Key Witnesses In A California Jailhouse Snitch Scandal Refuse to Testify

As sheriff's department officials clam up, the sentencing in an Orange County massacre remains mired in misconduct.

SANTA ANA, Calif. ― Six years ago, Scott Dekraai walked into a hair salon in Seal Beach and gunned down eight people, including his ex-wife. No one is disputing that. But what remains in dispute is his sentence as the court struggles to untangle a secretive jailhouse informant program that this week saw key witnesses either refuse to testify or plead ignorance.

Hearings ordered two weeks ago by Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals have focused on misconduct involving the informant program that could upend the pursuit of the death penalty for Dekraai but, beyond that, could show that the rights of numerous criminal defendants were violated, potentially affecting countless sentences. Goethals ordered the hearings after “failures of compliance” with court orders over the last four years to turn over evidence in the case against Dekraai, who had been jailed next to a known informant. 

This week, three sheriff’s supervisors asserted they knew nothing of the informant program, even though it is operated by their deputies. They also said they knew little to nothing about a log that their deputies kept in which they detailed their interactions with informants. The log was concealed from the court for years.

Goethals, who has already ruled that this sophisticated jailhouse informant program exists in the Orange County jails ― a ruling affirmed by an appeals court and confirmed by the district attorney’s office ― said some of the claims by the management staff of the sheriff’s department that it doesn’t exist were “pretty hard to swallow.”

This week, Seth Tunstall became the third sheriff’s deputy to refuse to answer questions about his work with jail informants. Dekraai’s attorney, Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, was trying to question Tunstall about his involvement in a sheriff’s department unit called Special Handling, which dealt with jail informants.

Deputies Ben Garcia and William Grover, who worked in Special Handling with Tunstall, refused to answer questions from Sanders last week about previous testimony in which they denied that a snitch program existed in the county’s jails. In 2015, an increasingly impatient Goethals rebuked Tunstall and Garcia, saying they had “either intentionally lied or willfully withheld information.” 

Two Orange County Sheriff’s Department supervisors, Lt. Dave Johnson and Sgt. Raymond Wert, invoked their right not to testify this week as well, but then later talked when granted immunity by California Deputy Attorney General Mike Murphy, who is now the lead prosecutor in the case. (The state attorney general’s office inherited prosecution of the case after Goethals ejected the entire Orange County district attorney’s office from it in 2015 over his findings of misconduct involving the selective use of informants.)

“It’s disappointing at best that an active-duty supervisor still employed in the jail feels compelled to invoke” his Fifth Amendment right to not testify, Goethals said of Johnson. “I don’t know what it says about what is going on across the street [at the sheriff’s department], but it says something.”

Sheriff’s Supervisors Claim That There’s No Jail Informant Program And That They Are Puzzled By The Deputies’ Log

Johnson, who worked in Special Handling in the jails as a deputy and sergeant, claimed this week that he had never dealt with confidential informants in the jail because he believed they were unreliable. He said that, as a supervisor, he was unaware of the Special Handling unit “working” informants.

He said deputies sometimes interviewed inmates who wanted to share information about goings-on in the jail or perhaps other crimes but that they worked only as liaisons. Johnson said he handed information over to other agencies or other investigators and did not actively recruit or manage any informants. Johnson also said those inmates were not “informants” but were “sources of information.”

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens leads a department that has become mired in a jailhouse informant investigation.
Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens leads a department that has become mired in a jailhouse informant investigation.

But Sanders has argued that deputies were ordered to refer to informants as “sources of information” as a way to avoid perjury charges when they were denying earlier in the Dekraai case that the informant program existed.  

Johnson testified that the cultivating, handling and management of informants in the jail was not an activity Special Handling deputies should be involved in ― and he was unaware of it occurring.

He claimed he forgot about a 2009 memo he wrote to his supervisor, former Lt. Brent Giudice, in which he said one of the duties of his Special Handling deputies was to “handle and maintain” confidential informants in the jail. Johnson argued he should have used the word “facilitate” instead of “handle” in the memo. (Tunstall also claimed he used the “wrong” words when confronted with his own 2013 search warrant affidavit in which he admitted cultivating and developing confidential informants in the jail.)

