Deals Won Jail Informant Freedom to Attack Again
At least 10 women paid a heavy price for deals the district attorney’s office made with a jailhouse informant.
They were kidnaped or raped.
Some of the county’s most respected career prosecutors made the deals, twice persuading judges to release the informant, Stephen Jesse Cisneros, from jail.
Cisneros, a mentally disturbed sex offender, was in jail each time for attempted rape.
In each case, prosecutors traded him his freedom for information he provided on murder cases.
And in each case, according to court records, Cisneros went out and attacked more women.
Ironically, he now says some of the information he gave prosecutors on murder cases was false.
Other prosecutors eventually caught up with Cisneros, who is now serving a 70-year prison sentence for eight of the sexual assaults--attacks that a judge called “as vicious a series of depraved assaults as I have ever seen.”
Cisneros typically abducted his victims, who were illegal aliens, by posing as an immigration agent.
He would approach them while they were waiting for buses or walking home, show them a badge that said “immigration” and demand to see proof of their citizenship.
When they could not produce any, he would handcuff them, place them under “arrest” and tell them he was taking them to jail.
Instead, he took them to tunnels leading to the Los Angeles River where he raped, sodomized or otherwise sexually assaulted them before letting them go.
In an interview at Folsom State Prison, Cisneros recently recalled the releases that allowed him the opportunity to terrorize these women.
“I didn’t belong on the streets,” he said.
“I wanted help but I couldn’t get it.”
Cisneros came to public attention several weeks ago when he made statements to a private investigator and to The Times that he had perjured himself in five Los Angeles murder cases at the behest of police, testifying falsely in each instance that the defendant had confessed.
He thus became the first jailhouse informant, since an informant scandal surfaced in Los Angeles County last year, to admit under oath that he had fabricated confessions in specific murder cases.
Cisneros’ story illustrates a downside to the use of jailhouse informants: They usually don’t work for free.
In using them to put away heinous criminals, law enforcement finds itself in the awkward position of rewarding informants, who are usually criminals themselves, sometimes at the expense of the public safety it is trying to protect.
Cisneros’ case also raises questions about whether law enforcement rewards these informants too freely, and about the degree to which judges serve as rubber stamps in approving deals for leniency negotiated by prosecutors.
Cisneros established himself as an especially valuable informant in late 1979 in one of the most heinous series of murders imaginable--the kidnapings and torture slayings of five teen-age girls, most of whom were from the South Bay.
The girls had been raped and sodomized, ripped with pliers, beaten with a sledgehammer, had ice picks driven into their skulls, and had been strangled with wire coat hangers. In one case, the killers tape-recorded their victim’s screams.
Two suspects had been arrested, but the bodies of most of the girls had not been found.
In what appears to have been an attempt to gather more evidence, one suspect was placed in a section of the jail reserved for informants, according to official records. The other--a rapist who had been on parole--was placed in another section of the jail, with Cisneros, who was awaiting trial for attempted rape.
Cisneros and his new cellmate, Roy Norris, hit it off.
“They put him in the day before Thanksgiving,” Cisneros recalled in his prison interview. “We introduced ourselves and he starts telling me, ‘I feel bad.’ . . . He ran down . . . all the gory details. He said, ‘I need help.’ ”
Cisneros said he was summoned the next morning to an office in the jail, where he met Los Angeles County sheriff’s homicide detectives.
Until then, Cisneros said, he had only been a street informant on narcotics cases. This was his big break.
“They got doughnuts, coffee, anything I wanted there,” he recalled. “And they’re telling me, ‘This guy is the Redondo Beach killer. His partner’s up in the K9 (informant) tank to see what (information) we can get out of there.”
Cisneros said the detectives asked him to see if Norris would agree to testify against his alleged crime partner.
Months later, Norris agreed, in return for a sentence of 45 years to life.
Norris’ crime partner, Lawrence Bittaker, was sentenced to death.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Stephen Kay, who prosecuted them both, said he needed Norris’ testimony to convict Bittaker, whom he regarded as the more culpable.
