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California

Orange County jailhouse informant program went on for decades, mass shooter’s lawyer claims

SANTA ANA,CA.,MARCH 18, 2014: Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders questions a jailhouse informa
Orange County Asst. Public Defender Scott Sanders, seen in 2014, filed court papers Thursday asserting that the county’s jail informant scandal goes back decades.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

In remarks to reporters and in sworn statements, the officials who run Orange County jails have repeatedly denied or downplayed the existence of an organized informant program.

But such a program has operated for decades and appears likely to encompass “well over a thousand informants,” the attorney representing mass shooter Scott Dekraai said in court papers Thursday.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department recently released 5,653 pages of records to Dekraai’s defense team, including memos showing that high-level department officials knew about the program, the attorney said. The trove of documents has not been made public.

Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals, frustrated by officials’ failure to divulge evidence to Dekraai’s attorneys, threw the district attorney’s office off the case in 2015. The state attorney general’s office, which has inherited the case, wants to put Dekraai on death row.

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Dekraai, a former tugboat captain, has pleaded guilty to murdering his ex-wife and seven others at a Seal Beach salon in 2011. But the penalty phase of his case — in which jurors will be asked to decide whether he should be executed or sent to prison for life — has been indefinitely delayed by litigation probing the misuse of jailhouse informants.

The judge recently ordered a new round of hearings in the case in hopes of finding answers. Dekraai’s attorney, Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, said he hopes to put sheriff’s officials on the stand, including Sheriff Sandra Hutchens herself.

Sanders contends that jailhouse informants and their handlers have violated the rights of inmates for years by coaxing information from defendants who are represented by lawyers.

Asked to clarify the department’s history regarding the use of jailhouse snitches, the sheriff’s recently appointed spokesman, Lt. Lane Lagaret, declined to comment.

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“In reference to anything to do with that case, we are not making a statement about any portion of it from here on out,” said Lagaret, referring to the pending Dekraai matter. “We’re gonna let this thing play out.”

Many in the department knew of the program, including Lagaret, who once supervised the so-called Special Handling unit that oversaw informants, and whose name appeared in informant logs “nearly four dozen times,” the Dekraai team contends.

The case has triggered investigations by the California attorney general’s office and the U.S. Department of Justice.

“My great interest is to move this case forward,” Goethals said at a hearing Thursday, though he added: “We’re in waters that we don’t swim through very often, in this case.”

Goethals has ordered the Sheriff’s Department not to destroy relevant evidence in the case, and on Thursday he warned — as he has before — that “people are gonna go to jail” if his order is violated.

Relatives of Dekraai’s victims appeared at the hearing. Bethany Webb, who lost her sister Laura Elody in the salon massacre, stood up to denounce the attorney general’s decision to pursue the death penalty.

“The attorney general is not speaking for my family,” she said. “They are not doing this for my family. They are doing this to my family.”

There would be no relief if her sister’s killer is sent to death row, where — considering the way the death penalty operates in California — he would die of natural causes anyway, Webb said.

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After the hearing, Webb said that if authorities broke the rules in the case against her sister’s killer, where evidence of guilt was overwhelming, she wondered how far they would go in lower-profile, hard-to-prove cases.

“If they cheated on this, where it’s an open-and-shut case, what do they do when there’s a gang-banger?” Webb said.

christopher.goffard@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATchrisgoffard

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