In a courthouse mystery, records of six criminal cases have disappeared from the Orange County Superior Court’s computer system, eliminating access to key documents showing prosecutorial misconduct involving jail informants.
County public defenders for mass-murderer Scott Evans Dekraai used the now-missing records to prove an informants network involving the county District Attorney’s Office and sheriff’s department violated defendants’ rights.
The revelations came during an unprecedented hearing that began in 2014 and ended in March with Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals removing District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ team from the case. The state Attorney General’s office is set to prosecute the death penalty phase of Dekraai’s case, pending an appeal of Goethal’s ruling.
The hearing also led to more than a half-dozen other defendants having sentences for major crimes eliminated or reduced.
Scott Sanders, Dekraai’s lead attorney, said one of the six missing cases provided the largest cache of informant notes — which were integral to showing prosecutors were illegally withholding evidence from defendants.
But in May as he was seeking a similar hearing for accused double-murderer Daniel Patrick Wozniak, Sanders discovered the six cases were no longer listed in the court’s computer system for attorneys and prosecutors.
Sanders suspects the system was purged of the records to prevent other defendants from winning an evidentiary hearing to challenge charges — which would be legally troubling and embarrassing for Rackauckas.
“They wanted these cases to go away,” said Sanders recently in an interview. “I don’t know the exact reason. But they [DA] would do anything to dispose of cases so there would be no more evidentiary hearings like in Dekraai.”
Late last year, Sanders pointed out, former assistant district attorney Marc Rozenberg said as much to the Orange County Register after dismissing a murder charge in a plea deal freeing another defendant. A spokeswoman for Rozenberg declined comment to Voice of OC.
Without the missing records, attorney’s say it could be difficult to prepare proper defenses of those criminally accused. The lack of records could also stifle civil actions and possibly complicate other criminal investigations, they say.
Indeed, court records show the defense of at least two defendants was limited earlier this year because one of the six cases was sealed.
Then, of course, there is the issue of what the case disappearances could mean in relation to inquiries of prosecutors and law enforcement.
In March, after Goethals recused Rackauckas’ office from prosecuting Dekraai, Attorney General Kamala Harris opened an investigation of possible criminal conduct in the trial. Goethals found sheriff’s deputies, and at least one prosecutor, gave false testimony during the hearing.
Additionally, Rackauckas’ office in July named a five-member panel of outside attorneys to examine his office’s use of informants and provide guidance for future cases. Its report is to be released in the near future.
‘I’ve Never Heard of That’
The missing records for the six defendants were first identified publicly in a footnote in a 754-page motion Sanders filed on behalf of Wozniak — who was seeking an evidentiary hearing on an alleged three-decade history of defendant rights violations by Orange County prosecutors.
In 2010, Wozniak murdered and beheaded a man and also murdered a woman in Costa Mesa. His trial began last week in Superior Court.
“The following cases appear to have disappeared all together from the Orange County Superior Court’s Vision system,” wrote Sanders in the motion — listing the defendants’ names and criminal case numbers. [Vision is the court’s computer system for defense attorneys, prosecutors, or judges.]
A Voice of OC check of the Superior Court public computer system showed none of the six defendants were listed as charged under those case numbers.
When Voice of OC sought the paper files typically kept by the court clerk’s office, Maria Ruiz, supervisor of criminal/traffic operations in Santa Ana, said all the records were sealed by judge orders.
Nothing could be disclosed without a judge ordering the files reopened, she added.
The dates a judge ordered each individual case sealed couldn’t be determined. But based on court actions of some associated defendants, the cases appeared to have been sealed between late 2014 and the end of May this year.
In certain court cases, from family law to criminal proceedings, it is common for some records — like probation reports, search warrant affidavits, or documents involving minors — to be sealed.
But some of the region’s most experienced defense attorneys said they’d never seen a case being entirely eliminated from the court case index — both for the public and court officers — and all records sealed.
“I’ve never heard of that. I’m shocked. I suspect a judge or judges did this based on what a deputy district attorney requested, just saying there were sensitive records,” said Jack M. Early, an Irvine attorney who’s defended clients for more than 40 years.
Unfortunately, because judges tend to favor prosecution requests, “that’s how our system works,” Early added.
Ironically, Early noted, this was going on behind the scenes as a clerk at the West Justice Center in Westminster was discovered last spring taking bribes to disappear drunk driving case records. Federal authorities are now investigating that clerk, court officials say.
It’s “funny,” said Early, that during the same period the cases disappeared after judge orders, a clerk reportedly was eliminating driving offense records for cash.
A spokeswoman for Orange County Superior Court, Gwen Vieau, said no county official involved in the court record systems could be interviewed.
However, a Voice of OC reporter was able to reach Jeffrey I. Wertheimer, counsel for the Orange Court Superior Court, who said he was unaware of the issue of the six cases.
When the case context was described to him, he said: “I’m not familiar with any of this,” begging off further discussion.
