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Early one March morning in 2007, Santa Ana detectives brought a message of murder to the home of Jaime and Lourdes Gallegos.
Their 18-year-old son, Daniel, had just hours before been shot in the head, the detectives said. Daniel became the latest victim of gang members known to “hunt” their Delhi neighborhood for trophy kills.
But in the eight years since the family was first struck with the grief, the parents say police never returned, nor provided them with information about who may have killed their son.
Yet, county District Attorney Tony Rackaukas’ office and Santa Ana police have for five years known the gang trio responsible for Daniel’s murder, according to county jail informant notes of a secret confession in 2010 by one suspect.
The notes were unsealed for a marathon court hearing last year as the county Public Defenders Office sparred with the DA over records of a long-hidden county jail informant system. The hearing emerged from the trial of Scott Evans Dekraai, the man responsible for Orange County’s largest-ever mass murder.
One suspect in Daniel’s murder, Sergio Elizarraraz, who unknowingly confessed his role in Daniel’s death to an informant in 2010, is reputed to be such a vicious killer he once emptied a pistol clip into another victim, according to the informant’s notes.
The notes describe Elizarraraz — whose street name is “Bad Boy” — as “smiling and laughing” as he recounted how that victim’s body would “jump and twitch lifelessly with each [shot].”
In Daniel’s case, Bad Boy and two accomplices were out hunting, according to that confession. They saw several individuals in a vehicle and suspected they were rivals. One passenger [Daniel] got out and slipped away, as the vehicle sped off along South Van Ness Avenue.
Bad Boy told the informant he handed a pistol to an accomplice, who then hid behind a wall undetected, and shot Daniel in the back of the head as he walked by.
But neither Bad Boy nor his accomplices were ever charged for Daniel’s murder. Although, a Santa Ana police detective recently said the case’s investigation remains open.
Dekraai’s public defenders argue in court records that the case has not been vigorously prosecuted because the DA, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, and Santa Ana police feared such a trial could have exposed the secret network of county jail informants, which for years allegedly violated the constitutional rights of numerous defendants.
Those fears, as described by the public defenders, have already come to pass, with major convictions being overturned in three cases after disclosures of prosecutorial misconduct in the Dekraai case.
In August, Judge Thomas M. Goethals ruled the DA’s office engaged in “misconduct” in the Dekraai case, blocking the use of informant statements and surreptitiously recorded interviews.
Thursday, Goethals is expected to issue a new ruling about allegations that sheriff’s deputies committed perjury last year as part of continuing plan to hide informant evidence from Dekraai defense attorneys.
Overcome With Grief
Only recently, when a reporter came knocking on the Gallegos’ door did Daniel’s parents learn of the tangled web of alleged DA and police subterfuge involving the purported killers of their son.
About a week after being shot, Daniel was disconnected from life support at a hospital to allow for organ donation.
After Daniel’s funeral, they family said they called police repeatedly for months, but were told always to wait. The father, Jaime Gallegos, said police told him: “Let us do our job.”
Finally, they gave up calling.
About a year after Daniel’s death, there was a lone police call, with a vague message of a possible lead. But, Jaime Gallegos said the message was left with his young daughter and he wasn’t able to find out more.
As a reporter told them about the suspects in their son’s death, the gravity of the disclosures overcame the parents.
“And now we learn this from you?” said the exasperated father. Finally, they could no longer discuss the death, asking for solitude with their grief.
The Gallegos family is not alone. Voice of OC identified through court records and interviews another murder where similar DA and police irregularities appear to have prevented successful prosecutions.
And Bad Boy was charged with murder in that case — but he avoided the more serious charge when the prosecution fell apart.
Today, Bad Boy, who was 16 at the time of the murders, is free.
He lists a home address in Anaheim, but spends days in the Delhi neighborhood of his girlfriend, where he was located last month pushing his young daughter in a stroller.
“I didn’t kill nobody,” Bad Boy said with a wry grin when questioned by a reporter.
Protecting the Network
The story of these murders starts in a 505-page motion filed last February by Dekraai’s lead public defender, Scott Sanders, and continues through the thousands of pages of recently unsealed supporting documents for the motion that shocked the Orange County justice system.
From those records, death certificates, interviews and other public documents, details of the murders emerge.
