ABC7 investigation: Unlikely alliance born in search for answers over OC snitch scandal

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Paul Wilson lost his wife in a 2011 massacre at a Seal Beach salon, but now he's teamed up with the attorney who defended his wife's killer to hold OC law enforcement accountable. (KABC)

It's an unlikely alliance Paul Wilson could not have imagined just a few years ago.

"That was probably the last photograph taken of her," Wilson says as he shows Scott Sanders around the Lakewood home he shared with Christy Wilson, his wife of 26 years.

Their friendship is one neither man saw coming after the senseless and violent crime that initially brought their lives together.

Christy - mother of the Wilsons' three adult children -- was among eight people killed in a Seal Beach salon in October 2011. It remains the deadliest mass shooting in Orange County history.

For six years, Orange County Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders defended Christy's killer - the mass murderer Scott Dekraai.

"He's the guy that's defending the person who killed my wife. He wasn't one of my favorite people," Wilson tells Eyewitness News as the two men sit side by side to explain their now shared common goal.

"It's been pretty transformative, I mean - just for me as a human being. But to be in his house today, I've never been in his house before," Sanders said.

What's behind this radical shift? Wilson initially watched in frustration and disgust as Sanders fought tooth and nail to spare Dekraai from the death penalty. Dekraai, an ex-tug boat captain, stormed into the salon that October day in a fit of rage over a bitter custody dispute, killing his ex-wife and seven other people.



Six years of contentious court hearings followed - each glimpse of Dekraai dredging up the pain and loss all over again for Wilson and other family members of the victims.

In March 2015, Wilson angrily told reporters, "The jailhouse informants, talking to somebody, the evidence the sheriffs withheld, or did not withhold, who cares?"

But Wilson's view evolved - as attorney Sanders argued that law enforcement planted a secret network of jailhouse informants to fish for confessions from high-profile suspects like Dekraai -- and another one of Sanders' clients - the actor turned double-murderer Daniel Wozniak.

Sanders' years-long investigation unearthed what's now known as Orange County's " Snitch Scandal," which claims that inmates' constitutional rights were violated - made even more egregious by prosecutors who allegedly withheld how and why those informants gathered the damning information.

"I think there's little doubt this goes back to the 1980s at the latest," Sanders said. "They're moving informants around, they're using something called 'snitch tanks' to give themselves a better chance of having success getting to their targets."

"What I learned was the system is a mess and it's broken," Wilson said. "Just because you're the D.A. or the Sheriff of Orange County, you can't break the law. You're not above the law!"

The OCSD and OCDA both declined to do on-camera interviews for this story.

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THE FALLOUT: DEPUTIES REFUSE TO TESTIFY AND SWEETHEART DEALS FOR SNITCHES


Sanders said the still unfolding scandal has led to the unraveling of 18 felony cases. At least one admitted murderer, Isaac Palacios, was set free, and new trials have been ordered for already convicted killers.

Prosecutors have handed out "sweetheart plea deals" to snitches like Oscar Moriel and Fernando Perez - both violent felons now serving reduced prison time for their work as secret jailhouse informants.

After years of denying the existence of certain records related to jailhouse informants and inmate movements, the Orange County Sheriff's Department was forced to turn over once-secret logs that included notes on "shredded files" and "capers" run by deputies in the now defunct Special Handling Unit.

Four Orange County Sheriff's Deputies have pleaded the fifth, refusing to testify in court after Judge Thomas Goethals called out two of the deputies by name in a 2015 ruling, saying Deputy Seth Tunstall and Deputy Ben Garcia "intentionally lied or willfully withheld material evidence" in the Dekraai case.

"I think Judge Goethals called it on the head. He said, 'they lied to me, they knew they were lying, it was intentional' and that's what he calls perjury," says Loyola Law School Professor Laurie Levenson.

"We have no doubt we had an informant system that was unconstitutional," Levenson tells Eyewitness News. "We have no doubt that we had people in law enforcement and in a prosecutorial agency who are not being honest with the court. We have no doubt about that. Our doubts are about did it happen in other cases? Have they learned their lessons?"

No lessons learned according to attorney Sanders -- even after Judge Goethals kicked the entire Orange County District Attorney's office off the Dekraai case in 2015 - and took the death penalty off the table for the admitted killer in 2017 citing "ongoing prosecutorial misconduct."

Dekraai was sentenced last September to eight consecutive life terms in prison without the possibility of parole.

Scott Dekraai is serving eight consecutive life terms in prison for the 2011 shooting rampage that killed eight people and wounded one.


