Use of snitches unravels 57 murder and other felony cases in California county

Sixteen of the murder cases carried life terms, but resulted in sentences of 12 years or less

According to new data released by an Orange County Public Defender’s Office attorney, the illegal use of jailhouse informants unraveled 57 homicide and other felony cases, with convictions overturned, charges dropped, and sentences significantly reduced.

Previous estimates put the number of affected cases at around 12 — far fewer than the findings of a new analysis by Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, who used data from the district attorney’s office in part.

“We already knew that this was the largest and longest running informant scandal in U.S. history, but there had never been a complete accounting of the cases with changed outcomes.” Sanders explained.

Since Sanders raised the alarm in 2014, state justices and federal investigators have confirmed that Orange County prosecutors and law enforcement officers routinely violated criminal defendants’ constitutional rights by illegally using jailhouse informants.

Authorities assembled a clandestine network of jailhouse informants, some of whom were paid up to $1,500 per case, to coax confessions from targeted inmates. Because they had already been charged and retained attorneys, many of those inmates had a constitutional right not to be questioned by informants.

According to the new analysis, 35 homicide cases and 22 serious felony cases were thrown out. Sixteen of the murder cases, which could have resulted in a life sentence, resulted in sentences of 12 years or less. All of the cases were solved for various reasons.

Some informants used threats of violence to persuade their targets to speak up, which is against the law. Prosecutors failed to inform defense attorneys about the use of informants and their backgrounds. Deputies from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office refused to testify in criminal cases about their involvement in the snitch operation. And, as the snitch scandal drew more attention, prosecutors became hesitant to call jailhouse informants as witnesses, causing irreparable harm to some cases.

All of the impacted cases occurred during former District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ administration, and some resulted in the release of potentially dangerous defendants claiming to be members of prison and street gangs.

The use of jail snitches is now more restricted under current District Attorney Todd Spitzer, but the damage done to criminal cases by his predecessor is still being sorted out by Sanders and others for use in ongoing cases.

Spitzer said in a prepared statement that the district attorney’s office had previously compiled and shared much of Sanders’ analysis with the US Department of Justice. Spitzer’s office also disputed Sanders’ figures, claiming that the use of an informant did not directly cause some cases to go wrong, and that Sanders over-counted cases with multiple defendants. Spitzer’s spokeswoman, Kimberly Edds, did not immediately cite any specific contested cases, but Sanders stood firm in his analysis.

Overall, Spitzer stated that he is concerned about the past mistreatment of informants.

“We have a team of prosecutors tasked with reviewing each one of these cases and ensuring all of our discovery obligations have been met, and to take any further remedial action, if necessary,” he stated. “In addition, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office has expanded the role of our Conviction Integrity Unit by adopting a policy to review any wrongful conviction claim.”

Mass murder in Seal Beach

Sanders discovered the use of informants while defending mass murderer Scott Dekraai, who gunned down eight people at a Seal Beach salon where his estranged wife worked in 2011. Dekraai avoided the death penalty in exchange for eight life sentences because informants were illegally used and concealed from the defense, preventing him from receiving a fair trial.

A judge also removed the entire district attorney’s office from the case, bringing intense scrutiny to the use of informants by Orange County.

Mexican Mafia informants

According to Sanders’ analysis, veteran informers and Mexican Mafia members Raymond “Puppet” Cuevas and Jose “Bouncer” Paredes were involved in more than half of the impacted cases. According to court records, the tattooed hard-timers earned $335,000 and other perks for informing on inmates at Southern California jails over a four-year period. They were also granted leniency on charges that could have resulted in life imprisonment.

Cuevas testified under oath for the Mexican Mafia that he killed several people and assaulted others. According to other court documents, his partner, Paredes, once ordered a hit on a gang underling who had failed two drug-smuggling assignments.

Cuevas and Paredes were members of different gangs in Hollywood’s barrios, but they appeared to be an effective team behind bars. They were placed in the same cells as the targeted inmates, or in the same vehicles during transport. They were frequently transferred across county lines to neighboring jails to ply their snitch trade.

Strategies backfire

However, the analysis shows that their tactics frequently backfired.

Anaheim police used Cuevas and Paredes on Michael Wesley Baker in 2013, who was suspected of killing his 82-year-old grandmother, Sara Mowrey, four years earlier. Baker could legally be questioned in jail because he had not yet been charged.

According to court records filed by Baker’s attorney, Jerry Steering, they crossed the line when they threatened Baker with harm unless he repeated the self-incriminating lines fed to him by informants.

Baker also claimed that two sheriff’s deputies threatened to kill his father, who was incarcerated, if he did not confess to undercover officers.

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that confessions obtained through coercion violate the constitutional right to due process.

Baker, who faced a life sentence if convicted of murder, was allowed by prosecutors in 2018 to plead guilty to charges of being an accessory after the fact and solicitation to commit murder. Baker was released from jail immediately, with credit for three years served.

Steering referred to it as the “ultimate sweetheart deal.” Prosecutors made the offer less than a month after Steering filed paperwork outlining the allegations against the investigators, as well as Cuevas and Paredes.

“The Orange County District Attorney’s Office folded,” Steering stated at the time in a news release.

The special circumstances homicide case against Anthony Calabrese was another case that went awry after authorities hired Cuevas and Paredes.

Calabrese was arrested on suspicion of a fatal drive-by shooting, which the Mexican Mafia allegedly forbids. According to a 2018 lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against Rackauckas, Sheriff’s deputies allegedly told Cuevas and Paredes that Calabrese had been “green-lighted” for death by the Mexican Mafia for violating their ban on drive-by shootings.

Cuevas was wired with a microphone and taken into custody alongside Calabrese. Cuevas, and later Paredes, allegedly told Calabrese that if he admitted his role in the shooting, he could be removed from the hit list. Calabrese eventually confessed. However, all of the charges were later dropped.

“If they put Cuevas and Paredes in a jail cell with you, they could get you and I to admit to killing Lincoln,” said Steering. “They’re scary guys.”

Steering stated that the suspects targeted by Cuevas and Paredes may be innocent, but the public will never know because of the illegal tactics.

“If we knew they were just getting guilty people, it wouldn’t be so morally outrageous, but they’re getting innocent people,” he said.

Compromised deputy sheriff

The tactics of retired Deputy Seth Tunstall, an expert in the Mexican Mafia and working with jail informants, harmed other cases even more.

According to Sanders’ analysis, Tunstall’s refusal to testify at trial for fear of incriminating himself harmed another seven nonhomicide cases. During the snitch scandal hearings, a judge previously called Tunstall untrustworthy. Cases in which he refused to testify were either dismissed or pleaded to a lesser charge.

Estavan Cardoso, for example, was facing serious felony charges of conspiracy, aggravated assault with a gang, and great bodily injury with a prior felony. Cardoso was allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge and was sentenced to four years in prison.

“There was no offer on the table, then on the day of trial, we received an offer,” Cardoso’s attorney, Doreen Boxer, explained at the time of the settlement. “We let it be known we were going to be very aggressive and effective in defending our client against Mr. Tunstall.”

Tunstall also refused to testify in the trial of Jose de Jesus Farias, who was accused of aggravated assault with a gang enhancement. Jesus Farias pleaded guilty to simple assault and was sentenced to five years probation.

Sanders predicted that the list of affected cases would grow longer.

“While identifying the number of cases where charges have been reduced or dismissed is incredibly important, we have continued to uncover other informant-related misconduct,” he stated. “Therefore, the scandal does not end until there’s justice for every impacted defendant and accountability for those who violated their sworn oath to uphold the law.”

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