LOS ANGELES -- Law enforcement officers linked to a tainted jailhouse snitch program in Orange County, California, once told an informant that after working for them, he might be able to join the military, kill people legally and "get away with it," according to audio evidence obtained by The Huffington Post through a Superior Court records request. The informant was a gang member who at the time was facing life in prison for various acts of violence.
The audiotapes, some of which have never before been heard publicly, provide a disturbing look into the relationships between law enforcement and felons in an informant program that allegedly violated multiple defendants' rights.
Oscar "Scar" Moriel was a longtime Delhi gang member in Orange County who would later admit to killing at least six people. But in 2009, he was behind bars and facing 25 years to life on charges that included attempted murder and carjacking at knifepoint. Moriel decided to get himself some better options. The perks can be life-changing for an inmate who decides to inform on his jailhouse neighbors -- reduced or dropped charges, money, food delivery, video games and, at least in Moriel's case, the possibility of joining the military so he could "legally kill some people."
In February 2009, Moriel requested a meeting with Santa Ana police detectives Charles Flynn and David Rondou.
"I might be able to help you if my memory can fall back in place," Moriel told Flynn during a recorded interview. "It might not be able to fall back in place because it's a long time ago. People forget. If I can grab spots of my memory and make it seem like it was yesterday. Some options, options would be nice. Right now I'm in a place with no options. I'm looking at third strike, I'm looking at life in prison. So the more options I have to work with and to choose from the better position I'll be in to think more clearly."
Listen to the early exchanges when Moriel first speaks with Detectives Flynn and Rondou here:
And thus began a fraught and bizarre relationship. Moriel initially shared information regarding a local homicide case that had gone cold. By July 2009, he had signed an informant agreement with local law enforcement to work with them in secret, gathering evidence from within jail that might help their cases.
It was during that July meeting that police would engage in one of the oddest conversations they had with Moriel, discussing a potential future military career for their informant if his snitching efforts proved to be fruitful for them. Flynn, who did most of the talking, was accompanied by Orange County sheriff's deputies Ben Garcia and Bill Grover.
MORIEL: Have you heard or do you think it's possible after all this is done ... I can go into the military?
FLYNN: Uh, huh.
MORIEL: Yeah, that's good shit.
GROVER: You want to legally kill some people, huh.
MORIEL: Yeah, I want to go fight. If that's possible, I want to go.
FLYNN: It's much nicer when Uncle Sam's behind you on it.
MORIEL: That's what I figured.
FLYNN: Then you know you get away with it.
MORIEL: That's cool.
After a brief discussion about U.S. versus international law and the shooting of people in the course of police work versus during wartime, Flynn gave Moriel some detailed advice on which branch of the armed forces the violent criminal might pursue for his next career.
MORIEL: And what branch would I qualify for?
GARCIA: Well, I know Air Force is out.
FLYNN: It depends on what you want to do. I mean, what do you want to do? I mean, if you want to go over there and shoot, actually the quickest way is probably the Army -- because you got the 82nd and 101st and 10th Mountain and the Rangers, you know, they rotate so often. You know, the Marine Corps, it goes for a longer time, but you're stuck here in the U.S. while shit's going on. You go in like in the Rangers and they're going to go, 'Hey, man, going over next week and they're short 200 guys. Anybody want to go?' And you put your fucking hand up and, bam, you're on the way -- I mean, you could basically live over there. My team, I was in Special Forces, a Green Beret, and we fucking lived over there for almost three years. Come back -- I had an apartment in Frankfurt, Germany -- go back, nice food, I mean, chase down some chicks and fucking boom, right back in the box, just over and over and over.
MORIEL: And like this might take a couple of years though, right?
FLYNN: I wouldn't see it going that long. It will take some time, but you know that would be the absolutely outside, but I just can't see it going that long. But you know, plan for the long haul -- if shorter, great.
Listen to the full exchange here, never before heard publicly:
Moriel would spend the next two-and-a-half years as a key informant for the cops. As a state's witness, he would testify in two high-profile murder trials as well as the first trials in the wake of a sweeping Mexican Mafia crackdown in Orange County. He received some money and has been in witness protection since 2011. He claimed in court testimony that he never intentionally tried to get inmates to spill about their crimes.
At the time of those 2009 conversations, the participants had no reason to believe their words would ever be heard again.
"Let me tell you this right now," Flynn said in the July meeting as they discuss an informant agreement that Moriel is considering signing. "This goes in a file that I have for you that gets locked in a safe, but no one but I have access to and it never, ever comes out. This goes in my file in my safe at the police station, and no one has access to it."
