Judge Wants Sheriff to Testify on Jailhouse Snitch Scandal

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Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals wants Sheriff Sandra Hutchens to explain in court her claim that there is no jailhouse informants program in Orange County jails.

“It is apparent to me, at least at this point, that the Sheriff needs to testify,” Goethals said at the end of a court session Thursday, where the judge is hearing evidence to determine whether the Sheriff’s Department destroyed or withheld evidence related to the department’s use of jailhouse informants.

Despite rulings by Goethals and the California Court of Appeals confirming misuse of jailhouse informants in Orange County, Hutchens and representatives of her department have maintained there is no formal informants program in her jails.

Throughout the hearing, where so far 13 Sheriff’s Department employees have testified, only one witness, Commander John Briggs, has conceded deputies in the Special Handling Unit were clearly “cultivating and utilizing” confidential informants. 

Goethals, who said Wednesday he was surprised by Brigg’s testimony, said he wants to know whether Hutchens would agree with Briggs – who was at one time her executive assistant – and how she justifies her view that there is no formal informant program in the jails.

Deputy Attorney General Michael Murphy, a prosecutor with the California Attorney General’s office, said he intends to call Hutchens as a witness. There’s no date set yet for her testimony.

The hearing is an outgrowth of the case of Scott Evans Dekraai, a mass murderer who shot and killed eight people at a Seal Beach beauty salon in 2011. Although Dekraai has pled guilty to the murders, the trial to determine his sentence is delayed as Goethals determines whether Dekraai’s rights were violated so egregiously that the death penalty should be thrown out as a punishment option.

The main determination Goethals will make at the end of this hearing is whether he can trust the Sheriff’s Department to turn over all the material he has ordered as part of the court’s discovery process.

Many of the revelations of the jailhouse snitch scandal – how deputies moved informants in the jail to gain confessions on behalf of prosecutors and investigators, without the knowledge of their attorneys – came from two sources, an electronic database on inmate movements known as TRED and the Special Handling log. The log is a trove of deputies’ notes on their daily work, including their work with informants.

Although Goethals’ signed his discovery orders in January 2013, it wasn’t until 2015 that the TRED system was disclosed and in 2016 that the 1,157 page Special Handling log – most of which remains under seal – was turned over to the court.

Part of the ongoing hearing focuses on who knew about the Special Handling log and why they didn’t turn it over.

In their testimony, both the lieutenant who started the Special Handling Log and the Sergeant who ended it – who at some point both directly supervised the deputies making log entries — claimed they never read the log until much later. Three lieutenants and Briggs, a commander of the jail, also testified to having never read the log until much later, after it had been disclosed to the defense.

All those officials said they weren’t aware at the time that any deputies were cultivating and managing informants.

At Thursday’s hearing, Deputy Zachary Bieker invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination rather than answer questions, although he was forced to testify after being granted immunity by the California Attorney General’s office.

Bieker worked in Special Handling from 2011 to 2013 and wrote many entries in the log himself. He said not only would it have been difficult for deputies to keep secrets or information about their work from their sergeants, but approval would have been required for most informant operations.

After re-reading entries from the Special Handling log, Bieker said he didn’t realize the extent to which other deputies were working with informants.

“Maybe I misunderstood our job responsibilities. I didn’t focus on informants as much as other people did,” Bieker said.

Under pressure from Goethals, Bieker acknowledged that some of that activity, “moving people to different places knowing that they’re an informant could potentially be a violation” of the law.

Lieutenant Lane Lagaret, a former sergeant who was partially responsible for Special Handling and is now tasked with providing information to the public and reporters, also testified Thursday.

Lagaret said he largely left supervision of the Special Handling unit to another sergeant, Dave Johnson, and that he was not aware of the Special Handling log and has never read it.

Asked about whether he knew deputies were cultivating and managing informants in the jails, Lagaret responded with his own definition of the term.

“When I first started in the jail in 1990 one of the things deputies tried to do was work inmates for information,” Lagaret said. “And if you were successful at…stopping drugs coming in or stopping a fight, it was a badge of honor.”

“So if that’s what cultivating and managing informants are, then yes, we did it,” he added.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Sanders said Briggs’ comments, and denials by other top brass of their knowledge of informant activity, were an example of the “institutional response” from the Sheriff’s Department taking shape in court.

“They’re throwing all their deputies under the bus,” Sanders said. “These aren’t rogue deputies, these are deputies who had every reason in the world to be communicating” with their superiors.