"SHAM" INVESTIGATIONS? STATE AND FEDERAL PROBES LANGUISH FOR YEARS


The California Attorney General's Office opened a "criminal investigation" into the Orange County Sheriff's Department - and possible perjury by deputies - in March 2015. But three and a half years have gone by since the investigation was announced without charges or any type of resolution.

Sanders and Wilson call the California attorney generals investigation a sham.

"This was some of the most blatant examples of perjury you could even find," Sanders said. "Now, it just takes courage and they don't have it. This is a place where simply it comes down to the AG's office doesn't want to file charges and the sheriff's department is laughing at them, they really are."

"They have no fear," Wilson said. "They do what they want to do and how they want to do it and when they want to do it - without any fear of repercussion."

For years, Eyewitness News pressed the California Attorney General's Office for information about their investigation. A spokesperson repeatedly denied our requests for an interview with California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. Eyewitness News reporter Eileen Frere caught up with Becerra at an unrelated press conference, where he declined to comment on any specific investigation but had this to say about Orange County.

"I think the County in Orange is grappling with the work that they have to make sure they can assure everyone that the work they do in criminal justice is done right," Becerra said.

"Perjury is one of the most difficult charges to prove because you not only have to say that the words don't add up, that they didn't tell the truth, but you have to show that it's intentional, that the person purposely told the lie," Levenson said.

"Nobody has been fired, nobody has lost their job or a paycheck since this whole thing started," Wilson said.

Orange County sheriff's deputies Seth Tunstall, Ben Garcia and Bill Grover - all suspected of perjury in the Dekraai case - have been on paid leave since late 2016. Each deputy collected roughly $200,000 in total pay and benefits in 2017 while staying at home, according to Transparent California.

As the years drag on, the state three-year statute of limitations on potential perjury charges for the deputies may have already run out.

"There's certainly a question on whether it's run out on some of the charges and it may have -- there's charges still available," Sanders said. "But the truth is they're not going to file any, they don't want to file any."

Defense attorney Robert Gazely, who represents Garcia, tells Eyewitness News he believes the attorney general's office is "trying to run out the clock on the statute of limitations," adding that his client's testimony "wasn't a lie." Attorneys for deputies Seth Tunstall and Bill Grover declined to comment.

"When you don't take action in perjury this obvious, in obstruction of justice this obvious, it actually makes it worse because now the message has gone out that they can do whatever they want - they're looking at the AG's office and saying, 'we can do anything we want right now,'" Sanders said.

A separate, federal investigation into the Orange County District Attorney's Office and the Orange County Sheriff's Department by the U.S. Department of Justice that began in December 2016 has similarly produced no findings or resolution.

Georgetown Law School Professor Christy Lopez is a former deputy chief with the DOJ's Civil Rights Division, which launched the investigation.

"I think it's fair to wonder what's happening and whether there is some slow-rolling going on by the politicals in the Department of Justice," Lopez said.

"There's no way to know, but I think it's possible it's been put on the back burner, it's possible that they are deliberately not closing it because they don't want to have that information released."

Lopez notes the Department of Justice under the current administration is no longer prioritizing police reform and has openly abandoned its own proposed federal consent decree in Chicago, an agreement spurred in part by the deadly shooting of 17-year old Laquan McDonald by a Chicago police officer.

Soon after he was sworn in, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions expressed deep skepticism about the role of the federal government in fixing troubled police departments.

"So, we're going to try to pull back on this - and I don't think it's wrong, or mean, or insensitive to civil rights or human rights," Sessions said last year.

"I don't think it's too strong to say there's actually an abdication of their responsibility - and so when you see that happen in Chicago, it does make you wonder if something similar is happening here in Orange County," Lopez said.

When asked about the federal probe, a DOJ spokesperson would only say, "DOJ declines to comment."

Paul Wilson said he's fed up with the lack of results from either investigation.

"I want the truth to come out - because no other family member should have to go through what I went through," Wilson said.

In November 2016, a California Court of Appeal weighed in on the informant scandal in a ruling that upheld Judge Goethals' decision to kick the OCDA off the Dekraai case, writing that the "magnitude of the systemic problems cannot be overlooked."

In their unanimous opinion, the justices wrote that a "cozy relationship between the OCDA and the OCSD" demonstrated that the OCDA's office had a "divided loyalty between its duty to fairly prosecute cases and protecting the OCSD."

