Did Wrongful Conviction Built on Tainted OC Snitch Fuel Golden State Killer’s Spree?

Accused serial killer Joseph James DeAngelo, Judge John Conley and DA Tony Rackauckas (Illustration by Jeff Drew)

As she prepared for bed on the final night of her life, 28-year-old Orange County resident Joan Virginia Anderson donned a blue nightgown and put her two kids—an infant girl and a 3-year-old boy—to bed. In the wee hours of that morning—March 8, 1979—Anderson found herself awakened in bed by an intruder while her husband worked hundreds of miles away in San Jose. The rapist/killer performed his crimes and fled undetected under a clear sky. The air was still—just faint 2.5 mph winds—and the 49-degree temperature was typical of an early spring night in Southern California. There were no signs of forced entry into Anderson’s two-story, 2,600-square-foot home on a quiet residential street six blocks west of Mile Square Park in Fountain Valley, where in coming years South Vietnamese war refugees would congregate.

The first hint of tragedy happened the next morning after a motorist spotted Anderson’s toddler roaming the streets. When police officer John Mihalik arrived shortly before 11 a.m., he saw the victim lying at the foot of her bed. Her nightgown had been pulled up, and her panties were bunched up on the floor. She’d suffered massive head wounds. Spatter on the wall above the bed’s headboard indicated a vicious attack. Blood drenched a pillow case and bedsheet. “Her body was cold to the touch,” Mihalik reported. He didn’t think robbery was a motive, as the killer had left expensive jewelry in plain sight.

Thirty hours later, Dr. Richard I. Fukumoto, a pathologist, performed the autopsy at UCI Medical Center and spotted possible ligature marks on Anderson’s ankles. Fukumoto couldn’t re-enact the order of blows but noted her skull had been bashed and her face cut most probably by a steel hammer. “The injuries could be caused by a combination of the head of the hammer striking the skull and also the sides of the hammer striking the skull,” he concluded. “In my opinion, she died from brain injury due to multiple skull fractures due to blunt force trauma. . . . She could have lived for minutes, but there is no question in my mind she would have been unconscious.”

Law-enforcement investigators searched for eyewitnesses and forensic science that might unmask the killer. Their work produced no results. But 15 months into their probe, they declared they’d solved the mystery in a non-conventional manner. Detectives hypnotized Randy Wanner, who was a friend of a suspect, and that man reportedly located subconscious memories of William Lee Evins implicating himself.

“Randy, I killed that woman,” Wanner claimed Evins advised him.

That development was the last piece of the puzzle for the Orange County district attorney’s office (OCDA). In June 1980, prosecutor John D. Conley okayed police officer Norman Satterfield’s arrest warrant for Evins, who had been part of a construction remodeling team that worked at Anderson’s Hemlock Circle residence in the weeks before the murder.

Conley believed he had strong circumstantial evidence of Evins’ guilt other than the hypnosis. Namely, the suspect knew the victim. The victim allegedly found him too chatty. Evins left his home on the night of the killing, the construction worker carried a hammer in his truck, and according to a witness, he appeared suspiciously interested in a newspaper article reporting the murder; never mind that most people would be gripped by an account of the death of a person they knew.

With Evins declaring his innocence, his defense team appealed Conley’s reliance on hypnotism to support a first-degree homicide charge beyond a reasonable doubt. The California Supreme Court rejected the tactic in January 1985, five years into the defendant’s pretrial lockup. Two months later, officials released Evins, then re-arrested him based on a new theory. On the verge of winning freedom, the suspect allegedly confessed again, this time to James Dean Cochrum. A narcotics trafficker, cocaine addict, forger and chronic thief who used as many as 13 aliases to commit his own felonies, Cochrum worked as an informant who sought punishment reductions and housing perks by helping OCDA win weak cases. One of the snitch’s handlers was Satterfield.

William Kopeny, Evins’ defense attorney, destroyed Cochrum’s credibility at the preliminary hearing. The judge even threw out the snitch’s purported evidence as illegally obtained. But when Conley said he wanted to use Cochrum again at trial, and the trial court allowed it, Kopeny’s exasperated client—who had no criminal record—considered the prosecutor’s threat: Plead guilty to second-degree murder and get out of prison up to five years earlier, or go to trial and risk a term of 25 years to life. He accepted.

