The arrest of a private investigator as a suspected conspirator in a jailhouse murder plot will likely lead to a review of five other pending cases he has worked on, the county’s public defender said this week.
Santa Ana police and federal agents say investigator Daniel Bruce Watkins helped an alleged cop killer held at Orange County Jail with a plot to murder a key witness against him, according to court documents.
The investigator’s fall has shocked colleagues and raised concerns that he may have crossed ethical lines in other cases, although there has been no other specific incident identified, according to officials with the public defender’s and district attorney’s offices.
“There may be some review,” Public Defender Carl C. Holmes said. “An argument could be made that if he acted irresponsibly in other cases that it might affect issues for the defense in those cases or raise questions for prosecutors.”
The investigator’s work came under scrutiny after federal agents arrested him for allegedly delivering witness information to associates of inmate Hung Thanh Mai, who is awaiting trial on charges that he gunned down California Highway Patrol officer Don J. Burt in 1996.
Watkins is accused of providing Mai’s cohorts with a photo, an address and other information about a witness set to testify against Mai. Watkins’ role and the planned crime were exposed by a Santa Ana police undercover officer, who earned Mai’s trust while posing as a hit man, police said.
Santa Ana Police Capt. Dan McCoy described Watkins’ suspected role as that of “a messenger. He was important to the [conspiracy], but he was on the edge of it all.”
Watkins remained in federal custody Thursday without bail on murder conspiracy charges after his arrest earlier this week. He could face 10 years in federal prison if convicted. The accusations drew responses of incredulity from Holmes and others who have worked with Watkins in the last two decades. A graduate of Cal State Fullerton who received his law degree from Western State University, Watkins has earned a reputation as a steady, efficient investigator.
“He’s known as a straight arrow,” Holmes said. “This is hard to comprehend.”
The Vietnam veteran is in the midst of a divorce and, earlier this year, was charged with spousal abuse and child endangerment. Those cases are pending. “No one that knows his character can come up with an explanation for all this,” Holmes said.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Kazuharu Makino said Watkins was working on five cases in the trial or pretrial stage and two others in the sentencing phase, but the Mai case is the only murder trial among them. Some of those cases may be delayed as new investigators are brought in to assist defense attorneys.
Any review of Watkins’ work will be the decision of the attorneys on the cases, Makino said. Because the investigator’s findings are confidential, it would be inappropriate for the court to step in without specific cause, Makino said.
Holmes said it seems less likely that any review would delve into closed cases involving Watkins unless some specific concern is raised.
Watkins has been among a pool of more than two dozen private investigators who are assigned to work for court-appointed defense attorneys in trials where public defenders cannot handle the case. Deputy public defenders step away from more than 600 cases each year involving indigent defendants because of a conflict of interest.
The court-appointed private investigators make $25 to $30 an hour, a rate some private investigators interviewed for this story said is less than half the industry standard and far too low to attract quality detectives. “You get what you pay for,” one north Orange County investigator said.
The detective’s arrest also might complicate the lives of other private investigators, who often have to rely on the trust of law enforcement to get access to sensitive information that is otherwise out of their reach. Several local private investigators said this week that dealing with police has never been easy and it may get harder now.
“It chills the relationships without any question,” said Doug Roth, a Long Beach private investigator. “It’s an uphill battle as it is, and that’s not just in Orange County, that’s nationwide.”