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Prolific jail informant takes own life with new prison sentence looming

Orange County jail is located at 550 N. Flower St. in Santa Ana.
Orange County jail is located at 550 N. Flower St. in Santa Ana.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

A central figure in Orange County’s jail informant scandal took his own life recently.

Oscar Daniel Moriel, 40, was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in Huntington Beach the morning of Sept. 14, police spokeswoman Jennifer Carey confirmed to TimesOC this week.

Moriel was to be sentenced Oct. 22 after pleading guilty to felon in possession of a firearm in June.

The charge could have resulted in a life sentence under California’s three-strikes law, but a plea deal negotiated with prosecutors called for him to instead receive two years behind bars. It would be the second time he’s avoided a life sentence after receiving 17 years for a second-degree attempted murder conviction in December 2017.

Federal prosecutors made an unusual visit to Orange County Superior Court to support Moriel’s exceptionally light sentence, praising him as “instrumental” in a federal case against Mexican Mafia leaders.

The 11 years Moriel spent in the Orange County jail before his case was resolved was credited against his 17-year sentence, and he was released on May 23, 2020, after also receiving credit for good behavior. He was to be supervised for three years by a parole officer from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation; it was that officer who filed a parole violation report in August 2020 that led to the new gun charge.

His case was being prosecuted by the state attorney general’s office. A spokesman said the state took the case because it originated with a state parole officer.

Oscar Daniel Moriel
(Courtesy of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation)

Moriel had been out of jail on $200,000 bond for nearly a year when authorities say he committed suicide. He’d spent most of his adult life in custody, and he became a prolific jail informant in not only the federal Mexican Mafia investigation but other cases as well. Moriel testified in 2013 he’d killed “up to five, maybe six” people, but Orange County prosecutors said the Santa Ana Police Department had not located any victims of those purported murders.

Moriel isn’t the informant who talked to Seal Beach mass murderer Scott Dekraai in jail, leading to years of court hearings that resulted in a judge dismissing the death penalty as a sentencing option. But Dekraai’s lawyer, Orange County assistant public defender Scott Sanders, pointed to Moriel’s jailhouse work and prosecutors’ repeated failure to properly disclose it as evidence of a pattern of misconduct involving informants. Other cases were affected, too: A murder defendant Moriel questioned was released on a probation deal in 2014, and another had his conviction vacated.

Given his status as a trained informant, Moriel was legally considered an agent of the government and thus couldn’t legally question anyone who was charged with a crime and represented by an attorney. Further, defense attorneys facing Moriel as a prosecution witness had a right to know information about him that could help their clients, such as a 2009 interview between Moriel and Santa Ana police detectives in which he speaks of grabbing “spots of my memory and [making] it seem like it was yesterday,” according to a transcript.

Moriel’s defense attorney in the gun case, Christian Jensen, did not respond to interview requests.

Meghann M. Cuniff is a contributor for TimesOC. She’s on Twitter @meghanncuniff.

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