Sheriff’s Commander Says Lack of Supervision Left Deputies Running Jailhouse Informants

JEFF ANTENORE, Voice of OC Contributing Photographer

Judge Thomas Goethals presides over the trial of mass murderer Scott Dekraai in a courtroom on the 11th floor of the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana on Monday, June 5, 2017.

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Orange County Sheriff’s jail operations Commander John Briggs testified Tuesday the jail house informant scandal developed in part because high management turnover left junior deputies with too much control, meaning “inmates were running the asylum on occasion.”

And the situation continued for years, Briggs said in response to a question from Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals.

Briggs was testifying as part of a hearing in the mass murder case of  Scott Evans Dekraai, who confessed to killing eight people at a Seal Beach beauty salon in 2011.

Briggs was the first of the 11 Sheriffs employees who have testified so far to say, based on a cache of deputies’ notes, that it is clear deputies were developing and using informants in the jails.

“We had a constant turnover of supervisors. Constant turnover of lieutenants. And the deputies were kind of — if you want to refer to it as the inmates were running the asylum on that occasion,” Briggs said. “And I think with all the accolades being given to the deputy sheriffs, they were senior deputies, trusted deputies, by all accounts everybody thought they were doing a great job, so nobody looked into it.”

The source of many of the revelations in the evolving jailhouse snitch scandal is a 1,157-page document known as the Special Handling log, which first became publicly known in 2016. The log has detailed how Sheriff’s deputies cultivated and developed confidential informants in the jails on behalf of prosecutors, without disclosing those activities to defense attorneys.

“The log suggests to the reasonable reader perhaps that that kind of improper misconduct was going on for not days or weeks or months but probably years,” Goethals told Briggs. “Do you agree with that?”

“Yes your honor,” the jail operations commander replied.

Goethals continued: “So in hindsight these deputies who were getting all these accolades and awards should have been facing disciplinary action?”

“Absolutely, your honor,” said Briggs.

During his first day of testifying on Monday, Briggs said, “when you read the log, you can see that quite a few deputy sheriffs spent a good deal of their time cultivating and utilizing confidential informants.”

Deputies were trying to “one up each other, like a fraternity,” Briggs testified Tuesday. “They were trying to do better than the other guy.”

Dekraai  confessed to the murders but the penalty phase to determine his sentence has been delayed, as Goethals decides whether Dekraai’s right to a fair trial has been violated so egregiously that he should rule out the death sentence as a punishment.

Of those who have testified, three deputies, a sergeant and a lieutenant invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, although the latter two were required to testify after being granted immunity by prosecutors with the California Attorney General’s office.

The hearing, which is in its third week, is focused on whether the Sheriff’s Department delayed, withheld or destroyed key documents despite subpoenas ordering they be produced.

Briggs said he didn’t know about the use of informants until Assistant Sheriff Adam Powell walked into his office in 2016 asking about it.

“I had no idea of any of this were going on. They never brought it to my attention,” Briggs said.

Much of the testimony has involved a semantics debate over whether the informants referred to in the Special Handling log were confidential informants receiving directions from law enforcement, or just inmates who volunteered information without receiving any benefits in return.

Lieutenant Dave Johnson, who testified last week that the department has no formal informant program, said, after repeated questioning, he did not believe the cultivating or recruiting of informants occurred when he was a sergeant for Special Handling.

When shown a document he wrote that said special handling deputies “handle and maintain” confidential informants as part of their duties, Johnson said he should have used the word “facilitate” instead.

Briggs, meanwhile, said Tuesday that not only were deputies cultivating informants but they also appeared to be placing them into the same cell block for housing.

“Looking at where they were moving folks and looking at the special handling log, they were certainly putting informants that they were cultivating into L20,” Briggs said, adding that it was “totally inappropriate.”

Training about the meaning of an informant was not clear, Briggs said, and the word came to mean “anybody who told us anything.”

“I think we may have been misinterpreting the word confidential informants for decades,” Briggs said.

Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, meanwhile has questioned the shift in the Sheriff’s Department’s internal vocabulary about informants. The term “source of information” was introduced to distinguish informants from inmates who volunteer information, a move which Sanders argues created cover for deputies who testified previously that they did not work with informants.

One of the deputies who took the Fifth was Seth Tunstall, who is referenced in the Special Handling log for being so talented with informants that fellow deputies requested he be allowed to “teach us what it takes to cultivate a CI [confidential informant] on the street.”

Briggs said it was his opinion that Tunstall, who was assigned to a gang task force with Santa Ana Police Department, set the tone for other deputies to begin working with informants.

“I think the Special Handling log was evidence that they [deputies] took it a step further. I think it started with when Seth Tunstall went to the Santa Ana Gang [Task Force],” Briggs said.

“You believe Seth Tunstall was changing the way Special Handling at both jails was doing business?” Sanders asked.