Asked in an email about any protocol for such acts, how often such cases are entirely eliminated from the court index, or what judge would consider an order to unseal, Werthheimer declined to respond.
Then, in an email statement, Vieau wrote: “If the appropriate legal standards are met, criminal case files are sealed for various reasons on a somewhat routine basis, although no statistics are kept on how often such orders are issued.”
At San Diego Superior Court, executives said they were unaware of anything like what occurred with the six cases in Orange County happening in their jurisdiction. [San Diego does not have a Vision system for criminal cases like Orange County. San Diego has a computer case index anyone can access, but case records are maintained in paper files.]
“I haven’t heard of anything like that,” said Michael M. Roddy, San Diego Superior Court’s executive officer, with about 30 years experience in courts, including those in Los Angeles and Sacramento. “We have no procedural basis to seal the entire record.”
Black Flag Cases
Attorneys say the history of the six cases and the timing of record sealing also raise additional questions about what might be sensitive in the records.
Preparing Dekraai’s defense, Sanders’ team uncovered evidence the prosecution deployed an informant to gain information from the recently arrested Dekraai, who was housed at a county jail in Santa Ana.
Throughout 2012, Sanders and Dekraai prosecutors — headed by Daniel Wagner, chief of homicide prosecutions — fought over disclosure of additional records regarding informant history.
In January 2013, Goethals ordered the prosecution to provide Sanders with thousands of pages of records — including voluminous notes that the Dekraai informant and others wrote to deputies.
Over the next year, Sanders’ team pieced together a complex puzzle of how informants were used in a number of cases involving 99 defendants arrested in July 2011 during a joint state/federal sweep called Operation Black Flag.
The Operation Black Flag cases were aimed at breaking the Mexican Mafia — a dangerous force in California prisons purportedly led by Peter Ojeda, the 73-year-old “Godfather” of Santa Ana gangs.
The jury trial of Ojeda on racketeering, extortion and conspiracy charges is now underway in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana — with court records showing federal prosecutors and Ojeda’s defense attorney are involved in intense legal jousting over questioning informants and law enforcement about impropriety disclosures in the Dekraai case.
Nearly a third of the Black Flag defendants were prosecuted by Rackauckas’ office. The remaining defendants faced trial in U.S District Court in Santa Ana.
Back in 2013, while examining the state prosecution records for Operation Black Flag, Sanders said: “We were following the cases when we realized what was wrong in terms of evidence discovery to defendants.”
In some cases, court records show some defendants received a limited amount of discovery of informant notes, while others got more, up to 200 pages more.
“The case that broke it all open,” said Sanders, was one involving Eric Lopez — one of the six whose cases disappeared.
“I received the biggest single batch of informant notes for Lopez,” said Sanders. “If we didn’t have that, we wouldn’t have known what was happening. Now when you search Vision, there is nothing there for Lopez. It is so crazy.”
The charge against Lopez couldn’t be determined due to lack of public records. Court records indicated there about 200 pages of informant notes associated with the Lopez case.
Lopez couldn’t be located; his attorney, Jeremy N. Goldman of Irvine, didn’t respond to an interview request.
Four of the individuals with disappeared records had co-defendants listed under their case numbers in Sanders’ Wozniak motion.
These co-defendant records provide a limited window into the nature of the six cases — indicating they involved jail beatings allegedly at the direction of Mexican Mafia leaders, as a number of Black Flag prosecutions did.
For example, court records say a Mexican Mafia leader ordered an attack on Joseph “Spooky” Baez because he “participated in an interview with an MSNBC “Lock Up” documentary television crew in 2010.”
In the Wozniak case, Sanders argued deputies violated his client’s rights when Lock Up producers filmed Wozniak in 2010. Prosecutors said they would not use the videotape in Wozniak’s case.
The primary prosecutor on the six disappeared cases was Erik S. Petersen, the deputy district attorney accused by Goethals of giving false testimony in the Dekraai hearing. Although, court records show another prosecutor was handling these cases by last spring.
In September, Petersen resigned from Rachauckas’ office; reportedly to take a job as a federal prosecutor in a former home state, Nebraska. However, that job offer dissolved following articles about his involvement in the informant scandal. Petersen declines interviews.
Tustin attorney Rudolph E. Lowenstein knows how important Sander’s disclosures about notes can be for a defendant.
Last month, Lowenstein successfully convinced King to reverse the 2013 murder conviction of his client, Eric Vasquez Ortiz of Santa Ana — because of improprieties involving an informant, divulged during the Dekraai case. Ortiz’s retrial is set for Jan. 5, but the informant from the conviction isn’t expected to testify.
When told about the six cases disappearing, Lowenstein said he’d never heard of this in 35 years of practicing law here, including three as a deputy district attorney. Most troubling to him was how the public could be left in the dark.
“I’m dumbfounded — that’s crazy,” he said.
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