In 2009, the full workings of the jailhouse snitch program under the Orange County Sheriff's Department were, for the most part, secret. These recordings, and others, were kept hidden until Orange County Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders began asking the questions that uncovered the full scope of the program.
"We don't have informants inside," Sheriff's Deputy Garcia said about Orange County jails during court testimony in May 2014.
But beginning in 2013, Sanders through multiple cases started to unearth the existence of a vast jailhouse informant program, complete with alleged violations of constitutional rights and records of an organizational effort that Sanders contends have been improperly concealed for as long as 30 years.
Across the country, law enforcement authorities deploy informants to help bolster a case -- a tactic that's perfectly legal, even when the snitch receives something in exchange. But Sanders alleges that in some Orange County cases, including some that Moriel testified in, the sheriff’s jailhouse informants held recorded and unrecorded conversations with inmates who were already represented by lawyers -- which is a violation of an inmate’s right to counsel. Prosecutors allegedly took damning evidence gathered by the informants and presented it in court, while withholding evidence that could have been beneficial to the defense -- which is a violation of a defendant's right to due process.
The revelations about Orange County's jailhouse snitches have unraveled multiple murder cases. Some accused murderers have even walked free.
One such case was that of Leonel Vega. Last year, when key evidence collected through the snitch program wasn't turned over to the defense, Vega's life sentence was vacated and he was granted a new trial for a 2010 gang-related murder. His first conviction had hinged on the testimony of three jailhouse snitches, including Moriel. Vega is now serving a new sentence that will see him freed in about four years.
Moriel also testified in 2014 in People v. Dekraai, a case involving Sanders' client Scott Dekraai. In May of last year, Dekraai had pleaded guilty to shooting and killing his former wife and seven other people in a hair salon in 2011, in what remains the largest mass murder in county history. Then, post-plea hearings began to pull back the curtain on how law enforcement had gathered its evidence.
Shortly after he was arrested and sent to jail and after he had secured legal representation, Dekraai was placed next to another frequent informant for the state, called "Inmate F" by prosecutors -- a fact that his attorneys only later learned. While the Orange County District Attorney's office ultimately agreed to toss out the evidence obtained from that informant conversation, the idea that Dekraai would simply by chance wind up next to a longtime informant did not ring true to Sanders. Late last year, in another case, the public defender uncovered a long concealed set of files, called TREDs, from a computerized database that tracked the movements of inmates inside Orange County jails. Sanders would argue those files indicated that law enforcement was actively moving defendants near key informants and that it wasn't just mere coincidence, as authorities had repeatedly claimed.
But according to Sanders, Garcia and other deputies failed to mention the existence of such a database during initial testimony in the Dekraai case and went so far as to say it would be next to impossible for law enforcement to bring particular defendants into close proximity with a jailhouse snitch.
"These witnesses who operated the county's jailhouse informant program appeared absolutely at ease on the witness stand lying about the program's existence and hiding the fact that TRED files could answer the seminal question of the hearing: why inmates and informants ended up next to one another," Sanders told The Huffington Post. "Significantly, the only way they could get away with their courtroom deception was to plan consistent responses before they testified."
Sanders added, "They should have believed they were risking their freedom and careers by committing perjury. But the fact that nothing has happened to them says these officers weren't the only ones who wanted the truth hidden forever."
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department would later acknowledge “deficiencies” in policies and protocols involving jailhouse informants. On Friday, Lt. Jeff Hallock told HuffPost that the department has now implemented changes that create more robust mechanisms to document inmate handling.
The Santa Ana Police Department could not be reached for comment on Friday.
But after the new TRED evidence surfaced, Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals agreed with much of Sanders' argument and, in a rare move, ejected DA Tony Rackauckas' entire office from further proceedings in the Dekraai case in March of this year. Goethals said that the government had made "significant" violations of due process and that two sheriff's deputies in their testimony had “either intentionally lied or willfully withheld material evidence.” He called certain aspects of the DA office's behavior a "comedy of errors."
The District Attorney's office did not immediately respond to HuffPost's request for comment. Rackauckas has previously maintained that no one in his office intentionally behaved inappropriately.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris has appealed Goethals' ruling and announced that she will conduct an investigation into all allegations.
It remains unclear just how many informants like Moriel or Inmate F were put next to defendants to lure them into conversation or how often information obtained in those conversations that might have helped the defense was not turned over. There could be more new trials and more vacated or reduced sentences for defendants who were robbed of due process.
"Does anyone really believe these are the only recordings suppressed by these officers that would have made the difference between life in prison and an acquittal?" Sanders said. "We needed government authorities to take action more than a year ago -- when the tapes were first uncovered -- and when there was the best chance of finding other hidden evidence. Instead, the [District Attorney's office] never once condemned this deplorable concealment of evidence."