Judge in Snitch Case Again Rebukes Sheriff for Records Issues

Joshua Sudock/OC Register

Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals during a court hearing.

Expressing extreme frustration, the judge in the Scott Evans Dekraai mass murder case today threatened to send “someone to jail” if Orange County jail informant records his court is seeking are destroyed by Sheriff Sandra Hutchens’ department.

Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals Friday ordered the sheriff to retain all relevant jail informant records after Scott Sanders, Dekraai’s public defender, disclosed this week that the county Board of Supervisors in late 2014 had unanimously approved a policy that allowed the sheriff’s department to destroy such records after three years.

But just this last November, when Sanders and his team subpoenaed sheriff record-keeping policies, they didn’t receive the 2014 policy. They instead received policy documents dating from 1979 to 1995.

In a 56-page motion filed Jan. 18 outlining a host of new informant record irregularities, Sanders wrote he only learned of the board-approved 2014 policy when a confidential informant later provided it, which revealed to him that the subpoena hadn’t been fully honored.

Noting how the sheriff and county counsel were seeking permission to destroy files potentially reflecting systematic violations of defendant rights, Sanders wrote:

“It is beyond bewildering for a department to engage in such behavior, and one can only hope that the agency did not begin destroying as soon as the approval was given.”

In early 2016, the supervisors suspended the policy in order to preserve the informant records. However, it is unknown whether records were destroyed while the policy was in effect.

D. Kevin Dunn, a deputy county counsel, told the court the board’s action didn’t alter its past retention policy and insisted nothing improper occurred.

But Sanders said there was no such provision in the older policies he was provided. “I have no idea what he [Dunn] is talking about,” Sanders said.

In his motion citing irregularities, Sanders noted the “deletion” of six-months of informant records, how informant records were manipulated suggesting “deletions,” and how deputy records acknowledged past record “shredding.”

A Years-long Scandal

The issues surrounding the potential document destruction are the latest development in a jailhouse informants scandal that was first brought to light three years ago.

In early 2014, Sanders alleged in a more than 600-pages of motions that sheriff’s deputies and prosecutors from District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ office violated the constitutional rights of Dekraai and other defendants by using a secret network of informants in county jails to obtain information that was not disclosed to their attorneys.

To date, disclosures of the rights violations have led judges to overturn the convictions of at least six defendants charged with murder and other serious crimes. Meanwhile, the state attorney general’s office has an ongoing criminal investigation into the matter, and late last year the U.S. Department of Justice opened a civil rights investigation.

Sanders argues the violations are serious enough that Dekraai — who pleaded guilty in the spring of 2014 to killing his wife and seven other people in a 2011 shooting rampage at a Seal Beach beauty salon — should be spared from the death penalty. Goethals has so far declined to grant Sanders’ request.

But in August 2014, Goethals ruled that the prosecutorial team engaged in misconduct when a prosecutor and sheriff’s deputies provided false information to his court about informant activities for years in a number of cases.

Then, shortly after that ruling, a trove of new computer records [called TREDS] on jail informant locations was disclosed to Sanders. This led Goethals to extend the hearing. In March 2015, he took the highly unusual step of barring the DA’s office from prosecuting the penalty phase of Dekraai’s trial, with the state attorney general’s office to continue prosecution.

Now former Attorney General Kamala D. Harris, who was elected to a U.S. Senate seat in the recent election, appealed Goethals’ decision. But this last November, the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana, in ruling that excoriated county law enforcement, denied the appeal.

It was in December 2014 — after a year of headlines attracting national interest — that the supervisors authorized the sheriff’s record destruction policy. Supervisor Shawn Nelson, who was the board chairman at the time, did not return calls seeking comment regarding the policy Friday.

In January 2016,  supervisors reversed course — voting to direct county counsel to put a hold on “all records related to confidential informants,” with the board suspending the purging of such records.

If the sheriff or DA wished to destroy informant records, the board directed them to secure written permission from the county executive office, human relations office, and county counsel.

The county executive office said Friday it had no record of such a request to attempt to destroy informant records.

Harsh Words

At Friday’s hearing, the state prosecution team — led by deputy attorney general Michael T. Murphy — got a candid view of the intensity of the legal scrum between Goethals and the sheriff over informant records.

While Goethals and officials of the county counsel’s office — which represents the sheriff — have been jousting for more than four years over evidence disclosures, the judge today blasted the sheriff and county counsel with some of his sharpest criticisms, citing “ridiculous” legal procedures disrupting his court.

After detailing numerous such maneuvers, Goethals again told county counsel he was considering finding Hutchens in contempt of court and issuing sanctions of $10,000 against her and county counsel. In a December hearing, Goethals first broached the idea of possible contempt proceedings.

