State ends four-year investigation into O.C. jail snitch scandal

Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders questions a jailhouse informant during a 2014 motions hearing.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times )

State prosecutors have closed an investigation into the unconstitutional use of informants in Orange County’s jails, ending a key probe into a scandal that rocked the law enforcement community, an attorney involved in a related case said Friday.

The revelation came during a hearing in a Fullerton courtroom to argue a motion alleging potential discovery violations related to the informant scandal. Deputy Atty. Gen. Darren Shaffer said the four-year investigation was at an end, with no prosecutions or punishments against deputies, according to Orange County Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders.

Sanders was in court seeking records related to the attorney general’s investigation into the informant case.


The scandal, which also sparked a federal investigation, was first uncovered by Sanders during the trial of Scott Dekraai, a retired tugboat captain who killed eight people inside a Seal Beach salon in 2011, the county’s worst mass shooting.

Years of evidentiary hearings during the Dekraai trial revealed that Orange County sheriff’s deputies had been housing informants near high-profile defendants to obtain confessions and elicit other information, which violated their constitutional right to have an attorney present.

The fallout from the scandal led former Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals to remove the Orange County district attorney’s office from the Dekraai trial and sparked retrials in more than a dozen cases, including several homicides.

The scandal also led to the downfall of two of the county’s top law enforcement officials: then-Sheriff Sandra Hutchens chose not to run for reelection in the wake of the informant controversy, and the scandal was central to District Attorney Todd Spitzer’s defeat of longtime top prosecutor Tony Rackauckas last November.

The attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Local watchdogs and civil liberties advocates have long criticized the sluggish pace of the state inquiry.

Former Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, who launched the investigation in 2015 and is now a presidential candidate, has been criticized about her handling of the case. Current Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra has received similar criticism for not moving the investigation forward.


“This investigation was a sham from beginning to end, and the result is deputies are more emboldened than ever to ignore the law,” Sanders said in a text message Friday evening.

The Orange County district attorney’s office declined to comment. Carrie Braun, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Department, said Friday the department had not been notified that the state inquiry was ending. She declined further comment.

The scandal remains under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The state investigation dragged on so long that newly elected Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes took the unusual step of reopening an internal probe of the case earlier this year. But two of the deputies who were the subject of the investigation quietly retired in March, Braun previously told The Times. A third remains under investigation.

Barnes said he shut down a special unit that was responsible for informants years ago.