In the second case involving Bad Boy, he beat the murder rap in a 2007 killing after the prosecution of his two alleged accomplices collapsed when a jury apparently faulted questionable police testimony.
That murder victim was Miguel “Michael” Ernesto Fernandez, 19, a former high school freshman football star in Santa Ana.
On the April day of his death, family members say Michael’s boss had assigned him to ride with a co-worker to stock market shelves.
At about 7 a.m., while gassing up on South Main Street, testimony shows his co-worker’s cap — denoting an angel, a symbol of a Delhi gang rival — drew the gang trio’s attention. They followed and opened fire.
The acquittal of Bad Boy’s two alleged accomplices — Juan “Combo” Lopez and Joe “Minor’’ Rodriguez — occurred after the prosecution called Santa Ana detectives to testify.
Sanders alleged a prosecution plan to win a conviction for all those involved in Michael’s murder without disclosing informant evidence previously withheld in earlier conviction cases.
Under that scenario, Sanders stated Bad Boy, Combo and Minor would be convicted and imprisoned for Michael’s murder. Then Bad Boy wouldn’t need to be prosecuted in Daniel’s murder, thereby continuing to hide undisclosed evidence from other defendants.
More astoundingly, Sanders claims the prosecution gambit also would allow the DA to avoid pursuing murder charges against Bad Boy in yet another gang killing in 2009, thereby insuring informant notes wouldn’t be divulged in that case.
“They could have the best of all worlds,” Sanders wrote. “This path, they believed, would assure the perfect outcome.”
But the result was far from perfect. The prosecution in Michael’s case went awry, Sanders claims, due in large part to misconduct on the part of the prosecutor as well as police testifying in the case. Among the irregularities cited by Sanders:
* A detective denied in testimony knowledge of the notes, then later admitted seeing them.
* Detectives said they didn’t tape the informant’s statements about Bad Boy’s confession, a major violation of standard practices.
* A detective mislead the court and jury about the number of confessions the informant had secured.
Such actions, Sanders alleges, were part of a larger pattern of misconduct that spans across numerous other cases.
In a recent interview after being provided Sanders’ motion, Rosie Aquilar, Michael’s aunt who attended the Lopez and Rodriguez trial, said: “We could see the case slipping away during the trial. We now know what happened; incredible.”
During the Dekraai proceedings, at least 18 defendants charged with murder or other serious crimes have been shown to allegedly have had their rights violated by irregularities in handling informant evidence.
In an interview, Sanders attributed the discovery of the problematic informant system to “6,000 lucky breaks and a courageous judge” — speaking of Goethals’ decision to hold the evidentiary hearing, during which the DA repeatedly disclosed even more relevant records.
Instrumental in Daniel’s and Michael’s murder cases is a jail informant, Oscar “Scar” Moriel, who in 2009 began talking to police about crimes including Bad Boy’s alleged involvement in the killings.
Testifying under immunity at the Dekraai hearing, Moriel acknowledged committing as many as a half-dozen murders himself during his numerous years as a member of the Delhi gang in Santa Ana.
While convicted about five years ago for offenses that could have imprisoned him for life, Moriel’s sentencing has been postponed at prosecutors’ request so he could continue to serve his informant role.
All the while, court testimony and audio recordings showed law enforcement offered him a secret deal of leniency — even proposing to help him enter the U.S. military upon release.
Beginning in early 2010, court records show Moriel worked the county jail population like a politician, chatting up so many inmates he secured seven murder confessions in a few months.
Court and jail records show either Moriel or targeted inmates would be moved around by sheriff’s deputies, who sought compromising comments for use in prosecutions.
Moriel and other informants would write notes of confessions or valuable crime details. These notes would be collected by sheriff’s deputies, then binders of note copies would be provided to prosecutors for trial use.
Under long-established court precedents, prosecutors have an explicit duty to turn over to the defense material evidence, like such notes.
Furthermore, if an informant purposely questioned an inmate, defense attorneys say, the information could be inadmissible in court as a violation of defendant rights. If an inmate was charged with a crime and thereby represented by an attorney, such informant questioning also could violate a defendant’s right to counsel.
The Dekraai hearing showed both practices were rampant in OC jails.
Even though the DA had Bad Boy’s confession to Moriel, court records show the prosecution opted not to go forward with a murder trial for Michael’s killing.
Bad Boy was allowed to plead no contest to voluntary manslaughter, walking free in late 2012 for time served.