Kay, who had gained fame earlier as co-prosecutor of the Charles Manson Family and is now a high-ranking administrator in the district attorney’s office, credited Cisneros with “almost single-handedly” talking Norris into testifying and leading authorities to the girls’ bodies.
He also credited Cisneros with helping save Norris’ life. One day, while Cisneros was out of their cell informing on Norris, Norris tried to hang himself. Cisneros returned just in time to alert jailers.
Kay wrote a letter on Cisneros’ behalf, commending him for contributing to an investigation that otherwise “might have been unsuccessful.”
He addressed the letter to a colleague, Deputy Dist. Atty. Dino Fulgoni, who was then prosecuting Cisneros for attempted rape.
Such letters are commonplace. They seem innocuous, often, as with Kay’s, merely recounting the facts of an informant’s cooperation, without asking for any favors. But they work like magic keys to jail doors because recipients are often influenced to modify their judgments as to what punishment the informant deserves for his own crime.
Kay said he felt that writing the letter was customary and the least he could do for Cisneros. “I did the minimum,” he said.
Fulgoni, who is now a Superior Court judge, said that until he got the letter, he felt Cisneros belonged in prison. But in light of what Kay said Cisneros had done for authorities, he decided to go along with Cisneros’ release under a plea bargain. “I was working basically as Mr. Kay’s agent and using my own discretion to go along with him . . . reluctantly” in arranging for the release, Fulgoni said.
But was the release really necessary?
Cisneros by then had completed his work for the prosecution and never testified in the Norris-Bittaker case.
“No,” Fulgoni said. “It’s not necessary to do anything after the fact.”
Why then was Cisneros released?
The answer appears to be a fear that if he were not rewarded, other informants might be reluctant to provide information to authorities.
“If you looked at the merits and say, ‘What should happen to Cisneros?’ Well, Cisneros ought to go to prison for as long as you can keep him in prison,” said Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Gregory Thompson, who was not involved in the case, “because as long as he’s on the street, he represents a significant threat. But the fact is that the risk, at least at the time . . . was deemed to be outweighed by the fact that we need to send (a message) that this information is so valuable that the system has to reward it.
“You’re talking about a pipeline of information that only continues if people see at the end there is a reward,” Thompson said. “And the only way you keep that pipeline going is by having . . . visible rewards for informants.”
Noting that Cisneros was far less dangerous than Norris or Bittaker, Kay said that, at the time, he was concentrating on the business of putting killers away. “This was just a small, teeny little offshoot,” he said.
The judge who ultimately approved Cisneros’ release said he could not recall the case. But when the situation was described to him, he said he had probably relied on Fulgoni’s judgment.
Superior Court Judge William Munnell, now retired, said he knew Fulgoni to be a hard-charging prosecutor and probably figured that if Fulgoni wanted Cisneros released, there was a good reason.
Fulgoni arranged for the release even though he regarded Cisneros, according to a memo he wrote at the time, as someone with “a high potential for danger.” Cisneros’ criminal record bore that out. He had previously been found guilty of setting fires because they gave him a sexual thrill.
The sentence for arson in those days was from one to 14 years in prison, prosecutors said. But because psychiatrists said Cisneros had set the fires for sexual gratification, he was classified as a mentally disordered sex offender and sent to the maximum-security state mental hospital at Atascadero to serve his sentence--which could have been extended in one or two-year increments, at least theoretically, for life.
After four years at the hospital, psychiatrists decided Cisneros was well enough for a leave of absence. They allowed him to return to Los Angeles and continue therapy as an outpatient. But within months, Cisneros was arrested for trying to rape a woman whose apartment he was supposed to have been painting.
This was why he was in jail when Kay wrote his letter.
The psychiatrist who had been treating Cisneros as an outpatient, and two other court-appointed psychiatrists who examined him, felt he should be sent back to a state hospital, and the county probation department agreed.
But court records show that Judge Munnell asked the probation department to come up with a plan to allow Cisneros to be treated again as an outpatient.
