Sheriff’s Deputies Take the Fifth During Jailhouse Snitch Hearing

Two Orange County Sheriff’s deputies, Benjamin Garcia and William Grover, invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination at a court hearing Thursday rather than answer questions about their dealings with jailhouse informant records.

“It’s disappointing, but that’s his constitutional right,” said Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals of Grover.

Thursday was the second day of an ongoing hearing where Goethals has ordered attorneys to present evidence on whether or not Sheriff’s Department officials withheld, delayed or shredded documents about the use of jailhouse informants, despite court subpoenas to produce the records.

It’s an outgrowth of the murder trial of Scott Evans Dekraai, who pled guilty to killing his ex-wife and seven others at a Seal Beach nail salon in 2011. Dekraai’s attorney, Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, alleged prosecutors violated Dekraai’s rights when they placed him in a cell next to a jailhouse informant, elicited a confession and never gave that information to his attorneys.  The informant was used even though Dekraai already had confessed to the mass murders.

Grover and Garcia both work in the unit that deals with jail informants, known as Special Handling, and have written prolific entries in the Special Handling log, an electronic document of deputies’ notes on informants. They were called to testify Thursday in part because of a document they wrote together in 2013 that acknowledges the termination and replacement of the Special Handling log.

Both, however, are accused by Sanders of lying under oath in earlier testimonies. 

Grover, for example, in one testimony downplayed his work with snitches, saying he spends “less than zero” time working with informants. But he has documented his work with informants in the Special Handling log in detail and even bragged about his work with informants in an internal performance evaluation.

In 2014, Garcia never mentioned the jail records system he and other special handling deputies to track inmates and informants. A year later, asked in court why he didn’t mention the system, known as TRED, he said he was trained not to bring it up in court.

But in earlier testimony from a 2009 homicide case, Garcia spoke openly about TRED and how it was used.

At Thursday’s hearing, Sanders’ first question was direct: did Grover make a decision to hide the Special Handling log when he first testified?

Grover immediately invoked his Fifth Amendment right and his lawyer, Jan Christie, said she had advised him to plead the Fifth in response to every question at the hearing.

Invoking the Fifth Amendment is not an automatic pass for a witness to avoid testimony. In order to plead the Fifth, a witness must be able to show the court that they have substantial and real exposure to criminal prosecution.

Christie pointed to three pending investigations into the use of jailhouse snitches in Orange County jails by the Department of Justice, California Attorney General and OC Grand Jury. Grover has also consistently invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege in court proceedings since his initial testimony in 2015.

Through the deputies’ union, Christie also represents several others who have been called as witnesses.

In this case, Goethals agreed that Grover could face future criminal prosecution and referred to Grover’s previous testimonies where he denied working with snitches.

In a blistering 2015 ruling, Goethals wrote that Garcia and fellow deputy Seth Tunstall “either intentionally lied or willfully withheld material evidence from this court during the course of their various testimonies.”

“I didn’t address Deputy Grover in any prior rulings…but if I had to write those two rulings [again] I would have included Deputy Grover’s name,” Goethals said Thursday.

Garcia also invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege, citing the same investigations.

The hearing will continue on May 31 at 9 a.m.

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