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Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said Monday there was no evidence of a breach when OC sheriff’s officials apparently allowed an author to borrow dozens of boxes of the Golden State Killer case files for months, contending they were “non-evidence-based documents.”
A court filing last week in a separate case pointed to passages in the late author Michelle McNamara’s book where she described sneaking out 35 boxes and two bins of evidence in the notorious case out of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department in January 2016 and storing it at her home. At least one sheriff’s official helped her get the evidence out, McNamara wrote.
Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders alleged sheriff’s officials broke the chain of custody that would be needed to authenticate the evidence in court.
Spitzer disputed allegations that the Sheriff’s Department failed to protect the chain of custody.
“There’s absolutely no evidence that that’s true,” Spitzer said when asked about it by Voice of OC Monday at a news conference, following Joseph DeAngelo’s guilty plea earlier in the day in a Sacramento courtroom to 13 murders and numerous rapes in multiple counties, including OC.
“The defense was fully informed in Mr. DeAngelo’s case about the fact that Michelle McNamara was given by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, at some point, some copy of police reports and other documents – non-evidence-based documents – and that she was using them either to help research who the Golden State Killer might be at that time,” Spitzer said.
“There’s just no evidence either that we failed in any way whatsoever to disclose that in this case, or that there was any problem with the chain of custody in any Orange County case. So I personally think it’s much ado about nothing,” Spitzer said, adding his office would respond to Sanders’ filing in the separate case.
In that case, Sanders claims the county crime lab director, who works under the Sheriff’s Department, misled a judge in 2018 by saying it wasn’t feasible to find a particular type of crime lab report that’s possibly erroneous in case files going back to the 1980s.
In response to Spitzer’s comments Monday, Sanders said he wants similar access to evidence as was provided to McNamara.
“Mr. Spitzer says it’s ‘much ado about nothing’ that sheriff’s investigators worked with McNamara to smuggle 37 boxes of original files out of the department and into her home where they stayed for a year – including photos from the crime scene that ended up on a national television program well before there would have been a trial,” Sanders said in a statement.
“His perspective is great news for us, because all we want is copies from about three dozen boxes to assist a man facing life in prison,” said Sanders, referring to the separate case.
The Orange County crimes DeAngelo pleaded guilty to Monday were the 1980 murders in Dana Point of Keith Harrington and Patrice Harrington, whom DeAngelo also pleaded guilty to raping; the 1981 rape and murder of Manuela Witthuhn in Irvine, and the 1986 rape and murder of Janelle Cruz in Irvine.
“I will tell you, I swear I saw the devil today,” Spitzer said, pointing at the news conference to where DeAngelo was seated for hours during Monday’s hearing in Sacramento.
“That is the devil. Anybody who can do what he did, over and over and over, and seem to relish it over and over and over, is the devil.”
Prosecutors had previously sought the death penalty against DeAngelo, who was arrested in 2018, before striking a plea deal in recent weeks in which DeAngelo will serve the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.
In his motion last week, Sanders suggested the evidence breach was on prosecutors’ minds when they shifted to a plea deal that would avoid a trial where they could face uncomfortable questions about the alleged evidence breach.
But prosecutors said Monday that while they personally believe DeAngelo, 74, deserves the death penalty, the older age of victims and witnesses means justice is best served by getting him to admit to his crimes now without the long proceedings and delays of a death penalty case.
“The plea today in no way changes my view that this predator richly deserves the ultimate penalty under California’s system of guided discretion for capital punishment. But in the end, I and my colleagues concluded that seeking death did not serve the best interest of the victims in this unique and decades-old serial rape killing case,” Ventura County District Attorney Greg Totten said at the news conference.
“The inevitable delays, the lengthly year-long – perhaps decade-long – litigation that would have ensued. The probability, given his age, the defendant would likely die before his trial and certainly before any execution could be carried out. And for those victims whose crimes fell outside the statute of limitations, they would never have been given an opportunity to see and hear the defendant, as he did today, admit what he did to them,” Totten said.
McNamara’s book about the Golden State Killer describes herself and researcher Paul Haynes sneaking out the evidence with the help of sheriff’s staff, under the nose of Orange County’s then-undersheriff.
“Michelle and Paul were led to a narrow closet at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department that housed sixty-five Bankers Boxes full of [Golden State Killer] case files. Remarkably, they were permitted to look through them—under supervision—and borrow what they wanted,” states McNamara’s book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, which was published about two years after she died in April 2016.
“This was the Mother Lode. They set aside thirty-five of the boxes along with two large plastic bins to take back to L.A.,” the book adds, according to the court filing. The author and researcher loaded the records into two SUVs “while the undersheriff, unaware of what they were doing, emerged from the building and luckily didn’t seem to notice what was going down. They moved as quickly as physically possible, lest people at OCSD changed their mind.”
The alleged evidence sneaking will be re-enacted in an ongoing HBO documentary series based on McNamara’s book that’s airing this week, according to Sanders’ filing.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.