Judge Wants Sheriff to Testify on Jailhouse Snitch Scandal

Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals wants Sheriff Sandra Hutchens to explain in court her claim that there is no jailhouse informants program in Orange County jails.

“It is apparent to me, at least at this point, that the Sheriff needs to testify,” Goethals said at the end of a court session Thursday, where the judge is hearing evidence to determine whether the Sheriff’s Department destroyed or withheld evidence related to the department’s use of jailhouse informants.

Despite rulings by Goethals and the California Court of Appeals confirming misuse of jailhouse informants in Orange County, Hutchens and representatives of her department have maintained there is no formal informants program in her jails.

Throughout the hearing, where so far 13 Sheriff’s Department employees have testified, only one witness, Commander Jon Briggs, has conceded deputies in the Special Handling Unit were clearly “cultivating and utilizing” confidential informants. 

Goethals, who said Wednesday he was surprised by Brigg’s testimony, said he wants to know whether Hutchens would agree with Briggs – who was at one time her executive assistant – and how she justifies her view that there is no formal informant program in the jails.

Deputy Attorney General Michael Murphy, a prosecutor with the California Attorney General’s office, said he intends to call Hutchens as a witness. There’s no date set yet for her testimony.

The hearing is an outgrowth of the case of Scott Evans Dekraai, a mass murderer who shot and killed eight people at a Seal Beach beauty salon in 2011. Although Dekraai has pled guilty to the murders, the trial to determine his sentence is delayed as Goethals determines whether Dekraai’s rights were violated so egregiously that the death penalty should be thrown out as a punishment option.

The main determination Goethals will make at the end of this hearing is whether he can trust the Sheriff’s Department to turn over all the material he has ordered as part of the court’s discovery process.

Many of the revelations of the jailhouse snitch scandal – how deputies moved informants in the jail to gain confessions on behalf of prosecutors and investigators, without the knowledge of their attorneys – came from two sources, an electronic database on inmate movements known as TRED and the Special Handling log. The log is a trove of deputies’ notes on their daily work, including their work with informants.

Although Goethals’ signed his discovery orders in January 2013, it wasn’t until 2015 that the TRED system was disclosed and in 2016 that the 1,157 page Special Handling log – most of which remains under seal – was turned over to the court.

Part of the ongoing hearing focuses on who knew about the Special Handling log and why they didn’t turn it over.

In their testimony, both the lieutenant who started the Special Handling Log and the Sergeant who ended it – who at some point both directly supervised the deputies making log entries — claimed they never read the log until much later. Three lieutenants and Briggs, a commander of the jail, also testified to having never read the log until much later, after it had been disclosed to the defense.

All those officials said they weren’t aware at the time that any deputies were cultivating and managing informants.

At Thursday’s hearing, Deputy Zachary Bieker invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination rather than answer questions, although he was forced to testify after being granted immunity by the California Attorney General’s office.

Bieker worked in Special Handling from 2011 to 2013 and wrote many entries in the log himself. He said not only would it have been difficult for deputies to keep secrets or information about their work from their sergeants, but approval would have been required for most informant operations.

After re-reading entries from the Special Handling log, Bieker said he didn’t realize the extent to which other deputies were working with informants.

“Maybe I misunderstood our job responsibilities. I didn’t focus on informants as much as other people did,” Bieker said.

Under pressure from Goethals, Bieker acknowledged that some of that activity, “moving people to different places knowing that they’re an informant could potentially be a violation” of the law.

Lieutenant Lane Lagaret, a former sergeant who was partially responsible for Special Handling and is now tasked with providing information to the public and reporters, also testified Thursday.

Lagaret said he largely left supervision of the Special Handling unit to another sergeant, Dave Johnson, and that he was not aware of the Special Handling log and has never read it.

Asked about whether he knew deputies were cultivating and managing informants in the jails, Lagaret responded with his own definition of the term.

“When I first started in the jail in 1990 one of the things deputies tried to do was work inmates for information,” Lagaret said. “And if you were successful at…stopping drugs coming in or stopping a fight, it was a badge of honor.”

“So if that’s what cultivating and managing informants are, then yes, we did it,” he added.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Sanders said Briggs’ comments, and denials by other top brass of their knowledge of informant activity, were an example of the “institutional response” from the Sheriff’s Department taking shape in court.

“They’re throwing all their deputies under the bus,” Sanders said. “These aren’t rogue deputies, these are deputies who had every reason in the world to be communicating” with their superiors.

“What I hear is that the defense (Sanders) is unhappy with the way the evidence is coming in,” countered Murphy. “The defense believes there’s a certain truth out there and if the witnesses aren’t conforming to it, it’s a problem.”

“When the defense says there was an informant program…I think what we’re hearing from the evidence that there were some deputies doing things. But that’s different from the Sheriff’s Department had an informant program,” Murphy added.

The hearing continues Tuesday June 13 at 9 a.m.

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