LOS ANGELES ― The debate about whether the Orange County Sheriff’s Department is operating a jailhouse informant program is over.
According to Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals, it’s over. According to the 4th District Court of Appeal, which affirmed Goethals’ findings last year, it’s over. Despite years of denials, the Orange County district attorney’s office now says it’s over.
But there’s one agency that’s still in denial: the sheriff’s department. Despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary ― a mountain that got much bigger in court Friday ― it’s not over yet.
Goethals unsealed a bombshell brief from Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders that summarizes his review of more than 5,600 internal sheriff’s department documents about the jail informant program. It’s the clearest evidence yet that this Southern California sheriff’s department managed and promoted a robust informant program within county jails and has produced well over a thousand informants over the course of decades.
Goethals blasted Sheriff Sandra Hutchens from the bench for continuing to deny the existence of the jail informant program. “We know what happened. The debate over what has been going on in the jails is over.”
“The sheriff can say what she wants,” Goethals added. “She can ignore the facts, if she thinks that’s politically beneficial.”
Countless memos on the “cultivation” and “management” of informants.
“The deputies in the jail are not conducting investigations ... we don’t have our folks working informants,” Sheriff Hutchens has said in denying the existence of the program.
But, according to an email Sanders obtained, which he says was once posted on the wall of the “Special Handling” department, which had overseen inmates and jail informants, the third item on the list of duties is “Cultivate/manage Confidential Informants.”
The email was sent to Lt. Lane Lagaret, now the department’s public information officer and formerly a supervisor of sheriff’s deputies in the Special Handling unit.
Lagaret told The Huffington Post he “won’t be making a statement on the brief” Sanders filed.
Multiple other internal sheriff’s department memos in the cache Sanders reviewed also emphasize the importance of cultivating, encouraging and using informants.
Memo after memo references “CI’s,” or confidential informants. They describe the development of informants, how deputies can work them for information, what can motivate an inmate to turn snitch.
They also discuss the “extreme” reliance on informant information from deputies, classes for deputies to brush up on informant skills and how the Special Handling team at one jail, Theo Lacy, “possesses an excellent expertise in the cultivation and management of informants” ― expertise “recognized by the Orange County District Attorney’s Office as well as numerous law enforcement agencies throughout Southern California.”
Nearly a decade ago, OCSD admitted it had cultivated “hundreds of confidential informants.”
In a 2008 memo from deputies to members of the department’s command staff, they reminded top brass of the enormous value of the Special Handling unit. At the time, the department was apparently discussing replacing deputies with correctional officers in the jails.
“The concept of replacing Deputies with Correctional Officers has serious negative ramifications throughout the entire Corrections system, especially Classification / Special Handling. Every facet of our job, as described above, would be adversely affected,” the memo begins. “It also includes thousands and thousands of interviews with inmates, thousands of hour’s worth of training, attendance at hundreds of intelligence gathering meetings, and cultivation of hundreds of confidential informants.”
A 2007 memo detailing deputy efforts to gather “intel” regarding a possible attack on a deputy in the jail says that there were “in excess of 40 [informants] throughout the facility.”
The identification of the informant population at this point led Sanders to conclude that it’s likely “well over a thousand jail informants ― not hundreds ― have worked under the supervision of jail staff” over the decades.
Special Handling deputies supervise inmates and informants.
In a 2015 ruling, Goethals called out two Special Handling deputies ― Seth Tunstall and Ben Garcia ― for having “either intentionally lied or willfully withheld information” during their testimony in the case of Scott Dekraai, a man who pleaded guilty to killing his ex-wife and seven other people at a Seal Beach hair salon in 2011. The case, which led to the investigation of the jailhouse informant program, is now one of many cases in the county tainted by the scandal.
Tunstall’s and Garcia’s testimony, and that of Deputy William Grover, denied that Special Handling deputies even worked with inmates or informants. But a letter about one informant tank stresses that the unit’s deputies are the primary handlers. The letter also emphasizes the importance of running an informant tank like any other jailhouse tank for it to be effective:
An undated OCSD slideshow that Sanders reviewed clearly outlines the role of Special Handling: The deputies are required to take responsibility for maintaining all jailhouse informants. “Special Handling will maintain all Confidential Informants,” a slide titled “Confidential Informants” states.
The slideshow also emphasizes that Special Handling “prepares and maintains files” on each inmate it manages, including “confidential informants.”
