the deputies stop using the internal log. The deputies, instead, began using another form of communication, which has been at the center of the most recent legal skirmishes in the Dekraai case with a hearing scheduled for Tuesday in which the issue will be discussed again.
Sanders wants to get any documents related to any other logs if they exist as he continues to drill deeper into the confidential informant issue, which has battered the district attorney and Hutchens with cries of ethics violations, including from an array of legal experts who have called on federal prosecutors to investigate.
The log began in September 2008, and in one typical entry dated Jan. 20, 2009, a deputy mentioned banal details of his day, including attending a bureaucratic association’s meeting and answering email. But there’s also a note about an informant requesting to “speak to Deputy (Ben) Garcia about using the phone for intel.”
On Feb. 14, 2009, a deputy reports that one inmate wanted to be sent to another jail facility as he “is needed as the next shot caller in Mod M,” according to the log.
“I obliged and expedited him over with a ribbon,” the deputy wrote. “(Deputy Seth) Tunstall also gave information in a new caper to arrive on Friday, March 13, 2009. To be continued…”
On Feb. 25, 2009, one inmate “was apparently acting out again and asked for a cheeseburger and the situation was resolved,” according to the log.
The log also contains information about informant Oscar Moriel and when he decided to start working for investigators. Moriel was one of the informants called to testify in the Dekraai hearings and has helped authorities in their attempts to crack down on violence in the jails following a Mexican Mafia internal power struggle.
Moriel, one deputy noted in a log entry, asked to see his handler because he didn’t understand why investigators hadn’t gone forward “with a plan.” The deputy said he told Moriel that his “status” in the jail “was maybe part of his ruse and to lay low. I told him his plan has been temporarily placed on the back burner.”
Goethals, in his recusal ruling, slammed deputies for playing dumb on the confidential informant program in their testimony, saying the hearings revealed they knew a great deal more about its machinations than they let on. They initially denied there were any notes or records of the movements of the inmates, but the log seems to spell out how they planned to move informants around for strategic reasons as well as to protect them when it appeared they could have had their covers blown.
In a March 13, 2009 log, a deputy notes that a snitch “finally showed up for classification. The first words out of his mouth were Dep. Seth Tunstall (and a phone number). After contacting Tunstall he confirmed (the informant) is a proven CI and has given good information in the past. He clamed he did not want him back at (Theo) Lacy (jail) for awhile.”
The deputy writing the log noted the informant was to be “bolted to the floor… due to his ability to escape. For the meantime!”
The log also refers to an “Operation Okie Doke” among the deputies, but not many details on how it worked.
The log appears to give credence to Sanders’ claims that the deputies operated a “scam” to move snitches into disciplinary isolation even though they did nothing wrong so they could pump other suspects for information. The law does not allow for agents of the government like snitches to question defendants who are legally represented, but they are allowed to “over hear” information volunteered.
The law also requires that information about the informants must be turned over to defense attorneys before trial.
In October 2011, days after Dekraai went on his deadly rampage, the deputies begin taking notes about their high-profile inmate.
“Garcia received a C.I. call on the special handling `hot line’ in regards to the Seal Beach murders,” one deputy wrote on Oct. 18, 2011.
It was also noted in the entry that a district attorney investigator who was overseeing the case against Dekraai was told “everything that was told to me by our C.I.”
The investigator “was very interested and was going to contact the legal team handling this case and get back to me on what they may want from us,” according to the deputy’s log entry.
Prosecutors used information from longtime snitch Fernando Perez, who was placed in a cell next to Dekraai and befriended him, to get the authority to wire Dekraai’s cell. Dekraai was recorded making damning statements about the shootings prosecutors planned to use in the penalty phase of the trial, but Goethals has barred them from using them as evidence now.
Hutchens said her department now makes sure investigators are trained on the rules regarding the exchanging of evidence with defense attorneys before trial.
“The members of OCSD and my leadership team remain committed to searching for and providing documents that are responsive to discovery requests and subpoenas,” Hutchens said. “We will continue to cooperate with the attorney general’s ongoing criminal investigation. Our internal administrative investigation is still ongoing and will be completed once the attorney general’s criminal investigation is completed.”
–City News Service