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Crime & Justice

How a mass murder case unraveled the Orange County jail informants scandal




Scott Dekraai, accused of killing eight people in a Seal Beach beauty salon, listens while his attorney Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders addresses the court during a motion hearing in Santa Ana, Calif., Tuesday, March 18, 2014. The hearing is underway to address the public defender's allegations of a widespread, unconstitutional jailhouse informant program that he feels affects the case of his defendant. (AP Photo/Los Angeles Times, Mark Boster, Pool)
Scott Dekraai, accused of killing eight people in a Seal Beach beauty salon, listens while his attorney Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders addresses the court during a motion hearing in Santa Ana, Calif., Tuesday, March 18, 2014. The hearing is underway to address the public defender's allegations of a widespread, unconstitutional jailhouse informant program that he feels affects the case of his defendant. (AP Photo/Los Angeles Times, Mark Boster, Pool)
AP Photo/Los Angeles Times, Mark Boster, Pool

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In October 2011, Scott Dekraai walked into Salon Meritage in Seal Beach and opened fire, killing eight people, including his ex-wife, before police arrested him a few blocks away. He admitted to the shooting and later pleaded guilty to eight counts of murder.

Five years later, his case has languished because of a scandal that has rocked the Orange County justice system. On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Justice launched a federal civil rights investigation into the Orange County Sheriff's Department and District Attorney's Office. Allegations include prosecutors and sheriff's deputies withheld information and evidence from defense attorneys and used informants within the county's jails to obtain confessions and other information illegally.

Experts have said this violates an inmate's rights under the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees the right to a fair trial, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees due process of law.

“You can’t send an agent of the police to try to get information out of someone who has already invoked their privilege not to speak and [has] obtained a lawyer,” said Tony Saavedra, investigative reporter for the Orange County Register, who has covered this story for years.

But informants were placed in adjacent cells to prompt information and confessions from other inmates, which were recorded and sent to the District Attorney's Office.

"Some of them were at the jail almost making a living informing on cases," Saavedra told Take Two. "These were like pros."

Some were given special privileges like Del Taco, birthday cakes, Xbox games, and some were paid thousands of dollars for being an informant, Saavedra said.

One informant, Fernando Perez, was used in a number of cases, including Scott Dekraai's.

Dekraai's lawyer, assistant public defender Scott Sanders, recognized Perez's name from some of his other cases and was able to connect the dots that Perez was regularly being used as an informant.

“He started digging and the more he dug, the more he found," Saavedra said.

Sanders later discovered that, at times, defense attorneys would receive hundreds of pages of discovery from the informants; other times, just 10 pages. Sanders began to bring this to light in court, and in March 2015, Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals removed the Orange County District Attorney's Office from the case, sending it the state Attorney General's office.

"[Sanders] pulled on that loose thread and the whole sweater fell apart," Saavedra said.

Because of this, the Dekraai case has hung in limbo in the penalty phase.

Last week, some of the families of Dekraai's victims held a news conference calling for a life sentence for Dekraai instead of pursuing the death penalty — a cause Orange County District Attorney Rackauckas championed.

To listen to the full interview, click on the blue media player above.