On the sixth anniversary of a grisly double murder for which he was convicted, Daniel Patrick Wozniak’s death sentence has been temporarily derailed by continued revelations of Orange County sheriff’s deputies’ errant handling of jail informant records.
In January, a jury recommended that Wozniak, a 32-year-old Costa Mesa community actor, should be sentenced to death for the May 2010 decapitation of a neighbor he had befriended, and for killing the neighbor’s female friend in a cover-up attempt.
Judge John D. Conley was to sentence Wozniak on May 20 in Orange County Superior Court, but the sentencing will be postponed, with a June 10 hearing set to discuss a new date.
That was the court’s decision last Friday after more revelations surfaced of deputies maintaining secret computer records as they gathered incriminating evidence in high-profile murder cases, while at times violating the constitutional rights of defendants.
Hearings in recent weeks have shown thousands of pages of undisclosed records were secreted in a computer drive purportedly unknown to command officers; files were kept on deputies’ personal drives on the department’s computer network; and documents were stashed on a personal, portable flash drive.
In the Wozniak case, there are documents that should have been disclosed to the defense years ago in response to various subpoenas. But testimony indicates there likely are other records that should have been provided after subpoenas in other cases.
Similarities to Dekraai Case
The record-handling process that has even confused Conley puts a stark light on Sheriff Sandra Hutchens’ office — where officers [from sergeant to commander] testified under intense defense questioning that they had no idea where deputies stored investigative documents or surreptitious audio recordings subject to subpoena.
Deputies withholding evidence — while allegedly providing false testimony — prompted Judge Thomas M. Goethals last year to recuse the entire office of District Attorney Tony Rackauckas from prosecuting the penalty trial of Scott Evans Dekraai, who in 2011 gunned down his wife and seven others in a Seal Beach beauty salon. The state attorney general’s office has appealed that ruling.
A key factor in Goethals’ ruling was the last-minute disclosure of computerized sheriff’s records on inmates and informants — called TREDs — after months of hearings in the Dekraai case.
Now the same type of “13th-hour disclosures” about the secret cache of informant records have torn Wozniak parties asunder — sowing confusion, anger and disbelief as new secret records have popped up weekly.
At the May 13 session, the parents of the victims — Samuel E. Herr, 26, and Juri “Julie” Kibuishi, 23, of Irvine — expressed frustration at the delay of the sentencing, which was to occur this Friday, a day before the sixth anniversary of the murders.
County public defender Scott Sanders — who represents both Wozniak and Dekraai — had acknowledged in court how the record mess will deny the family closure given the years of appeals that will now likely ensue.
Noting he has little confidence he has received all subpoenaed records, Sanders told the court the prosecutorial “system is built on suppression of evidence” — adding “it is terrible…the way they hide all this stuff.”
A spokesman for Hutchens, Lt. Mark Stichter, said no sheriff’s deputies would submit to an interview about record subterfuge.
“It is what it is,” said Stichter. “We have not shied away. It is a big computer system. We have gone out there exhaustively conducting a thorough inventory trying to find any additional notes. Our process in being responsive to legal documents is continuing.”
Meanwhile, Rackauckas’ office repeatedly has expressed its “frustration and distress” at the waves of record disclosures.
In a May 13 statement, the DA’s office said they are maintaining “an open conversation” with the sheriff’s office “about jail records.”
The district attorney “has now begun its review of the records to ensure the relevant entries…are provided to the appropriate courts and to all defendants who are entitled” to them.
Under long-established case law, a prosecutor is responsible for ensuring that certain material evidence subpoenaed by the defense is divulged in a timely manner. This makes a prosecutor responsible for securing records from law enforcement, even if the material isn’t disclosed by deputies or police.
Coming on the heels of the Dekraai record debacle, prosecutors said last year they would not use any evidence from jail informants in the Wozniak trial. After some legal wrangling over their possible use, Conley issued an order that no informant evidence would be presented at all.
But when sheriff’s deputies started examining the huge secret cache of informant records uncovered three months ago, testimony shows numerous records that should have been disclosed under Sanders’ subpoenas weren’t.
Sanders argued before Conley that he should have all documents responsive to his subpoenas now to prepare his final motions to attempt to thwart the death penalty.
For instance, new records show that just a few weeks after his arrest Wozniak was placed in a now-infamous snitch tank adjacent to an aggressively helpful informant nicknamed “Wicked.”
Sheriff’s deputy William Grover wrote in a recently disclosed document they would let the relationship between the Wozniak and gang hit man Fernando Perez “marinate.”
This was followed by a series of added investigative tactics documented in heretofore undisclosed records, including information about Wozniak’s mail and phone monitoring.
