O.C. mass shooter is spared death penalty in case tainted by jail informant scandal

For years, allegations that Orange County law enforcement officials used a secret network of jailhouse informants to violate inmates’ constitutional rights have roiled the region’s criminal justice system.

The so-called snitch scandal has led to the retrial of several convicted killers, sparked criticism of Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and led to a federal investigation.

The county’s beleaguered law enforcement leaders received their most stinging rebuke yet on Friday, when Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals blocked prosecutors from pursuing the death penalty against a man who confessed to slaughtering eight people in a Seal Beach salon, ruling that the county’s mishandling of information regarding informants would prevent a fair trial.

For some of those who lost loved ones at the hands of Scott Dekraai in 2011, the moment seemed one of relief that the years-long legal drama was now coming to a close. Several relatives of victims stood and hugged after Goethals delivered his ruling in a Santa Ana courtroom. Then they turned their ire toward a law enforcement community they say victimized them all over again by bungling a slam-dunk prosecution.

“It’s been six years for nothing. We couldn’t control the murder. We couldn’t stop that. We couldn’t stop this,” said Butch Fournier, whose sister Michelle was Dekraai’s ex-wife, the main target of his shooting. “They caused us pain and suffering that was unnecessary. It was a cut-and-dry case.”

Barring an appeal from the California attorney general’s office, Dekraai will be sentenced next month to consecutive life sentences in state prison without the possibility of parole. Several of the victims’ relatives have asked the attorney general’s office not to appeal.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Justice said the agency was reviewing the decision and declined to comment further.

As he has through years of hearings, Goethals sharply criticized the conduct of sheriff’s officials and prosecutors. Time and time again, he said, the Sheriff’s Department failed to comply with his orders to turn over information about the use of informants in the county jail.

“The Orange County Sheriff’s Department has consistently responded to this court’s lawful orders with such indolence and obfuscation that this court has lost confidence that it can ever secure compliance from the prosecution team,” Goethals wrote in his 19-page decision.

If not for missteps by prosecutors and sheriff’s officials, Goethals wrote, Dekraai “would likely today be living alongside other convicted killers on California’s Death Row.”

The Sheriff’s Department almost immediately lashed out at Goethals, releasing a statement expressing disappointment at the judge’s ruling and arguing that the “facts in this case clearly supported a death penalty verdict.”

“Notwithstanding the issues that were raised by the court’s ruling, we believe the defendant would have received a fair trial during the penalty phase of the criminal proceedings,” the department said. “The decision to remove the death penalty rests at the feet of Judge Goethals and nobody else.”

In a separate statement, the district attorney’s office said it was not surprised by Goethals’ ruling, adding that any failure by the Sheriff’s Department “to produce tangential information in a timely manner has nothing to do with what Dekraai did and the fact that Dekraai deserves the death penalty.”

Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who will run for district attorney next year and attended Dekraai’s hearing, defended the ruling and called for Rauckauckas and Hutchens to immediately resign.

“This has nothing to do with the judge,” Spitzer said. “This has to do with the fact that the sheriff and the D.A. cheated.”

Dekraai, a former tugboat captain, pleaded guilty to the salon murders in 2014. But the penalty phase of his trial has been in limbo for years as evidence surfaced that sheriff’s deputies housed a longtime informant near him in the hopes of extracting evidence that could lead to a death sentence.

That discovery set off a chain of events that led Goethals and an appellate court to rule that the Sheriff’s Department was running a “sophisticated” jailhouse informant network in order to coax confessions out of people held in the county’s jail system.

Dekraai’s attorney, Orange County Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, has contended that jailhouse informants and their handlers violated the rights of inmates for years by coaxing information from defendants who are represented by lawyers.

The district attorney’s office and Sheriff’s Department have denied running a coordinated informant operation. In Dekraai’s case, prosecutors argued it was a coincidence that Fernando Perez, a reputed Mexican Mafia shot caller who had cooperated with law enforcement in the past, wound up housed near Dekraai.

Perez was facing 40 years to life in prison for a weapons charge but ultimately received a reduced sentence and could be freed in less than seven years.

Appellate court rulings have upheld Goethals’ finding that sheriff’s deputies were moving informants around the jail to place them near specific inmates.

Sanders said Friday’s ruling ensures a fair punishment for a client who committed “terrible crimes” while showing the district attorney’s office that there are consequences for cutting corners.

“To have a judge make this type of ruling sends such an important message beyond the case,” said Sanders, who called for a thorough review to determine if other criminal cases had been tainted.

After the scandal exploded, a number of high-profile murder convictions involving informants were tossed because authorities failed to turn over evidence to the defense.

Earlier this year, the Orange County grand jury released a report that the jailhouse scandal was a “myth,” finding that the misconduct was limited to a few “rogue deputies.” Hutchens and Rackauckas hailed the report as vindication.

Defense attorneys panned the report as a “whitewash.” Weeks later, an appellate court upheld Goethals’ order for a new trial in a 1998 murder because the district attorney’s office had failed to disclose information about an informant in the case.

Both the U.S. Department of Justice and the California attorney general’s office have launched investigations into the use of jailhouse informants in Orange County.

In evidentiary hearings that have dragged on for years, sheriff’s officials repeatedly told the judge there were no more records to be found — only for other material to be subsequently discovered.

“How does this happen?” Goethals asked the sheriff when she testified last month. “They were dead wrong.”

“They possibly did not look hard enough,” replied Hutchens, who acknowledged that informants had been placed near targeted inmates in the Orange County jail for years, with the aim of eliciting incriminating statements. She testified that some of her deputies may have flouted rules regarding jailhouse informants, but that such conduct was committed only “by a few.”

Bethany Webb, whose sister Laura Webb-Elody died in the shootings, said she hopes Friday’s ruling results in Dekraai fading “quietly into the hell he deserves.”

Webb scoffed at the idea that prosecutors sought the death penalty in the hopes of bringing the victims’ relatives closure or justice.

“Even if he was executed, it would have been a drug-induced easy out,” she said.

Paul Wilson, whose wife of 26 years was killed in the mass shooting, wore a pin bearing her picture as he spoke to reporters. He said he was relieved that the legal proceedings were drawing to an end, and while he initially wanted Dekraai to be executed, the six-year court saga has left him exhausted and frustrated with Rackauckas and Hutchens.

“Those are our two top cops, and they need to be held accountable and responsible,” he said.

james.queally@latimes.com

Follow @JamesQueallyLAT on Twitter for crime and police news in California.

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UPDATES:

2:55 p.m.: This story was updated with comments from Orange County Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, a statement from the district attorney’s office and more details from Goethals’ ruling.

11:05 a.m.: This article was updated with a statement from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and comments from relatives of Scott Dekraai’s victims.

10:20 a.m.: This article was updated with more details from the court hearing and a comment from Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer.

9:50 a.m.: This article was updated with the judge’s decision.

This article was originally published at 4 a.m.

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