On Friday, Goethals’ threat of sending someone to jail — either for a contempt violation, or an allegation like obstruction of justice — was the sternest signal about his ongoing concerns over the sheriff’s failure to abide by his orders for evidence disclosures.

Friday’s legal debate involved some 5,650 pages of informant notes that Sanders was seeking, as the county counsel questioned their release. Goethals said he had reviewed 1,925 pages.

As an example, Goethals noted county counsel was claiming privilege over the disclosure of the public defender office email address for Sanders.

In another case, county counsel sought protections involving two inmates who once had spoken to a sheriff deputy — but Goethals noted he had sentenced one of the men to death, adding he is now on death row at San Quentin Prison.

Finally, Goethals read emails in two cases describing how sheriff deputies, an assistant sheriff and a Santa Ana homicide detective were involved in planning to deploy informants to secure compromising statements from inmates — noting this is exactly what the prosecution/sheriff teams repeatedly testified never occurred.

“My God,” exclaimed Goethals, about one email apparently dated November 2011, the month after Dekraai’s slaughter. “What’s going on over there? If that’s not a smoking gun, I don’t know what is.”

At the conclusion of today’s hearing, Murphy asked the judge in what direction the case may be proceeding.

Goethals said he would be better able to answer that question at the next hearing on Feb. 10.

Rex Dalton can be reached directly at rexdalton@aol.com.

  • OCservant_Leader

    In this advanced electronic age why is any official record of the people’s business being destroyed at all?? (Destroying records that are subpoenaed during a National scandal – is outrageous)!

    The County is technologically behind now 30 years but this whole discussion about destroying records when we all know they can be electronically stored for very little cost is beyond ridiculous.

    The County Retention of Records schedule is a dinasour from the olden days when records literally took up real estate. The organized crime family also realized this record “problem” could benefit them and they could legally destroy all evidence of their wrongdoing.

    My experience was any issue that got press or a protest or inquiry of any kind – spurred on the destruction of records.

    I say update the County Records Policy and transfer records to digital.

    I will donate a $10 thumb drive to start the County’s new age records retention policy.

  • OCservant_Leader

    See how all the pieces of the OC machine work together to protect themselves against any threat or any law ?

    They have made a mockery out of the legal system.

    All levels of OC government has participated in these civil rights violations from the clerks, deputies, up through OCSD & OCDA Management and now we see how the CEO’s office, CoCo and Board of Supervisors approved destruction of records right under the Judge’s nose during the first, second and I don’t know how many Subpoenas.

    Majority of incriminating records are gone folks. The End does Justify the Means. The OC gang are experts at this game. They will leave a few crumbs and all those involved will be nicely rewarded through pension spikes.

    Unless the politicians and Managers are held in contempt, charged with felonies and stripped of their pensions…there is no hope to wrestle our government out of this gang’s grip.

  • Debby Bodkin

    Judge Goethals has shown more integrity than any other OCSC Judge in the history of the OC. Since the USDOJ is now conducting an investigation, Judge Goethals’ public actions in this case will further open the door for the federal government to indict DA Rackauckas, OC Sheriff Hutchens and the OC Board of Supervisors for a now obvious RICO scheme in OC civil and criminal courts.

    • LFOldTimer

      Wishful thinking, Debby. My guess is that you’ll see a slap on the wrist from the DOJ. Don’t forget. They launched a civil, not a criminal investigation. My guess is that the DOJ will slap a hefty fine on the county – but you know who pays for that, right? You and me. The taxpayers. Not the sheriff. Not the DA. Same old crap.

      Trust me. If we defiantly refused a superior court judge’s order to turn over information we wouldn’t be given 3rd, 4th and 5th chances. We’d be wearing orange clown costumes behind iron bars. Why should those who are paid top dollar by the taxpayers and are sworn under oath to honor, serve and defend the justice system be allowed to repeatedly spit in the face of the justice system with zero consequences?

      There was a recent story in the local media about a guy who refused to turn over information to an OC superior court judge who ended up in jail for 5 years with NO CHARGES. Just based on contempt of court. He might still be in lockup for all I know.

      I agree. Judge Goethals put his butt on the line and has shown tremendous courage in furtherance of demanding equality under the law from those who run law enforcement in the county. However, at some point he has to drop the hammer on these scoundrels who are acting no different than the ones they put behind bars.

      • Debby Bodkin

        Your words are full of wisdom and sadly too many truths. I cannot help but wonder how much the Supes knew about Hutchens (a former LA Sheriff) before she was hired by OC. Was Hutchens intentionally hired to ensure that OC’s criminal RICO scheme in OC civil and criminal courts would continue smoothly? Hutchens’ former association with the DHS has always been suspicious to me.