But Evins never left prison. After suffering a heart attack, he died in a California penitentiary in 2013. Two years earlier, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, the man who groomed and pampered Cochrum as a miracle-worker snitch, fought Evins’ parole while portraying the case against him as impenetrable.

In April—nearly four decades after Anderson’s murder—law-enforcement officials announced that DNA testing had conclusively identified one of the most hunted madmen in U.S. history, the so-called Golden State Killer. Prosecutors arrested 72-year-old, former Sacramento-area cop Joseph James DeAngelo for committing at least 12 cold-case murders and more than 50 sadistic rapes from 1976 to 1986. His target areas: Central and northern California, as well as Orange County.

Last month, Evins’ surviving family pressed the OCDA to re-examine DNA evidence in the Anderson case. Annee Della Donna, their Laguna Beach-based attorney, told reporters DeAngelo’s crimes were suspiciously similar to the Fountain Valley killing. Up for re-election to a sixth, four-year term in November, Rackauckas agreed. But, given this DA’s history of protecting bad convictions, can he be trusted?

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Rackauckas (Photo by R. Scott Moxley)

In September 1979, the same year of Anderson’s murder, someone raped and attempted to fatally bludgeon 21-year-old Tustin resident Dianna D’Aiello, placing her in a coma for a month and successfully killing her fetus on the verge of birth. Orange County homicide prosecutors blamed the victim’s 22-year-old husband, Kevin Lee Green, and won a conviction. According to a newspaper account, jurors felt comfortable with their verdict, concluding Green’s alibi—he’d left home to get Jack in the Box cheeseburgers before the attack and saw a black man loitering at the apartment complex when he returned—“just wasn’t believable.”

Green served 16 years in a California prison, where a warden labeled him a model prisoner. In 1996, retested DNA evidence identified the actual killer: Gerald Parker, a convicted rapist and an African-American who, like Green, served as a U.S. Marine stationed in Orange County. Officials eventually convicted Parker on six counts of murder, six counts of rape and one of attempted murder. The California Supreme Court affirmed his death-penalty sentence in June 2017.

On the day Green won back his freedom, prosecutors issued a statement. They reported chagrin. They also observed that “our justice system isn’t 100 percent perfect.”

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DeAngelo in custody. (Photo by Paul Kitagaki Jr./The Sacramento Bee via AP Pool.)

Investigative crime reporter Michelle McNamara died two years before DeAngelo’s capture, but she noted in her authoritative book on the Golden State Killer (GSK), I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, that the suspect likely possessed “unremorseful rage” against the victims as revealed by the “ferocity” of the head wounds he inflicted. McNamara went on to write that “overkill” is “sometimes misused” in crime stories because it’s often interpreted that a rage murder must mean “an unleashing of pent-up rage borne of familiarity” between personal acquaintances.

It’s believed that if DeAngelo is the GSK, he began his crime spree with rapes in seven counties. He allegedly graduated to murder in February 1978 with the killing of Brian and Katie Maggiore in Sacramento County. According to a timeline provided by officials, GSK committed 20 more rapes before the next murder, this one in Santa Barbara County in the wee hours of Dec. 30, 1979. Dr. Robert Offerman and his girlfriend, Debra Alexandria Manning, were discovered slain by gunshots after they were both bound with twine.

The killer’s attention turned to Orange County in 1980, if not sooner. In August, Keith and Patrice Harrington, residents of Dana Point’s gated Niguel Shores community, were murdered. The killer used ligatures, raped the woman in her bed and bludgeoned the couple to death with skull blows using a brass sprinkler head taken from their ocean-view yard.

Less than six months later, the GSK is believed to have struck again in Irvine’s Northwood neighborhood. Manuela Witthuhn was found face-down in her bed. She’d been tied up and raped. The killer ended her life by striking severe blows to her head with a hefty metal lamp.

The killer returned to Orange County in May 1986, perhaps his last crime. He entered the home of Janelle Cruz, who lived in the same Irvine neighborhood as Witthuhn. Cruz died from a massive head wound.

It wouldn’t be difficult to place Anderson’s killer on the GSK’s timeline as his first Orange County murder. The similarities between the four cases are numerous. All the female victims were attractive young females found in bed; all were bludgeoned to death; all were tied up; and all were raped by a man with no known motive or personal connection, according to investigators. Plus, each of the killings, as with the sexual assaults, were committed in the wee hours of the morning followed by undetected getaways that seemed to indicate meticulous planning.