“Yes sir,” Briggs answered.

Johnson and another Sergeant, Raymond Wert, both insisted that they disapproved of deputies cultivating informants. But if it was happening in their jail, it was happening without their knowledge, they said.

“In hindsight, have you concluded that you were stretched too thin to know what your Special Handling deputies were doing?” asked Goethals. Goethals later asked Wert the same question, and received the same answer.

“I would agree with that, yes,” Johnson replied.

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

  • verifiedsane

    This should be a real hoot….Judge orders Sheriff Hutchens to testify in jailhouse snitch controversy http://www.ocregister.com/2017/06/08/judge-to-sheriff-you-must-testify-in-snitch-controversy/

    • OCservant_Leader

      The Sheriff is going to testify– that she knew nothing, saw nothing and heard nothing.

      Really?

      She will show faked outrage that she has learned the inmates were running the jail (which is how murderers snuck in saws & escaped)

      If the Board of Supervisors weren’t in on the scam & circling the wagons — they would have her publicly flogged for hiding and lying and destroying the public trust in law enforcement.

  • OCservant_Leader

    This spectacal is just well orchestrated acting on the part of the OC CYA club.

    Questioning needs to dig a little deeper:
    Commander Briggs – Have you had ANY previous discussions (or directives in writing or text) with any OC Official – Sheriff, DA or BOS’s staff, CEO, or CoCo in preparing for your testimony?

    Were you trained at the OC Servant Leadership class on how to get promoted by becoming a Deaf-Mute to all operations under your control and blame any wrongdoing on incompetent underlings who have no responsibility?

    So As Commander of the Jail – you have stated that you had no idea what your subordinates were doing – correct?

    You also stated that you had NO control over your staff’s turnover in terms of hiring or assignments which caused chaos and allowed the Deputies to run the Jail correct?

    What is your Job Description?
    How much do you make in annual compensation?
    How close are you to retirement?

    So you just kept your mouth shut and didn’t ask any questions so you could CYA and protect the OC Family – correct?

    • LFOldTimer

      “How much do you make in annual compensation?”

      http://transparentcalifornia.com/salaries/2016/orange-county/jon-j-briggs/

      Remember that old saying “You get what you pay for”?

      Not so in county government. lol.

      • OCservant_Leader

        Thanks.

        Looks like the $40K in “Other Pay” was his reward for being a blind, deaf, mute.

        • LFOldTimer

          Imagine a high-ranking exec in the private corporation getting comped at $365k not being aware that a bunch of his subordinates were committing work-related illegal acts right under his nose. What do you think would happen to him??? lol.

          This “higher standard” myth is such an absurd concept. And what’s so funny is that they still expect us to believe it. lol.

          Go to any city council meeting. All the lemmings and the water bucket boys and girls on the dais will heap nothing but praise and glory on the cops and totally ignore the obvious dark side. Just like the Board of Supervisors.

          SILENCE IS COMPLICITY!!!

          All of them are rotten to the core. And most of them claim to be devout Christians!

          LOL!!!!

  • Daniel Lamb

    Hello Ms. Vo,

    If you get the opportunity, I would ask Supervisor Spitzer, as well as anyone in county government you can get on the record, the following question: Have you ever been aware of an ongoing felony and chosen not to report it?

    Thanks

    • LFOldTimer

      Spitzer’s phone only works when it’s to his political advantage.

      Softball questions are fair game. Hard ball questions are strictly prohibited.

    • Daniel Lamb

      Also Ms. Vo, If you predicate it with “ongoing”, you might want to ask about knowledge of misdemeanors too…

  • Dana Swart

    Where were these Supervisor’s coming from? The government mostly promotes from within and certainly the Sherriff’s Office would have internal recruitment promotions. So these Supervisor’s were coming from the rank and file and would certainly be well aware of what was happening. This is just a convenient way to deflect responsibility.

    • LFOldTimer

      Anybody who has worked in an office environment knows that it’s practically impossible to hide work-related secrets from the boss when the activity is so pervasive. Word gets around fast. Trust me. Besides, what subordinate in his right mind would commit illegal acts right under the El Jefe’s nose knowing that the boss would vehemently disapprove and take administrative action if he found out? Would you risk being fired or even being prosecuted over something as stupid as using illegal informants in a jail unless you knew those around you and above you had your back? You don’t think snitches talk??? LOL!

      Let’s get real.

      You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to read between the lines. Today they’re all scrambling and playing CYA. If the feebies and the DOJ do their jobs properly the next phase of this would be called “Let’s Make a Deal”. I’m skeptical whether it’ll progress that far based on what I’ve seen to date. The system seems to be covering for them. We’re not living in the same country as we were 30-40 years ago. They’ve off-shored our jobs and on-shored Third World Banana Republicanism.