Such records should have been disclosed previously, said Sanders — with the judge, prosecution and county counsel, who represents the sheriff’s office, all agreeing.
New Evidence of Possible Rights Violations
To Sanders, the records raise new concerns about possible violations of Wozniak’s constitutional right to counsel, which likely will come into play as a new penalty trial is sought.
Sanders’ team will be looking through some 3,600 pages of documents associated with the jail monitoring to see if communications between attorney and client were compromised.
Grover’s attorney, Jan Christie of Laguna Beach, said her client had no comment.
Grover was among four deputies — all from the special handling unit for jail informants — who exercised their Fifth Amendment rights against self incrimination last October — during a hearing when Judge Richard M. King overturned a 2014 murder conviction of an Anaheim man for a 2006 murder because evidence about an informant was withheld from the defense. [In March, that defendant, Eric Vasquez Ortiz, was nearly acquitted in a retrial. A mistrial was declared, with another retrial planned.]
Since Sanders’ revelations in the Dekraai case, there have been more than a half-dozen such cases where convictions were reversed — including that of Henry Rodriguez, 39, an Anaheim man imprisoned for 18 years for the 1998 murder of a pregnant Fullerton woman.
In February, Goethals overturned the 2006 murder conviction of Rodriquez, chastising the sheriff’s office for deputies withholding informant records in the case.
It was in the Rodriguez hearing before Goethals that a special handling deputy surprisingly produced new informant records from 2004-2008, which led to the secret record cache.
Last week, Rodriguez was released on $500,000 bail. He has maintained he only helped dispose of the body of Jeanette Gomez Espeleta in the ocean after she was killed by her boyfriend, who is now doing life in prison. His retrial isn’t expected for a long time as the DA is appealing Goethals’ ruling.
Just last week in the Wozniak case, the latest record trove was uncovered on the personal flash drive of Ben Garcia, a seasoned deputy in the jail special handling unit.
The role of Garcia — and whether he would submit to questioning by Sanders before Conley — became the most volatile chapter in recent Wozniak proceedings.
Garcia was one of the deputies singled out by Goethals as providing false testimony in the Dekraai case; with the judge citing him in his written order recusing the DA’s office.
After that Goethals order in March 2015, the office of state Attorney General Kamala D. Harris said it had opened an investigation of possible criminal perjury at the Dekraai trial.
But until last week, there had been no public indication of action by the office of Harris — who is leading in polls in the race for California’s open U.S. Senate seat.
But Robert G. Gazley, Garcia’s Mission Viejo attorney, acknowledged to the Voice of OC that state authorities had contacted his client several times, beginning about the first of the year. He declined further comment for his client.
At a recent Wozniak hearing, Gazley had asked the court if any of the parties had heard from the attorney general’s office. Later, Gazley said no one answered that question.
A Harris spokeswoman declined comment on the probe, but referenced a press release from Rackauckas’ office noting the state’s “ongoing investigation.”
In testimony regarding the computer records, sheriff’s department supervisors said the deputies didn’t believe the materials were responsive to the subpoenas — with some calling the documents “a daily activity log.” Although in the Wozniak hearing, Commander Adam Powell called them “an unauthorized blog” of “off-file documents” not sanctioned by the sheriff.
In the Ortiz case last autumn, Garcia was one of the deputies who exercised his Fifth Amendment rights when called to testify. In Conley’s court, Gazley said his client might do the same thing again.
Earlier this month at a Wozniak hearing, Conley moved to cease testimony of sheriff’s officials — including Garcia — about the recent record disclosures, prompting intense argument from Sanders.
The arguments became so heated — with Sanders interrupting the judge — that Conley twice cautioned the public defender that he was “on the edge of being disrespectful” to the court.
The tense exchanges reveal how high the stakes are in the case, as Garcia’s refusal to testify on Fifth Amendment grounds would alert any appellate court of possible criminal acts by law enforcement.
In the end, Conley tentatively blocked Garcia’s testimony, leaving that possibility open in the future.
In addition to rescheduling Wozniak’s sentencing, Conley on June 10 will also likely set a date for another major motion by Sanders in his effort to save Wozniak from the death penalty.
After county counsel reviewed the flash drive, Sanders last week received more records, and is to receive additional ones after their vetting.
While the prosecutor has argued addressing such records can be handled on appeal after sentencing, Conley has leaned toward including as much material as possible in the pre-sentence court record.
This is better than forcing successors to recreate a record of events a decade down the road in the expected lengthy appellate process, the judge said.
Please contact Rex Dalton directly at [email protected]