A Santa Ana detective says the agency considers Michael’s murder case closed.
“We were all pretty numb — in stunned disbelief,” recalled Marina Lopez-Munoz, an aunt very close to Michael.
Daniel’s father was equally stunned — when court records detailing Bad Boy’s alleged role in his son’s murder recently were described to him.
“That’s not right; he should have to pay,” Gallegos said.
The deputy district attorney in Michael’s case was Erik S. Petersen, one of the DA’s most experienced litigators who has come under fire recently for ethical transgressions. In March 2014, a judge removed him from a prosecuting a case for intentionally withholding evidence from the defendants’ defense attorneys.
Sanders claims Petersen suborned perjury in Michael’s case. Specifically, the perjury allegations center on testimony by Santa Ana police detectives Matthew L. McLeod and David Rondou.
After the acquittal in Michael’s case, Sanders asserts that Petersen couldn’t afford trying Bad Boy because of the potential disclosures about Moriel’s informant duties.
Petersen didn’t respond to an interview request. Testifying at last year’s Dekraai hearing, he denied any impropriety. At that time, a DA spokeswoman insisted no deputy district attorney engaged in any improper conduct.
In his long motion, Sanders wrote that if Bad Boy’s confession was true, he should be incarcerated for life.
“However, for the prosecution team, community safety was a secondary concern compared to protecting themselves and the custodial informant program,” Sanders wrote, adding:
“The moral depravity for their conduct is almost unfathomable — and participants in the justice system are left to imagine the number of cases in which similarly unconscionable behavior deprived other defendants to a fair trial.”
‘Mistakes Were Made’
Daniel Wagner, the senior deputy district attorney of the homicide division, declined comment. At the Dekraai hearing last year, Wagner acknowledged that Sanders raised valid questions about prosecutors failing to disclose evidence to defense attorneys; but he attributed it to a lack of knowledge of the law and not malicious intent.
Susan Kang Schroeder, the DA’s chief spokeswoman, also refused comment.
Santa Ana police spokesman Anthony Bertagna said no one in the command structure would be interviewed about these events that arose from the Dekraai hearing.
“We are aware of errors,” said Bertagna. “We have started meetings with the DA’s office, and are updating our policies on the use of informants.”
As to the handing of the allegations regarding Bad Boy, Bertagna added, “The DA makes decisions on who is charged. We respect those decisions. Obviously, mistakes were made.”
All this has led to little closure for the families of Daniel and Michael — who belatedly learned how the justice system malfunctioned.
In mishandling informant evidence that could help a defendant, prosecutors created a rat’s nest of legal intrigue enveloping Michael and Daniel’s cases, along with others.
Like an ominous cloud, Petersen’s previous evidence violations in the 2010 prosecution of a Mexican Mafia leader shadowed the 2011 opening of trial proceedings for Michael’s murder.
Petersen had successfully convicted a Santa Ana gang leader, Leonel “Downer” Santiago Vega, putting him in prison for life for murder.
But court records show Petersen withheld critical evidence from Vega’s Santa Ana defense attorney, Rob Harley.
Harley only received four pages of Moriel notes for his defense, testimony showed — but Dekraai’s attorneys ultimately found there were more than 200 pages that should have been disclosed .
The evidence illegally withheld from Vega was so significant that last June the DA agreed to vacate his conviction and life sentence.
In February, Vega, 35 — a former Mexican Mafia “shot caller,” who ordered killings — got a deal from the DA, whereby after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter he could walk out of prison in four years.
As the 2011 trial proceedings for two of Michael’s alleged killers began, Dekraai’s attorneys say Petersen’s team faced a major potential problem in presenting informant evidence.
Both a defense attorney and the judge involved in the Vega case now were immersed in Michael’s case. This meant Petersen had to be extra scrupulous in handling informant evidence presented in the coming trial, for fear of exposing irregularities in the Vega trial.
Bad Boy’s defense attorney was Harley — who just had represented the convicted Vega, and could discover Petersen illegally had withheld from him voluminous informant notes.
Fearing this, Petersen’s team instituted an elaborate plan to again hide informant notes from Harley in the coming trial for Michael’s murder, according to Sanders’ motion.
In the motion, Sanders described the steps. First, all three defendants were charged at different times during 2010 for Michael’s murder, an attempt to limit information sharing among their three attorneys, according to Sanders.
