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Five years later: Some fear Orange County jail snitch scandal will go unpunished

James Queally, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

SANTA ANA, Calif. -- Nearly five years have passed since a lawyer representing the man who slaughtered eight people inside a Seal Beach salon first raised questions about the way investigators used informants inside Orange County's jails.

The accusation -- that sheriff's deputies planted a prolific snitch in the cell of confessed killer Scott Dekraai in the hopes of eliciting information without his lawyer present, and then covered up their unconstitutional actions -- seemed outlandish at the time. But jailhouse records soon proved otherwise, and the Orange County district attorney's office and Sheriff's Department found themselves embroiled in a national scandal.

The state attorney general's office opened an investigation into both agencies in 2015; the U.S. Department of Justice followed suit the next year. Orange County prosecutors were kicked off Dekraai's case, and a judge cited the informant scheme in sparing him a place on California's death row. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit accusing authorities of having deployed "professional" informants for decades.

But to date, no one has been disciplined, fired or prosecuted for misconduct. And on Friday, a deputy attorney general said that the state investigation into the case -- the only avenue for criminal charges -- has been closed.

Meanwhile, some individuals who oversaw the jails or Dekraai's case at the time of the alleged misconduct have received promotions. In March, two deputies under investigation for their role in the scandal quietly retired.

For those closest to the case, there is a fear that the public will never truly know what went on inside Orange County's jails.

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"These guys inflicted five years of pain on me and my family," said Paul Wilson, 54, whose wife Christy Lynn Wilson was among those gunned down in the 2011 Seal Beach salon massacre. "It's not politics to me. They need to be held accountable."

Local watchdogs and civil liberties advocates have long contended there are more cases tainted by informant misuse -- affecting more than 140 additional defendants, according to some court filings. Information that spilled out of the Dekraai hearings already has led to retrials in more than a dozen criminal cases, including several murders.

Last fall, Todd Spitzer ousted longtime District Attorney Tony Rackauckas in an election framed largely around the informant scandal -- and many hoped that he would sweep into office and impose dramatic reforms. Rackauckas maintained that the issue had been exaggerated and that no one in his office intentionally concealed evidence. A county grand jury report largely backed up his view, finding that only a few "rogue deputies" had done anything wrong.

Spitzer, in a recent interview, said he has no intention of letting the agency's past failings go unanswered.

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