The probation department resisted. It surveyed more than 10 physicians and outpatient programs and reported that “the general consensus . . . is that the defendant is not suitable or amenable to outpatient therapy” and that such treatment would be dangerous for the community. A probation investigator also noted that his department did not have the resources to supervise someone such as Cisneros.
Judge Munnell decided to release Cisneros anyway, for reasons he did not state on the record.
Cisneros was placed on probation and told to report for therapy to USC’s Institute of Psychiatry, Law and Behavioral Science.
Dr. William Vicary, who ran an institute group therapy program for sex offenders, recalled Cisneros as a “a very glib, very smooth, rather sophisticated individual” who had been raised by an aunt he described as abusive and had had a series of disastrous adult relationships with dominant, drug-abusing women.
Cisneros started outpatient therapy in April, 1980, and within a few months, was attacking women again, according to court records.
In August, 1980, in a crime which did not come to light for years, he approached a Spanish-speaking illegal alien woman who was waiting for a bus just south of downtown, she later testified.
Telling her that he was an immigration officer and flashing his badge, he placed her under “arrest,” handcuffed her at gunpoint, drove her to a tunnel leading to the Los Angeles River, raped her, then let her go.
Pretending to be an immigration officer was a technique he would use again and again in years to come.
Vicary told a probation officer in response to an inquiry in November, 1980, that Cisneros had stopped coming to therapy regularly, probation records show.
A probation violation hearing resulted in December, but Cisneros was neither put in jail nor sent to a state hospital.
Instead, Judge Munnell warned Cisneros that he’d better go to therapy.
The next month, Cisneros stopped going altogether, Vicary said.
The month after that, in February, 1981, court records show, he sexually attacked another woman.
Cisneros had gotten himself a job as a tow-truck driver. He had stopped to help a woman whose car had broken down on the Long Beach Freeway.
The police responded, too, and apparently told the woman to go with Cisneros.
Cisneros took her to the tow yard where he worked, forced her into a van, choked her with a cord and beat her when she refused to disrobe.
She lost consciousness and, when she awoke, she was nude.
He told her to flee.
Unlike the illegal alien woman who did not report the crime for years, this victim called the police right away.
Cisneros, whose crimes sometimes seemed to reflect a desire to be caught, was not difficult for the police to find.
He was arrested at the tow yard as a probation violator and held without bail pending a hearing.
Then he began looking for a way out.
En route to court on a jail bus, he claimed he overheard a murder suspect, James Shortt, confess to killing a man he had robbed.
Prosecutors contend Shortt was high on PCP when he drove a van to a Bell Gardens bar, dropped off a female co-defendant and told her to lure a man out to the street. She did. Then Shortt and a male co-defendant grabbed the victim and robbed him. Shortt shot the victim in the head, prosecutors said.
Shortt’s two co-defendants testified against him in deals that saw them placed on probation for murder because they said they hadn’t known Shortt intended to kill.
Cisneros came into the picture because the law recognizes that accomplices in such situations have motives to lie, and requires some corroboration of their testimony, however slight.
The prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas Gray, acknowledged that he had legally sufficient corroboration available apart from Cisneros. But he said he decided to use Cisneros because “I felt as a trial lawyer that it was helpful to my case.”
Shortt was eventually tried and convicted and sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.
Cisneros now says he perjured himself in that case.
In relying on Cisneros’ word, authorities were playing with fire.
Cisneros was, to say the least, erratic. In his interview with The Times, for example, he first admitted, then denied committing rapes during a certain time period, all without apparent discomfort.
Cisneros had a reputation as someone who would confess to a crime whether he was guilty or not, because “he had that strong urge to please his interrogator,” recalled one of his former defense attorneys, Charles Gessler.
By the time he was used in the Shortt case, at least two psychiatrists had told judges--and the district attorney’s office--that he was a pathological liar.
Gray and other prosecutors who used him said they were unaware of those assessments.
By the time Gray was handed the Shortt case to try, another prosecutor had already worked out what Gray termed a “very favorable package” for Cisneros.
