A six-year investigation by the Department of Justice, made public Thursday, Oct. 13., found that from 2007 through 2016 prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies in Orange County illegally and routinely used jailhouse informants as a way to win in court.
The practice, which came to be known as the “snitch scandal,” eventually unraveled at least a half-dozen high-profile prosecutions, and led to a life sentence – not death – for the worst mass murderer in Orange County history.
What it did to the key players isn’t as clear. Some experienced career changes, voluntary or otherwise. Others have stayed put. A few are no longer alive.
Here’s a look at what happened to some people connected to a jailhouse informant program that some of the county’s top elected leaders once insisted did not exist:
THEN: On Oct. 12, 2011, Scott Dekraai, a former tug boat worker, walked into a Seal Beach hair salon and killed his ex-wife and seven others. He was arrested, still wearing body armor, and soon confessed to police.
Three years later, during evidentiary hearings connected to the penalty phase of Dekraai’s trial, it became clear that even though they had enough evidence to convict Dekraai, prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies used a veteran jailhouse informant to extract additional incriminating statements from him. It was the first public acknowledgment of a practice that had been going on in local jails for several years.
In March 2015, after at least two sheriff’s deputies lied under oath or willfully withheld evidence related to the use of informants, the Orange County District Attorney’s office was removed from Dekraai’s prosecution and the case was turned over to the state. Later, citing misbehavior by prosecutors and investigators, Judge Thomas Goethals took the death penalty off the table for Dekraai. On Sept. 22, 2017, Goethals sentenced Dekraai to eight life terms without the possibility of parole.
NOW: State records indicate Dekraai, now 52, has undergone substance abuse treatment at Corcoran State Prison, where he remains incarcerated.
THEN: In 2014, when allegations surfaced that prosecutors and deputies were illegally using jailhouse informants, Tony Rackauckus was one of the more popular elected officials in Orange County. He’d been in office since winning election in 1998 and had won re-election in 2002, 2006 and 2010 – the last two unopposed. He won again in 2014, beating challenger Greg Diamond with 73% of the vote.
Rackauckus consistently denied that his office misused informants. During the Dekraai prosecution, he asked the Department of Justice to investigate his office and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, leading to the report released this week. During that period, he also publicly accused Goethals of bias against him because of the informant issue and, for a time, steered high-profile cases away from Goethals’ courtroom.
The use of informants became a key issue in Rackauckas’ campaign for a sixth term, which he lost in 2018 to current District Attorney Todd Spitzer.
NOW: Rackauckus, now 79, is a private attorney with an office in Tustin.
THEN: In 2010, convicted felon and long-time Mexican Mafia member Fernando Perez was in a jail cell next to Daniel Wozniak, a Costa Mesa community theater actor who was charged with killing two friends, beheading one of them. According to police accounts, Perez got Wozniak to talk about the killings, information he later took to authorities on condition that he receive lenient treatment. That information eventually was not used by prosecutors.
A year later, deputies put Perez – by then an active informant – in a cell next to Dekraai. Authorities used recording equipment to capture more than 130 hours of conversation between the two men. The public defender for both Wozniak and Dekraai, Scott Sanders, noted that Perez was an informant in both cases, eventually leading to the discovery of the broader use of informants.
NOW: In 2016, Perez was sentenced to 21 years on a gun conviction that, as a third strike, could have meant life in prison. The judge gave Perez credit for nearly 14 years in jail, meaning he faced seven more years. He is believed to be in prison, but under witness protection. State records do not show where he is incarcerated.
THEN: In July 2017, while testifying during a hearing related to the Dekraai case, Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said this about the snitch scandal:
“There is no (jailhouse informant) program, per se. There is activity.”
By that time, an investigation by the Fourth District Court of Appeals had already found that informant use was organized by county jailers and condoned by local prosecutors. The practice, the court investigation found, was “systemic.”
Hutchens also was personally under fire from Goethals for failing to produce records of the department’s use of informants, their placement within local jails and their testimony at trials. Those logs eventually would be revealed and prove the existence of the informant network.
At the time of the court statement, Hutchens, who had been sheriff since 2008, was battling health problems. In 2018, she would decline to seek re-election.
NOW: Hutchens died on Jan. 4, 2021, at age 65, of breast cancer. As the first female sheriff in Orange County, she was lauded as a trailblazer for women in law enforcement. She also was widely admired for reforming the Orange County Sheriff’s Department after the scandal-plagued tenure of former Sheriff Mike Carona.
THEN: In 2015, when asked directly during a public meeting if Orange County prosecutors and deputies were illegally using jailhouse informants, Ebrahim Baytieh, then an Orange County Assistant District Attorney, offered a one-word answer: “baloney.“
Though not a prosecutor on the Dekraai case, Beyteigh was a top spokesman for the office, repeatedly telling public gatherings that the allegations against the office were overstated or concocted by public defenders and the media. “We are about doing the right things every day.”
At the time Baytieh was making those statements, the Sheriff’s Department’s Special Handling Unit was still working in local jails, helping to make sure informants were placed in proximity to defendants and offering informants special consideration when they came up with information. The DOJ report released Thursday described that element of the practice like this:
“OCSD and OCDA made the informant program attractive to informants by rewarding them with benefits for their work. The practice of rewarding informants with benefits – often referred to as ‘consideration’ by courts – further illuminates the close relationship that existed between informants and law enforcement in Orange County. The practice also had consequences under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments.”
NOW: In February, Baytieh was fired from the District Attorney’s Office after an internal investigation into withholding evidence in a murder case. In June, Baytieh was elected an Orange County Superior Court Judge. He is set to be sworn in early next year.
Judge Thomas Goethals
THEN: In 2014, former county prosecutor turned Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals was presiding over the Dekraai case. He grew impatient when, during the proceedings, Sanders, the assistant public defender, began arguing about serious misconduct on the part of prosecutors and their use of informants. But Goethals agreed to read Sanders’ 505-page legal motion on the issue and, later, ordered formal hearings.
During those hearings, Goethals heard what he later described as willfully misleading or false testimony from some deputies who worked with informants. He later barred the county’s 250-lawyer District Attorney’s Office from prosecuting Orange County’s worst mass murderer.
Upon sentencing, in 2017, Goethals said: “If this case had been prosecuted from the outset by the Orange County District Attorney within the most fundamental parameters of prosecutorial propriety, this defendant would likely today be living alongside other convicted killers on California’s death row in San Quentin State Prison.”
NOW: He’s a member of the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, Division Three. He was appointed to the post in 2018 by then-Gov. Jerry Brown.
THEN: Sanders was Assistant Public Defender at the Public Defender’s Office of Orange County, who often handled high-profile cases.
In 2014, while representing Dekraai, Sanders saw that the same informant, Perez, had been used, or was considered for use, in two high-profile cases, Dekraai and another murder case involving Wozniak. The coincidence prompted him to investigate other use of informants in Orange County. That generated enough information for the motion that he submitted to Goethals which, in turn, led to state and federal investigations.
NOW: Sanders, 56, holds the same title with the Public Defender’s office. On Thursday, after seeing the DOJ report, he said he was happy but unsurprised by their findings.
“They did a lot of work. I know how that is. It isn’t easy. But, it’s big.”
Source: Orange County Register