The San Diego County ‘Mean Girls’ crime lab drama

Connie Milton, a criminalist with the San Diego County Regional Crime Lab
Connie Milton, a criminalist with the San Diego County Regional Crime Lab, in 2008.
(Don Boomer / North County Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Tuesday, Oct. 19. I’m Justin Ray.

Earlier this year, the San Diego District Attorney’s Office sent an eye-opening three-paragraph letter to local defense lawyers.

It was meant to notify them that veteran San Diego Regional Crime Lab worker Connie Milton had accumulated “a record of matters that may be relevant to her credibility as a witness.”

The notice was sparse on details and didn’t specify any cases, but said it had “come to the attention” of prosecutors that Milton had a documented record of “potential concerns” over her performance in the lab. The concerns span a stunning 17 years, from 1996 to 2013, and potentially hundreds of cases.


It isn’t clear what actions are being taken to address concerns over Milton’s work. Additionally, Steve Walker, communications director for the DA, said the office’s case management system doesn’t include data on which criminalist worked on a case.

The San Diego Union-Tribune published an article explaining how testimony in a murder case led to revelations about the crime lab and its apparent toxic work environment.

Jane Dorotik, a former Valley Center woman, was convicted of murdering her husband in 2000. But her conviction was overturned in July 2020. The district attorney’s office is now seeking a retrial. Since April, a preliminary hearing has been held with much of the testimony focused on the forensic work in the original case.

Milton retired from the county in March, after nearly 25 years with the county, all in the lab. In interviews the past two weeks with the paper, she attributed the attacks on her work as defense lawyers looking to cast doubt on a conviction. She said the internal scrutiny of her work was the product of jealousy among some of her ex-colleagues. In her own testimony at Dorotik’s hearing in September, Milton described the lab as a “Mean Girls” environment, a reference to the 2004 movie starring Lindsay Lohan.

Lab scandals have led to profound impacts on criminal cases and sentences. Infamously, a Massachusetts chemist was convicted on charges that she committed perjury and tampered with evidence. The case led to the single largest dismissal of convictions in U.S. history.

In California, fraudulent testing at the San Francisco Police Department’s laboratory called into question as many as 1,000 drug convictions. The Los Angeles Police Department’s lab had its own problems in 1989, when ballistics tests incorrectly identified the gun of Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Rickey Ross as the weapon that killed three sex workers. Ross was later cleared, and prosecutors began using their own experts to verify the lab’s results.

It is not yet clear how the alleged San Diego crime lab questions could impact cases, but there’s so much more to know about the controversy. I encourage you to check the story out.

Further reading:

Bad forensic science is putting innocent people in prison. Welcome to the real world of forensics, where the wizardry lionized by the “CSI” television empire turns out to have serious flaws. The science of bite-mark comparisons, ballistic comparisons, fingerprint matching, blood-spatter analysis, arson investigation and other common forensic techniques has been tainted by systematic error, cognitive bias (sometimes called “tunnel vision”) and little or no research or data to support it.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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They’ve been stuck for months on cargo ships now floating off Southern California. They’re desperate. Maritime union protections say seafarers should sail no more than 11 months a year on a contract with an employer-paid flight home at the end. But Abrorizki Geraldy Aulia has worked 15 straight months without a break. Aulia was one of the seafarers who answered the call in summer 2020 when weeks of pent-up consumer demand led to a lot of orders, and a lot of ocean-traveling goods. It strained all parts of the global supply chain, causing ruptures still being felt today, as dozens of cargo ships anchored outside Southern California ports wait to unload. Some 300,000 additional migrant merchant sailors have been stranded on vessels at sea or in ports around the world, according to the International Transport Workers’ Federation. Los Angeles Times

A worker on a cargo ship in orange jumpsuit and white hardhat
Indonesian seafarer Abrorizki Geraldy Aulia, 24, has served for 15 months without a break.
(Ronald D. White / Los Angeles Times)