"There is no legitimate reason for the OCSD to create and maintain such a sophisticated, synchronized and well-documented CI program other than to obtain statements that will benefit prosecutions," it said.

The Orange County Sheriff's Department to this day denies the existence of a secret jailhouse informant program and blames "a small number of deputies" for the problems.

A spokesperson for OCSD tells Eyewitness News that any internal sheriff's department investigation of the deputies is delayed or quote - "tolled until the conclusion of the AG's investigation."

"This is the Catch-22 - the sheriff's department is saying they can't discipline anyone until the AG's office is done," Levenson said.

"Everyone seems to be paralyzed -- and what the public wants and the victims' families want and what the defense lawyers want is somebody to act - just hold people responsible, set the rules, hold them by the rules and move forward," she said.

NEW EVIDENCE THREATENS TO UNRAVEL MORE FELONY CASES


Sanders said the bad behavior by both agencies continues unabated. In a low-level drug case involving Oscar Garcia, Sanders is once again asking that Orange County prosecutors be thrown off the case. He says that since 2016, deputies who may have improperly used jail informants and withheld evidence went on to take part in at least 146 new cases, including Garcia's, without their past behavior being disclosed by the DA's office.

"If they want to engage in all sorts of shenanigans in the jail that's going to follow them - and defense counsel and defendants get to question about those things," Sanders said.

In a statement to Eyewitness News, the OCDA's office said it "will continue to handle Mr. Garcia's drug case fairly and in the same manner we handle thousands of cases from OCSD every year."

Sanders also points to "Operation Scarecrow" - a separate high-profile, Mexican Mafia crackdown that is being jointly run by the OC Sheriff's Department and the California attorney general.

Remember, the AG's office says it has an open "criminal investigation" into the OC Sheriff's Department.

And yet, the lead investigator on "Operation Scarecrow" is OCSD Deputy Jonathan Larson - a former member of the troubled Special Handling Unit that was at the center of the informant-related misconduct.

"Jonathan Larson writes the large search warrant that is the bedrock of Operation Scarecrow. Jonathan Larson is a true, key player in the informant scandal," Sanders sayd. "He wrote in the Special Handling log that was withheld for years, he wrote TRED entries that they withheld for years."

Sanders argues Larson's connection to the informant scandal should have been disclosed to the judge who approved the wiretaps and the grand jury that issued indictments for "Operation Scarecrow."

"So to pick Jonathan Larson is really unbelievable and then to have Tony Rackauckas sign the affidavit saying 'I've read it and I authorize his work' is pretty stunning," Sanders said.

Sanders believes that Larson would not have been tapped to lead the joint Attorney General-OCSD investigation unless the AG had communicated very clearly to the OCSD that no charges would be filed against Larson.

Assistant Public Defender Sanders notes that Deputy Larson testified last year that he'd been notified he was the subject of an OCSD "internal investigation" shortly after his first round of testimony in the Dekraai case.

"It is simply not credible to believe that the DOJ (California AG) or OCSD would have allowed J. Larson to assume the role he has without an understanding that he would not face charges," writes Sanders in a recent motion.

In fact, according to an exhibit in that motion, Larson was authorized by Assistant Sheriff Don Barnes earlier this month "to be on the A Band for Investigation," meaning he is considered "among the top candidates for promotion."

Sanders argues that all of this points to the AG "completing (or abandoning) its investigation of the OCSD long ago - if an authentic investigation was ever commenced in the first place."

In the past, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas has called the informant scandal "overblown." In March of this year, Rackauckas was recorded at a campaign event making comments that implied Judge Goethals was biased against the OCDA.

"I have serious questions about whether or not that judge had intended to be fair about the death penalty in the first place," said Rackauckas in the recording released by longtime rival and current Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer.

Rackauckas is running against Supervisor Spitzer in his bid for a sixth term as Orange County District Attorney.

Paul Wilson appeared in a campaign ad for Spitzer last year - but insists his mission to hold the OCDA and OCSD accountable for their misconduct is not about politics.

"Tony Rackauckas has to go. We've waited long enough for justice. My family and the families of the other victims deserve more," Wilson said in the ad.

His wife Christy is gone, but now Wilson and the attorney who defended his wife's killer share a common goal - to shine a spotlight on what they say is entrenched corruption in Orange County law enforcement.

"It's for Christy, it's for every person that was in that salon," Wilson tells Eyewitness News. "We're not going to let this go. We're going to fight until we see some change - no matter how long it takes."

Got a tip? Email ABC7 Investigative Producer Lisa.Bartley@abc.com
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