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California

Judge ‘underwhelmed’ by sheriff’s search for evidence in O.C. snitch scandal

SANTA ANA,CA.,MARCH 18, 2014: Judge Thomas Goethals listens to arguements during a motion hearing th
Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals, seen in 2014, questioned the diligence of the Sheriff’s Department’s search for records in the county’s long-running jail-informant scandal.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department insists it has been working hard to comply with a judge’s long-standing orders to divulge records concerning its handling of jailhouse informants.

On Tuesday, however, a 24-year veteran of the department testified that he did not know whether anyone in the department had gone through 68 banker’s boxes worth of files — including informant-related material — dating from the 1980s.

Lt. Andrew Stephens testified that he took possession of the boxes — each containing 100 files — in late 2016, when he took over the jail’s Custody Intelligence Unit, which handles informants.

“I am underwhelmed at this moment by the diligence of the search, based on what this witness said,” Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals said after Stephens’ testimony.

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The Sheriff’s Department’s repeated failure to turn over informant-related evidence to the defense team of mass murderer Scott Dekraai is central to hearings underway this week before Goethals.

It is the third round of hearings in the case of Dekraai, a former tugboat captain who has pleaded guilty to the murders of eight people at a Seal Beach salon in 2011.

The penalty phase of his trial — to determine whether Dekraai should serve life in prison or go to death row — has been indefinitely delayed as the hearings play out.

Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders is arguing that the death penalty should be tossed out because authorities cannot be trusted to turn over relevant evidence.

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In the current hearings, Sanders said he intends to determine how and why the Sheriff’s Department in 2014 sought permission from the county Board of Supervisors to destroy records three years after their creation. He said the order, which has been put on hold, would have resulted in the potential destruction of informant evidence, including the 68 boxes.

Sanders told the judge that he wishes to call Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens to the stand, a possibility Goethals said he would entertain.

“I would like the think Sheriff Hutchens would welcome the opportunity” to answer questions under oath, Goethals said. “I hope I’m not being naïve when I say that.”

Sanders also hopes to question numerous jailers who handled informants. As they have before, some of the jailers are expected to invoke their 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Goethals said he is satisfied “beyond any doubt” that the Sheriff’s Department operated an informant program in which jailers planted snitches next to inmates with the aim of coaxing confessions out of them – a practice the Sheriff’s Department has denied and which the law forbids.

More than four years have passed since Goethals ordered the Sheriff’s Department to turn over snitch-related evidence, and the judge has grown increasingly frustrated with the department’s failure to comply.

Frustrated by the lack of forthcoming evidence, Goethals threw the office of Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas off the Dekraai case 2015, and the California attorney general’s office is now handling the mass shooter’s prosecution.

The attorney general’s office is also investigating Orange County authorities’ use of jailhouse informants, as is the U.S. Justice Department and the Orange County grand jury.

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In his testimony Tuesday, Stephens said the Justice Department had asked the Sheriff’s Department to scan the material in the 68 banker’s boxes of evidence, to ensure their preservation.

christopher.goffard@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATchrisgoffard

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