Lights, Camera, Action! Inside OC’s Jails

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Several years ago, as the Orange County Sheriff’s Department was still reeling from the fallout stemming from a beating death of an inmate inside one of its jails, the agency jumped to the media to burnish its image.

The department threw open the jail’s doors in 2010 to producers for the MSBNC reality show “Lockup,” which purports to reflect real life behind bars.

As the endeavor evolved, deputies became actors, even directors, weaving their history as smooth operators among jailed psychopathic killers, according to court records and program transcripts.

Then in 2012, the agency welcomed longtime Orange County Register columnist David Whiting — who wrote a multi-part series, portraying deputies as elite lawmen converting gang hit men into stand up citizens ready for suburban life.

Whiting focused on a young white supremacist purportedly reformed in county jail. There was considerable detail about the anonymous inmate’s life of crime then redemption, but little reporting to verify the jail tales.

Fast-forward two years and the sheriff’s media campaign is playing a central role in the defense of Daniel Patrick Wozniak — who is facing the death penalty for the 2010 murder and decapitation of his Costa Mesa neighbor and the man’s girlfriend.

The law enforcement and media embraces are part of a long-running scheme to violate the constitutional rights of criminal defendants, like Wozniak, according to a recent motion by his lead county public defender, Scott Sanders.

Jailhouse interviews, police ride-alongs and even being embedded for raids are accepted journalistic practices, but the entangled roles described by Sanders raise troubling questions about how the media performs after law enforcement entices them into jails for broadcasts and publications, according to media experts.

“This is a form of deception and falsification — a moral transgression that violates every professional tenant,” said Marc Cooper, a journalism professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “At best, I call it pornography; cheap voyeurism.”

Whiting, Register editors, and “Lockup” executives and its attorney wouldn’t comment. A sheriff’s spokesman also declined comment, saying they are still analyzing the motion.

During the past year, Sanders in Orange County’s biggest mass murder case made international headlines with revelations of a secret informant network in county jails violating the rights of criminal defendants for years.

In that case — in which Scott Evans Dekraai has pleaded guilty to killing his wife and seven others in 2011 in a Seal Beach beauty salon — Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals took the extremely rare step of removing the entire County District Attorney’s Office from prosecuting the penalty phase of the trial because of rights violations.

In the Wozniak case, Sanders’ 89-page motion alleges similar improprieties, but also asserts the media was compromised.

Sanders’ motion says deputies worked with — or manipulated — the media to make the department look good, hide past rights violations, and engaged in new offenses as the camera ran.

In filming “Lockup” episodes, Sanders wrote the producers were “inextricably intertwined” with deputies, readily exchanging information and thereby violating the rights of Wozniak and other defendants.

Whiting was similarly enmeshed, the motion states, using the pseudonym “Tom” for an inmate, which effectively hid his role as an informant violating the rights of other defendants.

After legal actions in the last two decades, California law enforcement agencies control media access to state prisoners. While counties can do the same, an Orange County sheriff spokesman said interviews can be allowed if inmates approve, although videotaping requires special permission.

This means that the media has to walk a fine line as it gathers information associated with those incarcerated, Cooper notes, but still remain independent.

“The real danger for a journalist is he or she enters into a collaborate relationship with law enforcement that begins to produce material that looks more like propaganda than reporting,” said Cooper.

Since this media information was obtained “with the full and total cooperation of the law enforcement agency,” Cooper added, “The whole thing stinks.”

This conforms with Sanders’ assertion that the media effectively became an arm for the sheriff’s department during its public relations campaign.

That hype was prompted by John Derek Chamberlain’s beating death by inmates at the instigation of deputies at the Theo Lacy Facility Facility in Irvine. Subsequently, Rackauckas empaneled a grand jury in 2008, with testimony describing a jail culture open to inmate abuse.

In recent months, Sanders has subpoenaed about 700 pages of deputies’ emails involving the “Lockup” program and associated issues, along with other records.

The defense is seeking to eliminate the death penalty; with Sanders saying in court Wozniak would plead guilty to the murders for life in prison without the possibility of parole.

But Sanders states in the motion that he believes there is withholding of other damaging email exchanges with the media — like Suzanne Ali, a freelance field producer formerly associated with 44 Blue Productions, a Studio City firm that creates “Lockup” segments for NBC Universal.

Sanders notes that three sheriff’s deputies — members of a special handling group over jail informants — involved in the 44 Blue filming also played central roles in improprieties in the Dekraai case; which led to the decision for the state Attorney General to take over that prosecution.

The emails, documents provided by Ali to the defense, and published accounts prompt Sanders to say that both the “Lockup” producer and Whiting were “pushed” to certain defendants.

This is a key aspect of the violations of Wozniak’s right to counsel, against self-incrimination and due process for a fair trial, Sanders said. As Wozniak was represented by counsel, the public defender said he should have been involved in any interviews.

After Wozniak is alleged in May 2010 to have killed his neighbor, Samuel Herr, 26, and his girlfriend, Juri “Julie” Kibuishi, 23, of Irvine, emails show deputies engaged in correspondence with “Lockup” producers about future jail filming.

There is testimony sheriff’s deputies acknowledged suggesting defendants for “Lockup,” but Sanders has yet to discover a record showing Wosniak was one.

But he is seeking additional records — writing the manner in which Ali alleges she selected Wozniak “reeks of fabrication.”

An email Sanders did secure shows deputies provided Ali with the names of four other inmates for possible filming — two of whom court records now show were jail informants serving the deputy special handling crew.

One of these defendants was Lance Wulff, a white supremacist with a history of violent criminal acts, who Sanders asserts is the “Tom” whom Whiting profiled in his articles. The Register didn’t report that “Tom” got a plea bargain after serving as an informant.

Sanders cites Wulff as an example of how deputies serve up inmates to the media, in hopes incriminating statements will come from interviews.

But he also argues that how Wulff was handled by the media shows they were complicit in the deputies’ scheme to violate the rights of Wozniak and others.

A video frame of Wulff laying on a bed reading a book appeared on NBC as a “Lockup” promotion, records show, and Wulff was in another short tape with few details.

This proves “Lockup” filmed Wulff, Sanders says.

But Lockup never broadcast a full interview with Wulff, says Sanders, in his view because deputies feared it would expose the inmate‘s role as an informant — which was being withheld from other defendants facing major charges.

Sanders goes on to argue that the actions by Whiting in 2012 shows “corroboration as to why [law enforcement] wanted Wulff’s Lockup interview to disappear.”

If the material in the Register article about the reformed white supremacist was publicly linked to Wulff, Sanders asserts, the rights violations by deputies in the other cases could be exposed.

“The relationship is so incestuous I can’t trust them,” said Cooper. “I can’t take anything the media or deputies say as credible.”

Please contact Rex Dalton directly at rexdalton@aol.com

  • Paul Lucas

    It just gets deeper and smellier.