Giudice testified this week that he didn’t remember receiving the memo from Johnson but assumed he must have. He said he didn’t believe that Special Handling deputies cultivated, handled or managed informants in the jail and that he would have been concerned if he knew his deputies had done that.

Sanders revealed a memo to Johnson that was once posted on the wall of the Special Handling unit’s office. In it, deputies’ duties were listed, and the third item is: “Cultivate/manage Confidential Informants.” 

Johnson testified that he’d never seen the memo, despite his two-year role as a supervisor of the Special Handling unit and despite it being posted on the wall of an office he’d been to several times.  

“How would you not see this hanging on the wall?” Goethals asked Johnson. “It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Johnson said that had he seen it, he would have taken action to make sure his deputies were not engaged in such conduct with informants.

Goethals told Johnson he had some “issues” with his testimony. 

The Mystery Of The Log, And It’s Abrupt Termination, Continues

Central to the hearings are questions surrounding the abrupt termination of the Special handling log ― a 1,157-page cache of notes that Special Handling deputies inside the jail secretly maintained from 2008 to 2013 to record their daily activities with inmates, some of whom were informants. The database has shed new light on the scope of the informant program in the county and has revealed that some deputies were destroying jail records, possibly illegally.

Despite having testified that he may have reinstated the Special Handling log while overseeing the unit, Johnson claimed he never read the log while supervising his team and wasn’t familiar with its contents. He said he became familiar with some of it only recently, when a sheriff’s commander asked him about it after it came to light that Johnson had written some entries and was referenced in it by other deputies.

An entry from the Special Handling log maintained by sheriff's deputies describes a section of the jail where informants were
An entry from the Special Handling log maintained by sheriff's deputies describes a section of the jail where informants were housed.

During his examination, Sanders presented Johnson with entry after entry from the Special Handling log describing a section of the jail called “L-20,” which was officially used as a mental health sector of the jail but has recently come to be understood as an “informant tank” ― a housing area managed by sheriff’s deputies where some inmates work secretly for the government as informants and are given access to certain defendants in order to glean information that can be used against them in court.

An entry in the log on the L-20 section of the jail.
An entry in the log on the L-20 section of the jail.

Questions have plagued the sheriff’s department over the log’s sudden termination. A late log entry references Sgt. Marty Ramirez Ramirez and Lt. Raymond Wert discussing the decision to end the log. Dated Jan. 23, 2013, the entry on a unit meeting says they decided to end the log and have deputies keep a document for “important information sharing only.” 

Wert testified Thursday that he ended the log but didn’t understand what was meant by an “important information” document. He said that he didn’t terminate it because of its contents, rather it was because he realized that some deputies believed there were internal records on inmates and informants that did not have to be disclosed to the courts even when ordered to do so.

Despite testifying that he was greatly concerned about proper discovery of documents to the court, Wert claimed he did not see or read the log before ending it. Sanders showed him an email that said Goethals could order expansive informant evidence in the Dekraai case to be turned over to the defense. The email was dated just one day before the termination of the log, which is filled with evidence that an informant was unlawfully placed next to Dekraai in a county jail.

Asked about that timing, Wert said he didn’t remember those dates and that they had no significance to him.

Nearly four years went by before Dekraai and the court learned of the log’s existence.

The Orange County district attorney's office has been tossed from the Scott Dekraai case.
The Orange County district attorney's office has been tossed from the Scott Dekraai case.

Special Handling Deputies May Have Destroyed Evidence

It became illegal to destroy Orange County jail records in 2009, when the U.S. Department of Justice began an investigation.

Yet some deputies, in their log entries from 2009 and after, make references to destroying records in the jail. In separate log entries, Garcia and Grover both describe the “shredding” of “old” documents related to the Special Handling unit. In another entry, Grover describes a “purge” that he, Garcia and another deputy did of files in a desk drawer.

Johnson, when asked this week about the destruction of jail records, testified that he approved the destruction of some Special Handling records in 2009 and 2010 while supervisor. He also said he wasn’t aware of the 2009 legal hold.

Carol Ann Morris, assistant director of the support services division of the sheriff’s department who produces its schedule on when sheriff’s records can legally be destroyed, testified last week about the hold she ordered placed on the jail records. When shown some of the log entries that describe the destruction of records during the period covered by the legal hold, she testified that she was “alarmed.”

Hearings are set to resume next week.