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OCDA headquarters in Santa Ana. (Photo by R. Scott Moxley)

Rackauckas, a frontline hotshot homicide prosecutor in the early ’80s, took special interest in Cochrum, a petty drug dealer with a reputation for dishonesty. Over the years, he’d tried to outrun cops by using fake names, including Dennis Ray Green, Randal Bernard Brandt and James Jason Hill or by altering the spelling of his last name. He’d been dishonorably discharged from the Army for operating a check-kiting scam. Later, he ripped off American Express by stealing travelers’ checks. He sold cocaine on the street and peddled stolen merchandise.

But OCDA officials saw Cochrum as the simple solution to solving flimsy cold cases. For a 1985 Los Angeles Times article, Rackauckas bragged that he believed Cochrum was a powerfully convincing witness for jurors. Prolific and deceitful might have been better terms.

This one snitch reported he gained uncorroborated confessions from a whopping five murder defendants: Evins for Conley; William Paul Gullet and Ronald Ewing for Rackauckas; and Adolpho Aguire and Elliot Austin Beal for their colleague, James Cloninger, also then a deputy DA. Cloninger, who eventually became a judge, wrote an April 1985 letter to correction officers falsely claiming that Cochrum gave selfless service to prosecutors without seeking rewards.

The unholy arrangement became solidified in December 1984, when Rackauckas traveled to Utah to argue for the snitch’s leniency from a felony prison escape charge there. After getting him back to Orange County, the prosecutor placed him in a more comfortable setting at the Anaheim jail, granted him lengthy sun-tanning privileges, ordered less correctional supervision and waited for Cochrum to perform his magic.

Precisely a month after the Supreme Court tossed out Conley’s hypnosis strategy in 1985, Cochrum claimed he obtained a case-renewing confession. According to the snitch, a county-employed plumber, Richard Grier, working in jail module A-4, asked Evins, “Why are you here?” Evins replied, “Because I supposedly killed somebody.”

According to Cochrum, the three men talked for about an hour. “Mr. Evins was laying on his bunk in cell one in Mod 4,” the snitch testified under Conley’s guidance. “Myself and the plumber were standing out in the walkway. I was directly in front of the cell door, which was open.”

When Grier left, Evins—known other-wise to “go sky high” if fellow inmates inquired about his charges—allegedly said, “[Grier] is stupid like all the rest, if he thinks I didn’t do it.” Cochrum contacted the OCDA, reported his claim, thrilled prosecutors and negotiated to keep secret any responsive benefits he might win so a future jury would believe his story, according to an audio recording played in court.

But Cochrum’s tales were full of holes. Just two months after the alleged confession, he couldn’t remember details of the three-way conversation, including anything he’d said. In the snitch’s rendition of events, Evins admitted he strangled Anderson during the day. The autopsy revealed no strangulation, and the pathologist timed her death an hour after midnight.

William Kelley, one of Evins’ defense lawyers, summoned Grier to the stand. Minutes earlier, the plumber saw Cochrum in the courthouse. In a working criminal-justice system, the following exchanges would have devastated the prosecutor’s case:

Kelley: Was that fellow [Cochrum] ever engaged in a conversation between yourself and Mr. Evins?

Grier: No, sir.

Kelley: Are you quite sure about that?

Grier: Positive.

The defense lawyer underscored the blow to the informant’s credibility.

Kelley: Was anyone else present while you were speaking to Mr. Evins?

Grier: No, there was nobody present.

Kelley: Was there anyone standing right next to you?

Grier: No, sir.

Kelley: Did Mr. Evins ever admit the murdering of anybody in your presence?

Grier: No, sir.

Kelley: He did admit just the opposite?

Grier: Yes, he did. He said that he couldn’t murder anyone.

In a later portion of the hearing, Kopeny, the other defense lawyer, returned to the issue.

Kopeny: During the time you were talking to Mr. Evins, was anybody else in your immediate area of, say, within 5 feet of you?

Grier: No, sir. Never.

The defense then called Patrick Calcagno, a deputy who patrolled the module housing Evins and Cochrum. