Revelations of evidence handling problems at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department have now reached California’s biggest serial killer case in years.
A new court filing points to evidence that one or more sheriff staff members allowed the late true crime author Michelle McNamara to sneak out about half of the department’s evidence from the Golden State Killer case in January 2016 and store it at her home, allegedly breaking the chain of custody that would be needed to authenticate it in court.
McNamara – who coined the name Golden State Killer – died in April 2016, and the evidence was returned to the Sheriff’s Department late that year, according to the filing.
Sheriff and District Attorney officials declined to confirm or deny the allegations when reached for comment Thursday, citing ongoing court proceedings.
The evidence transfer was brought forward Thursday in a separate court case, ahead of Joseph DeAngelo’s scheduled guilty plea on Monday to 13 murders and numerous rapes in multiple counties, in exchange for a life sentence. Questions remain about whether the alleged breaking of chain of custody has anything to do with prosecutors dropping plans to pursue the death penalty – which would have involved a public trial – and what Sheriff’s Department executives did when they learned the evidence may have been taken to a private citizen’s home.
The alleged sneaking out of evidence was highlighted in a court filing by Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders. He pointed to passages in McNamara’s book about the killer, which describe 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.
“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 upcoming HBO documentary series based on McNamara’s book, which is airing next week, according to Sanders’ filing.
Haynes said the evidence wasn’t returned to the department until late 2016, according to a sworn court declaration from Sanders, citing a phone interview with the researcher.
Sanders, in his filing, called it a “chain of custody disaster” and “perhaps among the most significant breaches in California history.” And he suggested it was on prosecutors’ minds when they recently announced a plea deal with the accused Golden State Killer where he would face life in prison rather than a death penalty trial.
“The actions of the [Sheriff’s Department] would have created unwanted questions at trial about whether all evidence was accounted for and disclosed,” Sanders wrote.
Orange County District Attorney officials did not directly answer when asked Thursday if their shift from pursuing the death penalty to life in prison had anything to do with half of the Sheriff’s Department evidence allegedly being snuck out to an author’s home.
“Victims of a crime are entitled to finality in their criminal cases, as well as the expectation that the person convicted of committing the crime will be punished by the courts of the State of California,” District Attorney spokeswoman Kimberly Edds said in a written response Thursday.
“We have a moral and ethical responsibility to consider any offer from the defense, given the massive scope of the case, the advanced age of many of the victims and witnesses, and our inherent obligations to the victims,” she added.
“This is an active prosecution and we will have no further comment until we are in the Sacramento Superior Court on June 29.”
Prosecutors were seeking the death penalty against DeAngelo, a former police officer, before announcing this month they had struck a plea deal where he would spend the rest of his life in prison in exchange for admitting his guilt.
He is scheduled to plead guilty Monday to 13 murders, including four in Orange County in the 1980s, as well as numerous rapes.
“There is…little question that Orange County members of the DeAngelo prosecution are hoping with every fiber of their being that DeAngelo pleads guilty, as is anticipated next week, so that a humiliating trial can be avoided,” Sanders alleged in his court filing Thursday.
The Sheriff’s Department’s spokeswoman, citing the court case Sanders filed the motion in, declined to answer questions about the book’s description of Golden State Killer evidence being transferred to the author and what if anything sheriff management did when they learned of the apparent transfer.
“We trust the Court will make a determination on the merits of this case, not a sensationalized motion,” said sheriff’s spokeswoman Carrie Braun.
A trial, Sanders wrote, would have brought the evidence custody issues into the public light and prompted Sheriff Don Barnes “to face a series of uncomfortable questions.”
“When did he learn of the incident? What investigative actions did he direct? Did he demand a report explaining what occurred to ensure that the prosecution team and any future defendant receive a full and complete accounting of what occurred?” Sanders wrote.
“What steps did he take to trace the chain of custody? Were investigators fired or severely punished? These questions are particularly appropriate in this moment, and would have been at a trial. It was only six months ago that it was discovered that Barnes and his predecessor had attempted to hide two audits revealing systemic evidence handling issues,” he added, referring to audits that found hundreds of cases where OC sheriff’s deputies failed to follow policy in booking drugs, cash, photos, and videos in criminal cases by the end of their shift.
Two former Orange County deputies have pleaded guilty to misdemeanors, after they were found to have made multiple false statements in police reports about whether evidence was booked.
Sanders’ filing comes in a separate case where he’s claiming 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.
“[Orange County Crime Lab Director Bruce] Houlihan swore it would require a hugely burdensome hand-search of approximately 3,500 boxes containing between 70,000 and 140,000 files,” Sanders wrote in his court filing, adding that was the reason the judge didn’t order the search.
But Sanders alleges McNamara’s book revealed the crime lab director was misleading the court, because it showed the department had lists and databases that would allow them to locate the files most likely to have the reports, which would have made the search much easier.
Sanders is asking Judge Julian W. Bailey of Orange County Superior Court to order prosecutors and the Sheriff’s Department to let defense attorneys review the lists and reports.
While declining to answer questions Thursday about the apparent Golden State Killer evidence transfer, Braun did dispute an aspect of Sanders’ allegations.
Sanders wrote the undersheriff at the time of the evidence transfer in January 2016 was Don Barnes, who is now the elected sheriff of Orange County.
But he didn’t become undersheriff until later, Braun said Thursday.
“Barnes was not officially sworn in and did not wear the stars as the undersheriff until March 17 of 2016,” she said. The undersheriff in January 2016 was John Scott, Braun said.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at [email protected].