In return for his promise to testify against Shortt, the district attorney’s office had agreed in August, 1981, that Cisneros would be sentenced to the lowest prison term for attempted rape--two years, rather than the maximum of six--and that the two-year sentence would also take care of his probation violation on the earlier attempted rape conviction--a violation that might have have resulted in at least a six-year term in a state mental hospital.
The prosecutor whose name appears on that agreement, Deputy Dist. Atty. Daniel Johnson, is now retired and said he does not recall it.
After his plea agreement, Cisneros remained in Los Angeles County Jail for nearly a year, rather than being sent to prison, until he testified at Shortt’s trial in June, 1982.
Then he was formally sentenced by Superior Court Commissioner Michael A. Cowell and ordered released because, with credit for good conduct, he had already served the equivalent of two years.
Cowell said recently that he had “blessed little” recollection of the case, but added, “I look at it now and I’m horrified.”
Cowell said he had probably regarded it at the time as a routine matter of approving an agreement between the prosecution and defense, and in the press of business had not reviewed it in detail.
“I cannot sit here and say I did not have the discretion to withdraw from a plea . . . but for all intents and purposes, it’s not something you would do in (a case where there was) a state prison sentence,” Cowell said. “And the guy was getting state prison.”
Technically, that was true. For the sake of bookkeeping, Cisneros still had to be processed in and out of state prison before he could be freed.
Cowell signed an order allowing the district attorney’s office to send two of its investigators to drive Cisneros to prison so he would not have to take the prison bus.
According to his criminal record, the law had its next crack at Cisneros in 1983, when Los Angeles police arrested him on suspicion of robbery.
Cisneros, who said he remembered the arrest as having occurred in 1984, said he was raping--but mainly robbing-- prostitutes in Hollywood at the time.
Available records show he was released when the district attorney’s office declined to file charges against him.
Why they declined to file charges is not clear.
Cisneros said authorities claimed they released him because they couldn’t believe his prostitute victims.
But he said the real reason was that “a couple of ‘juice men’ that I know from the sheriff’s division in East L.A. came down” and intervened on his behalf. He claimed he could not remember their names.
Little could be learned about this arrest, other than from Cisneros, however. The district attorney’s office said it could not find any record of its decision not to file charges. Police said their arrest reports are not public.
By this time, according to court records, Cisneros was well along in his career as a phony immigration agent.
He was finally arrested as the Los Angeles “Riverbed Rapist” in January, 1985, after he again used a readily identifiable tow truck to abduct a victim.
This time he suspended the woman from the truck’s winch while he beat her, then raped her and finally let her go.
For the riverbed rapes, Cisneros was facing the prospect of being sentenced to literally hundreds of years in prison.
He began looking very hard for a way out.
While in jail, he provided information and later testified--falsely, he now says--in three murder cases, claiming in each case that the suspect had confessed.
But Deputy Dist. Atty. Vivian Davidson, who was prosecuting him for the rapes, wasn’t interested in making any trades. She said the only deal she offered Cisneros was 98 years in prison if he would plead guilty to all the kidnapings and rapes. She said she figured that even though California’s prisoners usually serve only half their sentences, the 36-year-old Cisneros would surely die behind bars.
Superior Court Judge Dion Morrow, who was set to preside over Cisneros’ trial, cut the offer on his own to 70 years as a jury was about to be selected.
Morrow explained at the time that he wanted to avoid the “risk in any litigation” and “to save these poor women the humiliation of having to come into this court and testify.”
He said he figured the public would still be safe because Cisneros would be 71 years old when released.
“He’d be too old to rape, rob, kidnap, beat, chain anybody else,” the judge said.
Cisneros agreed to the 70 years, but still made one last effort to persuade Morrow that he had earned a break.
As Morrow was about to formally pronounce sentence in early 1987, Cisneros’ attorney asked if he could call Deputy Dist. Atty. Larry Walls to the witness stand.
Walls was the prosecutor in one of the murder cases in which Cisneros testified the suspect had confessed.
Morrow would have no part of it.
“I am not interested in hearing from Mr. Walls on the situation at all,” he said.
“I wouldn’t cut the 70 years by five minutes.”