      Don’t shoot me. I’m just the messenger.

  • Steve Downing

    It was refreshing and encouraging to read the frank and honest testimony of Commander John Briggs. He stands out as the kind of man who should be in a leadership position as opposed to the Rah, Rah types that award their troops in the easy-to-lead game of production and numbers then swim in the media attention of the “awards” that come from misconduct in the guise of “good police work.” What is sad is the culture that has developed around this degrading of our constitution – and even more troubling is knowing that prosecutors buy into it – so they can get their numbers as well – rather than Justice. Our system is broken and it will take professionals like John Briggs to help repair and reform it.

    • LFOldTimer

      I respect the comparatively informative testimony of Commander Briggs.

      But he was in charge of the deputies at the jail and apparently had no clue that his staff were cultivating and utilizing confidential informants to gather incriminating evidence from inmates who had been charged with crimes and assigned legal counsel.

      Leaders should know what their employees are doing in the scope of their work – particularly if it’s the widespread misuse of illegal informants.

      Don’t you think?

      • Steve Downing

        Having responded to LFOldTImer I now see your response to me:
        I do agree and that it should be looked into with reference to Briggs. However, a leader can’t possibly know everything, but if he was there long enough and conducted the kinds of inspections and audits and had the time frame in which one would expect a corroded organizational culture could and should be corrected, and that did not happen – then Briggs should go down. It is clear from the article that Briggs articulated, understood and recognized the principles that were violated. If he was there long enough that it could be expected that he should have known – or if he ever participated in giving awards for this kind of production – rather than correcting the systemic misconduct – then he should not only be fired, but he should go to jail – like Baca. What was refreshing to me is to read that someone in this mess finally acknowledged that what was going on was wrong. That was a first coming from the Sheriff’s office – and its never come from the Prosecutor’s office.

        • LFOldTimer

          Yes, I agree.

          And as I mentioned before – I respected the comparatively informative testimony provided by Commander Briggs (although, to my knowledge, he accepted no personal responsibility for what went on under his command).

          But I’m curious what motivated Brigg’s more forthcoming testimony. He seemed to place the blame on those at the lower pay grades. In organizations I’ve worked for responsibility rises with rank and pay. Maybe county government operates under a different set of standards.

          • OCservant_Leader

            Don’t you think he is laying the foundation for OC’s defense?

            That underling rougue Sheriff Deputies were running an illegal informant program in the Jail – for decades without top brass or BOS knowledge? BS!

            This theory doesn’t fly. It goes to motive. Briggs and BOS want us to believe the Deputies did this to get awards?

            The DA used ALL this information to cheat and win their cases…and no one at Sheriff Dept knew? This doesn’t even make sense.

            They are throwing the Deputies who took the 5th – under the bus and are hoping the public and the Judge will buy it.

          • LFOldTimer

            Perhaps. But when it all comes out in the wash I don’t think the strategy will fly.

            There was at least one previous memo written by the brass that commended the deputies for their work in cultivating and utilizing informants in the jail. That’s a fact. So I have no idea how they could spin their way out of that one. Maybe the ‘devil made them do it’.

            No one is innocent here. A cop coming out of the academy knows it’s wrong to plant an informant next to someone charged with a crime to elicit additional incriminating evidence on the defendant.

            But I agree that the ones higher in the pecking order are more culpable than the ones actually doing the dirty work if they were aware of the activity and promoted it or did nothing to stop it.

            I too believe that the grunts on bottom wouldn’t have participated unless they felt protected by those above them. If you think about it the awards would have to come from the supervisors and the higher ranking officials who ran the jail. By awarding their efforts the brass would be making a blatant admission that they condoned the program. And a memo from the brass commending the deputies has already been found and entered into evidence. No idea how that could get whitewashed.

            As with the John Chamberlain case – you see a lot of wagon circling and CYA here. The difference is that with this case you’ve got a pit bull for a judge demanding answers and the 4th District Appellate Court has also weighed in with a blistering ruling on the DA and OCSD.

            The outstanding question is how high up in the food chain did it go? From all appearances it looks like pretty high.

            At this fingerpointing phase of the investigation I’d be shocked if heads didn’t roll. Now it just comes down to who’s going to take the fall? The backroom negotiations in progress must be fascinating.

    • OCservant_Leader

      Refreshing? to blame subordinates who have no responsibility? It’s a scapegoat.

      Commander Briggs made the BIG bucks because HE is the one Responsible.

      Responsibility rises with position. Which is why the top heads should roll.

      How did these Underling Deputies benefit from this? They didn’t.

      The Sherriff and the DA benefitted. Briggs was a part of it. His job was to be a blind, deaf, mute. Well done Sir. I can see why he was put in such an important position.

      • LFOldTimer

        You’re preaching to the choir, OCservant.

