Nearly four years after defense attorneys issued a subpoena, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department turned over 1,157 pages of jail records known as the Special Handling log to Judge Thomas Goethals’ court, a disclosure which happened seemingly by accident in 2016, after a deputy brought pages of the log as reference notes while testifying in a separate court case.
“The Special Handling log itself was not sanctioned by the department,” Commander William Baker testified at a court hearing Tuesday. “We keep logs all over the place…but this log, we didn’t even know about it.”
It’s was a mistake that Baker said never will happen again.
“This has been an embarrassment for us and um, nobody wants this to happen again. It’s not going to happen again.”
– Commander William Baker testified at a court hearing Tuesday
Baker testified at an ongoing court hearing ordered by Goethals to determine why it took so long for the Sheriff’s Departments to turn over the log and other jail records related to the use of informants, and whether any documents have been withheld or destroyed.
The central question for Goethals is whether he can trust the Sheriff’s Department to turn over all remaining documents despite the major delays the case has already experienced.
The hearing, which is in its fifth week, is part of the Orange County’s jailhouse snitch scandal, revelations that unfolded in court cases about how Orange County prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies worked informants in the jails to obtain unconstitutional confessions, often without disclosing those activities to defense attorneys.
Sheriff Department ranking officers and the county grand jury blamed a small group of rogue deputies for the misuse of informants. Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, who announced Tuesday she will not seek re-election in 2018, is scheduled to testify about the informants next week.
The case of Scott Evans Dekraai, who has admitted to killing eight people in a mass shooting at a Seal Beach beauty salon in 2011, has been stalled for years as attorneys grappled with the disclosures. At least six other murder cases have had sentences overturned or reduced as a result the snitch scandal.
Baker described Tuesday a Sheriff’s department that, since the disclosure of the log, has left no stone unturned, assigning nearly 20 people to search through more than 581,000 files to look for anything that might need to be disclosed to the court.
Like previous Sheriff’s department management, Baker testified that he did not know of the log until it was discovered in court and said he was surprised by the extent to which deputies were working with informants in the jails.
“It sounds like largely in 2016 the department got serious about looking for records,” Goethals asked. “What took so long?”
“I don’t think we realized what was out there until we discovered the special handling log,” said Baker, referring to the notes that Deputy Robert Szewcyzk brought to aid his testimony. “Finding the Szewczyk notes really opened our eyes to what we had and what we didn’t have. We honestly didn’t know at the time.”
Baker couldn’t explain why the same effort wasn’t created by the disclosure of the TREDs – a computerized database of notes on inmate movements, which included information about informants. The disclosure of the TREDs in late 2014, shortly after Goethals issued a ruling rejecting the defense’s efforts to dismiss the death penalty, prompted months of hearings that eventually resulted in the recusal of the entire District Attorney’s office from prosecuting the Dekraai case.
“It doesn’t seem like that created too much urgency in terms of looking for records,” Goethals said, referring to the TREDs disclosure.
Baker responded that he wasn’t involved in the department’s efforts to retrieve records at that time.
Goethals also asked Baker about his conversations with the Orange County Grand Jury.
“Did you tell the grand jury the same thing that you’ve told me?” Goethals asked. “Did you tell them you believed those logs indicated there was a long-term potential for illegal activity involving your Special Handling deputies and Mod L and targeted defendants?”
“I don’t think that question was specifically asked,” Baker replied, adding. “I can’t recall.”
Baker also said that it wasn’t until after reading a news article in late May describing the testimony of Sgt. Andrew Stephens that he realized a set of 68 boxes of jail files had not been searched – a fact that had rankled Goethals.
“I was under the impression that those boxes had all been searched,” Baker said.
Baker said he immediately ordered staff to look through the remaining files in the boxes, producing about a dozen additional records.
Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, meanwhile, is also attempting to obtain personnel records and performance evaluations for eleven deputies who worked in Special Handling, arguing that the records might show whether or not OCSD management had direct knowledge of, or approved, efforts by deputies to work informants.
He points to a “brag sheet,” often written by deputies for their superiors to help them fill out performance evaluations, by deputy William Grover in 2012. In it, Grover discusses how he “developed a confidential informant and cultivated specific information” that helped investigators locate and execute a search warrant on a storage unit used as a methamphetamine lab.
The judge has not ruled on Sanders’ request yet.
The hearing continues Wednesday at 9:45 a.m.
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