        • OCservant_Leader

          The OC Sheriff certainly knew all about the illegal informant scam in LA, swore under oath the OC didn’t have one and then promised she turned over all records she swore didn’t exsist, now after the records continue to “wash ashore”, the judge HAS to act.

          Either she’s a liar or the most incompetent leader ever. Since she could lose her pension over the first, my guess is they are making the case for the second.

        • OCservant_Leader

          To answer your question…I believe she fit the OC BOS job description perfectly.

          She knew it was a gamble, but she has become filthy rich in doing the deed. Winning!

    • OCservant_Leader

      You are describing what “should” happen if our government followed the Law of the Land. This OC gang, unfortunately, has proven, again that they are not accountable to anyone.

      The OC gang stretched this scandal out just long enough for the Trump administration to defang this Civil Right Investigation. Even Decent Decree’s in the OC are not followed.

      After my 20 years at OC government and seeing how organized crime has infiltrated all levels of management, I do not have much hope that anyone will be held responsible.

      Next move is on Judge Goethals. We are waiting and watching.

      • LFOldTimer

        Don’t blame Trump for Christ sakes.

        The Obama administration sat on this scandal for 2-3 years and a full year after the USAG received a letter from over 2 dozen former prosecutors and legal experts that OCSD and OCDA were dirty. Then in the 11th hour USAG finally launched a CIVIL, not a criminal, investigation that will end up going nowhere. The most that will happen is the Feds will slap a big fine on the county – that the innocent taxpayers will have to pay. The county devils sworn under oath who broke the law won’t have to pay a thin dime and none will see the inside of a jail cell.

        Thank Obama for that!

        • OCservant_Leader

          Besides countless local governments systematically violating civil rights – the Feds are buried with the high number of law enforcement murders of unarmed citizens.

          How many unarmed citizens are shot in the back? Or riding a bike ? or pleading for their Dad to help him as he is beat to death?

          The numbers are staggering and the Feds can only address…I’m guessing 1%?

          The problem is local governments who are operating like organized crime families who are above the law and shut out the public.

          I say this test with Judge Goethals — is a watershed moment in the OC.

          Will he upheld the law and throw the lawbreakers (OC Family- who destroyed records) in jail?

          • LFOldTimer

            The Feds don’t investigate one case of municipal government corruption at a time. The USAG could have easily assigned local DOJ investigators to investigate Orange County corruption 3 years ago. But Lynch and Obama intentionally sat on it until the very end of his term. Obama is as corrupt as the best of them. Obama told us in 2008 that he was going to teach the “fat cats” on Wall Street a lesson. LOL. He only jumped deeper into their pockets and protected them from prosecution.

            Judge Goethals has done more than his fair share already. You wouldn’t even know about OCSD’s illegal use of informants unless Goethals had the guts to call out OCSD and OCDA. He literally put his career on the line. Goethals could’ve easily whitewashed the whole thing. Instead, he exposed it. Give the man credit where credit is due.

            The evidence is overwhelming. Judge Goethals handed it to the Feds on a silver platter. Now it’s their turn to pick up the ball and run with it – and do what Obama failed to do.

          • OCservant_Leader

            The issue here – is the OC Familiy’s violation of Judge Goethals Court Order. The Subpeona for any and “All” records.

            The power is in his hands. They thumbed their noses at his Court. We are all watching.

            Agreed the man is a great public servant and basically a hero for going against the OC power elite. He is the only ONE who has the guts to follow the law in this ridiculous example of government corruption.

            It’s so sloppy – they claimed privedge on PD Sanders email address?? Come on!

            Like you said any one of us would be wearing a orange jumpsuit and planning our escape if we did this.

            These politicians and managers need to be checked. They need to go to jail. The attorneys – including Sup Nelson, Spitzer and CoCo – should be disbarred.

            Enough is enough!

          • LFOldTimer

            We’re in total agreement on all the points made in your last comment. It’s best to keep national politics out of it. We need stay be focused and united on the cleanup of this huge pile of defecation in our own backyard.

            The illegal informant story is a huge scandal nationwide and has even had coverage overseas. Yet the Board of Supervisors haven’t even put it on the agenda for open discussion! lol. All act like ostriches with their heads buried in the sand. Great leaders, eh???

  • verifiedsane

    This is how these investigations work when involving the ruling class criminals…lots of talk, zero action…our justice system and judiciary are currently acting no better than the criminals brought before them…only chaos and bedlam await the innocent.

  • LFOldTimer

    Stop drawing a line in the sand, Judge Goethals. Treat them like you would treat any one of us if we openly defied your court order. In fact, since those with positions of public trust claim to be “held to a higher standard” than the average citizen – treat them even harsher than you would treat us. They’re spitting in the face of the justice system that they’re sworn under oath to defend and protect. Drop the hammer, Judge! Enough is enough!