        Don’t expect a response from Steve. He didn’t respond to me.

        There really is no rational counterargument to your observations.

        All of them know it. It’s the secret that everybody knows. But few have the guts to say it.

        • Steve Downing

          LFOldTimer, I did not get your message. This is my response to OCservant:

          You clearly seem to have inside information and know more than I do about this mess. I went by what I read in the article. If he knew then I agree, he is even more responsible than the troops. But, there is a right and a wrong here and any thinking officer, including the troops should have known what was going on was wrong. So, if there is evidence that Briggs should have known then he should go down with them. My point is that the focus is always on “production” and “winning” rather than justice – and having a reverence for our Constitution. That is what law enforcement has become – numbers, rather than justice oriented.

      • Steve Downing

        You clearly seem to have inside information and know more than I do about this mess. I went by what I read in the article. If he knew then I agree, he is even more responsible than the troops. But, there is a right and a wrong here and any thinking officer, including the troops should have known what was going on was wrong. So, if there is evidence that Briggs should have known then he should go down with them. My point is that the focus is always on “production” and “winning” rather than justice – and having a reverence for our Constitution. That is what law enforcement has become – numbers, rather than justice oriented.

        • OCservant_Leader

          My point is – it is Commander Briggs JOB to know what his subordinates are doing. This is the way hierarchy works. This guys pulls down $350K per year!! (what was he doing?)

          It is in HIS JOB Description to know. He is shooting for “Public Servant Immunity” – which states – public employees cannot be held responsibility for their actions — unless they KNOWINGLY (or can be proved they should have known) what they did or didn’t do — is a CRIME.

          Trust me he knew.

          The OC Family is a small – tight group who control every action in the bureaucracy – orchestrated by the BOS staff and relatives.

          Employees cannot pass gas at OC without the Family’s approval.

          This scandal goes straight to the RICO operation of the OC Government corruption.

  • LFOldTimer

    This has been going on for years. The evidence clearly shows that. Now the ones who were supervisors or who ran the jail are playing ‘stupid’ on the witness stand. lol. This indicates one of two things: Either they are liars or they were totally incompetent since they had no clue of what was going on right under their own noses in the jail. And most were getting paid to the tune upwards of $300,000 or more in compensation. What a disgusting bunch.

    Hopefully the FBI, et. al. are examining the internal emails to ferret out the truth.

    A rookie coming out of the academy knows that you can’t plant a snitch to gather incriminating evidence next to an inmate charged with a crime who has been assigned or has obtained defense counsel. It is a violation of the US Constitution and black letter law.

    A ‘source of information’ is someone who calls the police department on the phone with information about suspicious activity at a house in the neighborhood,

    There’s not a scintilla of doubt that an inmate who is planted next to another inmate by the guards in a jail to gather incriminating evidence is a ‘confidential informant’. And for a veteran cop to try and dispute that fact is just plain laughable.

    It’s an absolute disgrace to the sensibilities of honor, decency, integrity and justice that any of the clowns involved in this scandal still have their jobs.

    And it’s even more repugnant that the Sheriff who runs the whole kit and caboodle loyally protects the scofflaws involved. Just more evidence that the ‘code of silence’ is alive and well. All the way to the very top.

    Yet they take offense when ordinary citizens distrust and disrespect the police. They bring it on themselves then blame others for what is a normal rational reaction when we see two separate and distinct books of law in place: One for us and one for them.

    What the heck happened to my country?

    • verifiedsane

      For every Judge Goethals, there are ten other politicized judges that are willing to go along with the now institutionalized & normalized corruption…our justice system isn’t just failing….not unlike all major public institutional bodies from top to bottom….they lay in ruins from many decades of accepted corruption, rot, and neglect….we are now just beginning to reap what we have sown….going forward it appears things are going to get far worse…and I’m not so sure that things will get better afterwards this time around…

      • LFOldTimer

        The rot has accelerated exponentially in the last 20 years beginning with Clinton. The country has truly lost it’s moral compass. It started with Clinton looking the country in the eye on national TV and telling the whole world with a straight face “I did not have s*xual relations with that woman” – lying through his teeth – then it only got worse from there.

        Verified – the fish always rots from the head down. These local leaders watch all the mischief on the national scale and say “If they can do it and get away with it then so can we”. And soon thereafter they turn the entire country into one big bordello.

        Judge Goethals is trying to protect the integrity of the system and putting himself at great risk in the process. In 2017 he’s a mere needle in the haystack. We’re very fortunate to have a Judge of his brave character defending the essence of what America was designed to represent – but the Good Judge is only one man. He can’t do it alone. Judge Goethals and Scott Sanders can’t fight off the jackals all by themselves. They need help from the inside. And I’m very skeptical whether they will get it. We live in a nation of diluted morals.

        I guess we can keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best but expect the worst.