But Special Handling deputies aren’t the only ones cultivating and developing informants in the jail. An internal letter from Special Handling praises the work of deputies in another “module” in cultivating informants:
Other internal documents reviewed by Sanders reveal that one of the main duties of deputies who work with inmates and informants in the jails is to recruit more informants. An internal memo titled “Protective Custody Debrief” includes a script of questions for deputies to use to determine if an inmate will become an informant. Notably, one question is explicitly seeking help with securing convictions, not simply providing intelligence about goings-on within the jail to help deputies with security:
The term “informants” became “sources of information” in order to mislead, Sanders says.
The new document trove, along with OCSD policy manuals Sanders had obtained, reveal that the sheriff’s department changed official vernacular to try to “create cover for false testimony [by their deputies] about the use of informants,” Sanders argues.
Sanders says deputies were ordered to stop calling informants “informants” and instead call them “sources of information.” Sanders argues the agency later changed its policy manuals to suggest that “informants” and “sources of information” were two different categories of inmates.
The switch, Sanders says, allowed deputies to escape perjury by denying a jailhouse informant program existed during the Dekraai hearings because technically informants were no longer called “informants.”
“Gents, I need to ask a favor,” Deputy Grover begins his email. “As some of you may know 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.’”
The D.A. delayed the release of more deputy logs in order to ensure a death sentence, Sanders contends.
In June, after years of denials, the Orange County district attorney’s office acknowledged that an informant program does indeed exist and that sheriff’s deputies actively “recruited and utilized” informants and rewarded them for information.
The admission followed the discovery of a 1,000-page Special Handling log that shed new light on the scope of the informant program inside county jails.
But a series of emails discovered in the new document cache indicates that the D.A.’s office took possession of still more deputies’ logs from another jail, the Theo Lacy Facility, in June 2016, but decided to delay their release to the court until December 2016. Theo Lacy, the county’s largest jail, is where Sanders’ client Dekraai continues to be housed.
Sanders argues that a deeply troubling but “likely” explanation for the delay was related to the timing of the sentencing in a double-murder case ― that of Daniel Wozniak, whom Sanders also represents. According to Sanders, the existence of these logs would have impeached testimony in hearings held earlier in the Wozniak case, which was also linked to a jail informant.
By withholding the log until after Wozniak’s case ended in September 2016, it helped to “ensure that a death sentence ... would be imposed” without the issue emerging or the case being delayed, Sanders says. Assistant District Attorney Dan Wagner, who was the lead prosecutor in the Dekraai hearings and whose emails are referenced in the brief, is the head of the D.A.’s office homicide unit and was the prosecutor during a portion of the Wozniak case.
The emails refer to a set of “additional logs” as a “TL Log” (TL likely stands for Theo Lacy). Wagner says in an August 2016 email exchange that he’s going to compile the logs into a “single document” and submit them to the court for an “upcoming” review in the Dekraai case. If Wagner had disclosed the “additional logs” as he indicated in his emails, Sanders says, he would have had the logs and the impeachment evidence well before Wozniak was sentenced to death. Wozniak, a former actor, is in San Quentin State Prison.
With new hearings coming, the death penalty may be removed from the Scott Dekraai mass murder case.
Despite the misconduct that has tainted the Dekraai case, and allegations of more, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced last month that his office would continue to pursue the death penalty against Dekraai. The state attorney general’s office inherited the prosecution when the entire Orange County district attorney’s office was ejected from the case in 2015 over misconduct stemming from its failure to turn over evidence on the jail informant system.
But in court Friday, Judge Goethals said he was considering employing what he called the “nuclear option”: the removal of the death penalty from Dekraai’s sentencing hearings. Goethals said that this option was once “completely unthinkable,” but because of the “extensive” allegations of misconduct, it has entered into the realm of possibility.
If Goethals were to dismiss the death penalty, he would instead sentence Dekraai to life in prison without the possibility of parole, he said in court.
Upcoming evidentiary hearings, he hopes, will better inform his decision on the matter. Goethals said he wants to get to the bottom of what appear to be “ongoing significant failures of compliance” with “legitimate orders made by this court over the last four years.”
The new evidentiary hearings are set to begin in May.
The Justice Department announced in December that it was investigating allegations that the informant program used by the sheriff’s and district attorney’s offices had violated defendants’ rights.
Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas has maintained that no one in his office intentionally behaved inappropriately in relation to the jailhouse informant program. The sheriff’s department echoes those arguments and adds that it has taken steps to create more robust ways of documenting and managing inmates.