“What I hear is that the defense (Sanders) is unhappy with the way the evidence is coming in,” countered Murphy. “The defense believes there’s a certain truth out there and if the witnesses aren’t conforming to it, it’s a problem.”

“When the defense says there was an informant program…I think what we’re hearing from the evidence that there were some deputies doing things. But that’s different from the Sheriff’s Department had an informant program,” Murphy added.

The hearing continues Tuesday June 13 at 9 a.m.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

  • RyanCantor

    “When the defense says there was an informant program…I think what we’re hearing from the evidence that there were some deputies doing things. But that’s different from the Sheriff’s Department had an informant program,” Murphy added.

    Nope. Just means the Sheriff refuses to acknowledge and correct what her employees are doing. Willful ignorance is not a defence against breaking the law. It’s not good enough for the people like you and me, it shouldn’t be good enough for the Sheriff and the DA.

  • Daniel Lamb

    Muy Bueno

  • LFOldTimer

    What’s the use of putting Hutchens on the hot seat? She’s going to play stupid like the others. “i knew nothing”. Commander Briggs knew about the informants but she didn’t? lol. Is Sandra going to at least finally admit that this is a ‘scandal’? Or will she continue to deny that too?

    It’s been established there was widespread cultivation and use of illegal informants in the jail – but the deputy’s direct stupidvisors were unaware of what was going on? lol. Deputy Bieker was given immunity and said that informant activities required approval from their sergeants (who all played stupid). Naturally the sergeant reported to the lieutenant who reported to the commander. A significant amount of time was invested in informant management by the Handling Unit and no one above knew what was going on? ha. Sure. Now pull my other thumb.

    The entire coverup is beginning to fall apart piece by piece. Now the brass and the working deputies are contradicting one another and are at one another’s throats. The finger pointing has begun. The feebies must have grins on their faces from ear to ear.

    And again. The Board of Stupidvisors are silent. Hilarious. Covering for OCSD. Naturally Do collected a $86,000 campaign donation from AOCDS last year. So they all know who their daddy is.

    We are about to learn whether America is a Constitutional Republic or a Banana Republic. We already know what Orange County is. The question is: Will the DOJ and the OC Grand Jury circle the wagons for the lawbreakers wearing the badges?

    Stay tuned.

    Mike Carona must be laughing his #% off.

    • verifiedsane

      Sheriff Sandra Hutchens is just going to continue playing political denial, pass the buck, and complete ignorance games with the court…That’s really a nice way of saying she’s going to lie her a*se off, just like the DA’s office. Anyone with a functioning brain cell already knows there was and is an ongoing cover-up that runs all the way to the top of the OC political Mob (aka BoS)…

    • Steve Downing

      After reading this piece – a day after the Comey hearings – it came to mind that the possibility exists that Briggs did uncover the practice and may have tried to correct it but was stopped. No one asked him that question – and perhaps Briggs used this opportunity to expose it and set himself up to be asked for more – as is now going to happen with the DOJ, who is going to bring him in to testify. I recognize that this is all speculation – but in the OC law enforcement swamp it would not be surprising. Just my take.

      • LFOldTimer

        At this stage it’s difficult to connect the dots since we just don’t have enough information from the media reports. But if I recall correctly Briggs didn’t learn of the informant “logs” until 2016 when they were brought to his attention at which time he reviewed them. By that time the “logs” had likely been discontinued. Only then (according to his testimony) did he draw conclusions that the misuse of informants was routine and took a substantial amount of deputy work time.

        Your theory may have merit. But as a commander Briggs was high up in the food chain. He was apparently in charge of all deputies at the jail. He probably reported directly to one of the Assistant Sheriffs or to Sheriff Hutchens herself. So if he was “stopped” (as you surmised) it would have to come from the very top. But at a commander pay grade I don’t think a “I was just following orders” defense would fly.

        Another theory: Perhaps Briggs can read the writing on the wall and knows where this investigation is going. And since he was in charge of jail personnel and the lower level deputy jail guards are being granted immunity to spill their guts on the witness stand – he doesn’t want to end up being the fall guy. Hence, his testimony was more revealing than most although he said nothing to implicate himself as being part of the problem with prior knowledge of the informant program while it was in operation. As with any investigation the ones in charge will generally forgive select little fish (Bieker) to go after the big fish.

        This only goes to show how the “code of silence” gets people in trouble. Pandora has escaped the box and now the chickens are coming home to roost. Those who normally have each other backs in the tight brotherhood fraternity are now pointing fingers at one another to save themselves.