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Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who was indicted last week on federal charges, said Monday that he will “immediately step back” from participation in City Council meetings and committees but will not resign. In a letter to fellow council members, Ridley-Thomas said he will fight the “outrageous allegations” and plans to resume participation on the powerful legislative body “at the earliest appropriate time.” Several council members questioned last week whether Ridley-Thomas would be able to perform his duties while also responding to the 20-count indictment, which alleges that he and a former USC dean committed bribery, conspiracy and other crimes. Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas
Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas speaks to the press.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)


Deadly East Oakland shooting. This past weekend, family members of an Oakland man who was shot and killed by FBI agents in September gathered to demand the release of surveillance video of the shooting. The FBI said in a statement to The Times that its own investigation is internal. The agency added that investigations into the shooting are being conducted by the Oakland Police Department and the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, both of which may be more appropriate entities to release the video to the public. KTVU

Port truckers win $30 million in wage theft settlements. One of the world’s largest trucking companies, XPO Logistics, agreed to pay $30 million to settle class-action lawsuits filed by hundreds of drivers who said they earned less than minimum wage delivering goods for major retailers from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The combined settlements addressed allegations that two XPO subsidiaries, XPO Logistics Cartage in Commerce and San Diego and XPO Port Service in Rancho Dominguez, paid drivers less-than-legal wages, failed to pay them for missed meal and rest periods, and failed to reimburse them for business expenses or for waiting-time penalties. Los Angeles Times

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Over the past three decades, the population of leatherback sea turtles in the state has declined each year from 178 to just 50, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. They are the world’s largest turtle species, weighing an average of 1,000 pounds. Recently, scientists have discovered how crucial California is to their survival. First, they hatch on beaches in Indonesia. Once fully grown, they swim nearly 6,000 miles to eat jellyfish off the California coast. CBS Sacramento

They fled L.A. for Joshua Tree during the pandemic. Now they face the reality of desert life. Many city dwellers who fled urban sprawl over the last year and a half during the pandemic sought shelter in a more isolated desert community in hopes of finding more space and clean air. The high desert communities of Yucca Valley, Pioneertown and Joshua Tree, about 130 miles east of Los Angeles, have been inundated not only with new home buyers but also renters and city folk who come to work remotely at one of the many Airbnbs that have cropped up in recent years. But life in the desert doesn’t always measure up to the Instagram desert-chic aesthetic. Los Angeles Times


Authorities found the body of a man four days after he had been reported missing while on a solo kayaking trip. The man, identified as Dylan Flanagan, 28, was from San Francisco and was celebrating a job promotion and his birthday during a stay at a vacation rental near Clearlake Oaks when he went kayaking on the lake alone Sunday amid windy conditions with high waves, the Lake County News reported. An autopsy is scheduled in the coming week. San Francisco Chronicle

Major hotel chains are considering making daily room cleaning an exception rather than the norm. Daily room cleaning has long been a staple of the hotel industry, an expected level of service for paying guests. Under the new business model, though, those guests have to specifically opt in to receive daily cleaning. For longer stays, that means rooms could go uncleaned for days at a time, resulting in reduced shifts for housekeeping employees. Unite Here, which represents 300,000 hospitality workers in North America, estimates that the industry’s plan could cost nearly 181,000 jobs and $4.8 billion in annual lost wages. In Los Angeles, Kurt Petersen, co-president of Unite Here Local 11, said only about half of the union’s members there have so far been called back to work. Capital and Main

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Los Angeles: The city has seen sunnier days. 70. San Diego: See a monkey make tiny angry faces while snapping peas. 69. San Francisco: A bit cold. 66. San Jose: 70. Fresno: 72. Sacramento: 69.


Today’s California memory is from Barbara Benjamin:

As an undergraduate at UCLA, I worked part time at the Beverly Hills Hotel. One day, I observed Raymond Massey, who was famous for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, browsing through some magazines in one of the shops, his dog as his feet. Two little old ladies wanted to go near the rack but couldn’t because of the sprawling dog. When Massey realized what was happening, he nudged his dog with his foot. The ladies were appalled and one uttered, “Abraham Lincoln would never do that!”

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

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