Sheriff’s Department Use of Jailhouse Tracking System Under Scrutiny

Scott Dekraai, accused of killing eight people in a Seal Beach beauty salon, listens while his attorney, Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, addresses the court in a hearing last year. (Photo credit: pool)

Scott Dekraai, accused of killing eight people in a Seal Beach beauty salon, listens while his attorney, Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, addresses the court in a hearing last year. (Photo credit: pool)

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A little-known computer tracking system for Orange County jail inmates is the centerpiece of the latest effort by public defenders to save mass murderer Scott Evans Dekraai from the death penalty.

Officials from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department have acknowledged the existence of the system, called TRED, and said its purpose is to make sure inmates are safe, gang enemies aren’t housed together, and at times to manage secret informants and undercover operations, like surreptitious recordings.

But testimony in recent days at a re-opened evidentiary hearing in Superior Court indicates deputies withheld details and records of the system from defendants, including Dekraai, who in 2011 gunned down his wife and seven others at a Seal Beach beauty salon, the county’s largest ever mass murder.

Such information is important because it can show how informants were located near defendants, like Dekraai, potentially violating their constitutional rights.

Dekraai’s lead public defender, Scott Sanders, discovered the TRED files late last year after he subpoenaed records in another murder case.

That subpoena, dated Aug. 22, was for records to defend Daniel Patrick Wozniak — who killed and dismembered a Costa Mesa man, then killed his Irvine girlfriend.

Sanders and others associated with the Dekraai and Wozniak cases say this was their first knowledge of the TRED records.

But a sheriff’s department spokesman said Tuesday that some of the system’s records might have been subpoenaed in past years in some cases.

Sanders is using the system’s inmate-tracking entries to try to show that prosecutors and law enforcement violated the defendants’ rights by withholding information about informants securing statements and/or recordings from both Dekraai and Wozniak.

During three days of testimony before Judge Thomas A. Goethals that ran through Tuesday, three sheriff’s deputies from a special handling unit involving jail informants have had their current and/or past testimony called into question.

At one point in these exchanges, Goethals told the prosecution and defense to be prepared to file motions on the potential impact of any perjury finding; but the judge said he had not yet made any decision on a witness committing perjury.

The re-opened hearing follows six months of testimony last year that culminated with Goethals ruling that prosecutors and law enforcement engaged in misconduct by withholding evidence from Dekraai on how a jailhouse informant was used in the days after the slaughter. He sanctioned the prosecution by blocking the use of tapes and informant statements in the coming penalty phase of the trial.

However, Goethals denied Sanders’ request to take the death penalty off the table for Dekraai and have the DA’s office recused from the case.

But when the TRED records “washed ashore,” as Goethals said late last year, he re-opened the evidentiary hearing — allowing Sanders to question a new deputy witness and prior deputy witnesses about the system and why it never came up earlier in the hearing.

While Goethals’ ruling last year found the prosecution’s misconduct wasn’t intentional, the disclosure of the TRED records prompted the judge to warn recently of a possible additional sanction against the prosecution.

Sanders is now arguing that this newly disclosed evidence — along with the earlier prosecution violations — means Dekraai, who has pleaded guilty to the murders, can’t get a fair trial. He is again asking that the death penalty be taken off the table in the coming penalty phase of trial.

Last week in an interview, Lt. Jeffrey Hallock, a sheriff’s department spokesman, said: “We’ve always considered TRED contents confidential and privileged based on security reasons.”

Then on Tuesday after consulting with senior officers and county counsel, Hallock said some TRED records were disclosed in at least one high-profile case some years ago, and possibly others.

Under state law, law enforcement with knowledge of sensitive evidence — like TRED entries — can invoke during testimony certain legal codes to protect the disclosure of damaging information. The trial judge then holds a private hearing, where defense, prosecutors and county counsel debate what information safely can be released in public.

Last week, Hallock said that TRED is slang for “Retread,” a term used for reconditioning vehicle tires that was applied to inmates who repeatedly returned to jails. Records show the system was initiated in 1990.

“It is used up and down the state,” Hallock said.

However, checks with Riverside and San Diego counties Sheriff’s Departments indicated no knowledge of the term “TRED.”

“I’ve never heard of that,” said Jerry J. Gutierrez, a Riverside County assistant sheriff in charge of corrections who has been with the department 25 years.

At the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, Lt. Alan Kneeshaw, of jail management, said: “I’ve never heard of TRED or Retread.”

But both officials say their counties have computerized inmate population monitoring systems — called a Jail Information Management System [JIMS] — that serves a function similar to Orange County’s system.

JIMS is widely known among prosecutors, law enforcement and the defense bar — whose attorneys regularly subpoena its records, said the San Diego and Riverside officials.

Yet in Orange County, Goethals, Sanders and one of Dekraai’s senior prosecutors — Howard Gundy — said they knew nothing of TRED till late last year. And Goethals, in addition to being a longtime judge, is a former deputy district attorney and defense lawyer.

In his sanction order last August, Goethals wrote that some law enforcement officers and prosecutors were “credibility challenged,” and that some “undoubtedly lied” during the evidentiary hearing. But he did not name anyone.

On Monday, Goethals allowed Sanders to introduce unanticipated records to try to impeach sheriff’s deputy Seth Tunstall — a former veteran of the special handling unit for informants.

Overruling the objections of prosecutors, Goethals said it was appropriate, given Tunstall’s earlier testimony, that Sanders be able to use the document for questions to impeach him.

For instance, Tunstall testified Monday that he didn’t handle a jail informant, but was “a middleman” between an informant and an investigator, who did the handling.

Sanders then introduced a 2013 sworn affidavit by Tunstall in support of a search warrant of crimes associated with jail inmates.

In that affidavit, Tunstall wrote that since joining the sheriff’s special handling unit in 2001 his duties included “developing confidential informants” — and that he had “cultivated, interviewed and supervised numerous confidential informants.”

Asked about “developing” informants, Tunstall said, “I guess I put the wrong word in at the time.”

But Tunstall insisted he was truthful in all his testimony during the evidentiary hearing.

Testimony in the hearing resumes for three days on Feb. 17.

Please contact Rex Dalton directly at rexdalton@aol.com