Petersen then had the judge separate Bad Boy’s trial from the other two defendants, a rare move by a prosecutor.
At the time, Michael’s family says, they were told by prosecutors that defense attorneys sought the trial separation.
At the preliminary hearing in 2011 and then trial in 2012, Sanders described how Petersen faced a daunting task of leading his police witnesses through the web of evidence — without tipping the team’s hand there were more informant notes not disclosed to the defense.
This was made more difficult by the fact the Superior Court judge for the trial of Combo and Minor was William R. Froeberg — who just had presided over Vega’s conviction, so he too might spot discrepancies in the evidence introduced.
Sanders’ motion details Petersen’s prosecutorial ballet leading Santa Ana detectives Rondou and McLeod through the evidence, ever cognizant of the risk that withheld informant notes could be exposed.
Sanders’ motion called this process “impressively deceptive.”
Sanders headlines a motion section: “Rondou misleads court and [defense] counsel, as Petersen watches in silence.”
This particular testimony indicates Rondou tried to downplay how many homicide confessions informant Moriel secured.
Asked by defense attorneys about Moriel providing information on “several other homicides,” testimony shows Rondou disputed that, testifying: “I wouldn’t say many homicides. He did tell us about a couple.”
Actually, Moriel had secured seven other murder “admissions” from inmates, a number that astounded defense attorneys observing the Dekraai hearing.
The detectives’ courtroom act was undertaken to “falsely suggest” that Moriel only talked about Michael’s murder, Sanders wrote.
“Again they were in a pinch caused by their deception” in Vega’s conviction, wrote Sanders, adding they were “desperately attempting to avoid any reference” to undisclosed Moriel notes.
About 20 pages of Moriel notes were provided to the defendants Combo and Minor, said Sanders, when there actually were more than 200 pages that should have been disclosed.
Sanders called this courtroom chapter where detectives Rondou and McLeod testified “a game of hot potato.”
As the Combo and Minor defense attorneys honed in on Moriel’s notes, Rondou testified, “I think so,” when asked if they were preserved.
But in his Dekraai motion, Sanders wrote that Petersen, Santa Ana police and the sheriff’s department “all were in possession” of a bigger cache of Moriel notes.
“Petersen also knew that Rondou had lied repeatedly,” Sanders wrote, “And that as a prosecutor, he was doing nothing to stop it.”
Then Petersen called McLeod to testify, in essence passing the “hot potato” about the notes to him.
At first, McLeod claimed he didn’t have any Moriel notes. “I didn’t receive it; nothing was given to me,” McLeod testified.
But under further questioning by defense attorneys he acknowledged he had “seen notes provided by Moriel,” but he didn’t have a copy.
“McLeod was lying and didn’t know what way to turn,” Sanders wrote in his Dekraai motion. “McLeod committed perjury.”
In an interview, McLeod denied making any false statements in court or engaging in any impropriety, but he declined further comment.
Rondou, who could not be reached for comment, retired in February from the Santa Ana police, Bertagna said.
More Trouble for Bad Boy
Once the jury acquitted Combo and Minor, the DA’s office opted not to pursue the murder charge against Bad Boy — allowing him the October 2012 no contest plea to voluntary manslaughter and release then for time served.
Recently, McLeod said Michael’s case is considered closed.
Back on the street in late 2012, court records show Bad Boy began parole violations before the end of that year, continuing through last year. Use of amphetamines, associating with prohibited gang members, and access to a gun are listed as offenses in parole records.
In February 2014, court records show Bad Boy was arrested on a parole violation for leaving a drug rehabilitation program in December 2013. He said he got out of jail last April.
Last July, court records show Bad Boy was again detained for a parole violation at a Delhi house for possession of an opium pipe and resisting arrest. He said he got out of jail in October.
Then last month, the DA’s office charged him with two misdemeanors for the July drug paraphernalia possession and resisting arrest. He is to appear March 23 in Superior Court in Santa Ana.
Against this backdrop, Bad Boy said he is wondering if he can have his manslaughter plea in Michael’s death overturned.
After learning about police and prosecution actions from the Dekraai hearing, he said he feels he was tricked to make that plea.
When these events were described to Bertagna, he replied: “A wonderful system we have.”
Please contact Rex Dalton directly at firstname.lastname@example.org