The Orange County Sheriff’s sergeant who ended the special handling log – a trove of deputies’ notes on their dealings with inmates and jailhouse informants – testified Monday he never read it and was unaware of its contents before he ordered it stopped.
The 1,157-page log has been at the center of the hearing that began May 23, which explores whether Sheriff’s Department officials withheld or shredded key documents, including the special handling log, despite a court-ordered subpoena to produce them.
The contents of the log have unraveled what’s called the Orange County’s jailhouse snitch scandal, offering a detailed glimpse into how deputies in the Special Handling unit cultivated and developed confidential informants within the jails to get confessions from inmates, without disclosing those activities to defense attorneys.
Five Sheriff’s personnel so far have invoked their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination rather than answer questions about the log and their knowledge of it, although a sergeant and a lieutenant were then granted immunity in order to force them to testify.
The hearing is an outgrowth of the penalty trial of convicted mass murderer Scott Evans Dekraai, who has admitted killing eight people at a Seal Beach beauty salon in 2011.
Although Dekraai pled guilty to the killings in 2014, the Orange County District Attorney’s and Sheriff’s Department’s unconstitutional use of a jailhouse informant in this and other cases has stalled the penalty phase of the trial, as Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals weighs whether Dekraai’s rights were violated so egregiously he should dismiss the death penalty altogether.
The special handling log itself was secret until it was disclosed in 2016 in another murder case, prompting questions by Dekraai’s attorney, Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, about why it took more than three years for the Sheriff’s Department to turn over the log.
Sergeant Raymond Wert, who ended the special handling log, was among those who took the Fifth and was granted immunity. He testified at a hearing last Thursday and again on Monday.
Wert said he had never seen the special handling log until it was published by news media, but understood its purpose at the time as bridging a gap in knowledge between deputies working different shifts.
“It seemed a duplication of work to me, and unnecessary,” Wert said of why he told his deputies to stop using the log.
He claimed he didn’t know there was information about informants in the log.
“You’re saying it never crosses your mind…from 2012 to 2016, to take a peek in and see what wealth of evidence has not been disclosed in cases?” Sanders asked.
“I never looked at it and I wasn’t asked to look at it,” Wert answered.
“Honestly to look at the schedule and time that I had with other work, I didn’t have time to do it. And it was something…that didn’t seem that important,” Wert said upon further questioning.
Sanders has argued it was no coincidence that Wert ended the special handling log just days before the court was set to rule on a major discovery order.
He points to an email sent on January 22, 2013 from Assistant District Attorney Dan Wagner to Deputy Seth Tunstall, who worked in the Special Handling Unit although not under Wert’s supervision.
In the email, Wagner notifies Tunstall of a hearing later that week where Goethals would rule on multiple discovery requests, which would have included the special handling log.
A day later, deputies Bill Grover and Ben Garcia wrote in the special handling log about a meeting with Wert and Sergeant Marty Ramirez.
“One of the biggest changes will be concerning this log …. it will NO LONG [sic] BE A LOG but rather a document of IMPORTANT INFORMATION SHARING ONLY,” the log reads.
Wert, meanwhile, testified Monday that he had never seen the email between Wagner and Tunstall until Sanders showed it to him in court.
“Was there ever a time when you were monitoring or had access to Seth Tunstall’s email?” asked Deputy Attorney General Michael Murphy, a prosecutor with the California Attorney General’s office. “Did he share his email with you?”
“No,” Wert responded.
Murphy argued that Wert had done nothing to conceal or hide the log and it was still accessible.
“The redacted version is here in court today – it still exists,” Murphy said.
Following Wert’s testimony, Sanders is likely to call this week witnesses up the chain of command up to Assistant Sheriff Adam Powell, who has testified in a separate case that no one on Sheriff Sandra Hutchens’ command staff was aware of the special handling log.
The court also heard from the husband of one of Dekraai’s victims Monday. Many families have been in attendance throughout the hearing, which is in its third week.
June 5 would have been the 53rd birthday of Christy Lynn Wilson, her husband Paul Wilson told the court Monday.
“We’re going to celebrate today, without her…and try to remember her before that coward did what he did to her,” Wilson said.
Wilson said his family would support a life sentence for Dekraai if it would mean coming to a resolution more quickly.
“I’ve got to address the whole family tonight about court today and I really don’t know what to tell them…I can’t look at my kids and give them answers, and it’s horrible,” Wilson said.
The hearing resumes Tuesday morning.
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