POLITICS
12/06/2016 01:06 am ET

Orange County Sheriff's Deputies' Once-Secret Log On Jail Informants Reveals Rampant Misconduct

The deputies' notes reveal deeply disturbing and unconstitutional behavior by members of law enforcement in county jails.

Gail Fisher via Getty Images
A jailhouse informant scandal has been rocking Orange County for about three years.

LOS ANGELES ― An Orange County Superior Court judge released a trove of notes from a once-secret document kept by sheriff’s deputies detailing their involvement in a tainted informant program that has allegedly violated the rights of numerous defendants for years. The behavior of prosecutors and members of law enforcement described in the log raises significant questions about decades’ worth of criminal convictions in Orange County.

The 242 pages of notes, made public for the first time Monday by Judge Thomas Goethals, reveal the inner workings of the county’s infamous informant program, and appears to contradict testimony given by some deputies who had previously denied knowledge of working with informants. The notes also describe deputies’ recruitment and utilization of informants; destruction and falsifying of documents; collaboration with prosecutors and other local law enforcement agencies while operating “capers” to glean further evidence from inmates; and other unconstitutional scams they used to trick inmates into confessing to crimes.

The pages represent just a fraction of the total 1,157-page database, still largely under seal, which was in use between 2008 and 2013 and maintained by sheriff’s deputies who work in a branch of the department called “special handling,” which specifically deals with inmates and jail informants.

The log contains multiple entries from two deputies, William Grover and Ben Garcia, who testified during special evidentiary hearings on jailhouse informants heard in the case of Scott Dekraai. Dekraai has pleaded guilty to killing his ex-wife and seven other people at a Seal Beach hair salon in 2011, and is awaiting a penalty phase of his case. Another deputy who also testified during Dekraai proceedings, Seth Tunstall, is not the author of any entries but is referenced in several. In a previous ruling, Goethals called out Tunstall and Garcia for having “either intentionally lied or willfully withheld information” during their testimony in the Dekraai case. Their log entries profoundly contradict their testimony on jail informants.

While Goethals did not specifically call out Grover, there are numerous entries by the deputy in the log that reveal a deep level of understanding and involvement with informants, working with them in the jail and interviewing them. This stands in stark contrast to his 2014 testimony, when he said, “I don’t work with informants. I rarely work with informants. And to be honest with you, I try and avoid jailhouse informants.”

For Dekraai and his legal team, though, the biggest bombshell may be an entry showing that Grover had a secret meeting with the informant Fernando Perez ― just two days before Perez claimed to have received a confession from Dekraai. While Grover testified that he only “heard” Perez was an informant, the deputy documents numerous meetings with Perez within the log. 

Tunstall, who admitted to cultivating and developing confidential informants in the jail at one point only to later disavow those statements by claiming he used the “wrong” words, is revealed in the log to handle informants with such mastery that his fellow deputies requested that he “teach [the deputies] what it takes to cultivate a [confidential informant] on the street and walk us through all the paperwork needed for such.” 

Orange County Sheriffs Department

Garcia and Grover both make separate entries that seem to describe the “shredding” of “old” documents related to the special handling unit. In another entry, Grover describes a “purge” that he, Garcia and another deputy did of old files in a desk drawer.

Orange County Sheriffs Department

The log also contains an entry describing a meeting between various sheriff’s deputies who discuss that they will stop using the special handling log and indicating the existence of a newer log ― one that has yet to be turned over ― that the deputies describe is for “important information sharing.” That meeting took place eight days before the last entry was made in the special handling log, on Jan. 31, 2013.

Orange County Sheriffs Department

All three deputies remain employed by OCSD, department spokesman Lt. Mark Stichter told The Huffington Post. Stichter declined to comment on whether the deputies have faced any discipline, however, he told the Los Angeles Times in October that the deputies had not been penalized.

Yet nine months after the SH log first came to light, the Sheriff’s Department has still not offered its explanation as to why the database was abruptly halted in 2013, just days after Goethals issued a broad order to turn over such information in the Dekraai case. Stichter told HuffPost in August that the agency is still trying to determine why the database ended. Goethals has ordered the Sheriff’s Department to turn over the “important information sharing” document on Dec. 16 or be prepared to have deputies face questioning on the issue.

Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Department continues to deny that a formal jail informant program even exists ― despite evidence, like the 1,157-page log, that would seemingly undermine such denials.

The release of the log pages comes less than two weeks after a California appeals court affirmed Goethals’ 2015 decision to eject the entire Orange County District Attorney’s Office from the Dekraai case over his findings of significant misconduct in their use of jailhouse informants.

Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders should have received a copy of the log years ago, when a court ordered the OCSD to turn over just this kind of material. Indeed, Goethals blasted Sheriff Sandra Hutchens in court for months over the lengthy delay in turning over the log. 

Sanders has been arguing for years that a tainted snitch network in county jails has existed in secret for decades ― and the release of the log pages significantly bolsters that argument. In a series of blockbuster motions, the defense attorney has gone on to unearth damning evidence pointing to the program’s existence, alleging that county prosecutors and police have violated multiple defendants’ rights by illegally obtaining and sometimes withholding evidence received from jail informants. His discoveries have led to multiple murder cases in the county unraveling, even resulting in some accused murderers having their sentences vacated

Law enforcement authorities use informants to help bolster a case — a tactic that’s perfectly legal, even when the snitch receives something in exchange. But Sanders alleges that in some Orange County cases, informants held recorded and unrecorded conversations with inmates who were already represented by lawyers, which violates an inmate’s right to counsel. Prosecutors then allegedly took damning evidence gathered by the informants and presented it in court, while withholding evidence that could have been beneficial to the defense — which is a violation of a defendant’s right to due process. 

On Monday, Hutchens released a statement outlining the steps that OCSD has taken since the discovery of the log, including the disbanding of the special handling unit and the formation of a new unit with similar responsibilities called the custody intelligence unit, which Hutchens promises is not a “reincarnation” of the dissolved unit.

It remains unclear exactly how many cases in the county may have been affected by tainted informant evidence, but Sanders has argued that every case involving a jailhouse informant in Orange County over the last three decades deserves to be re-examined.

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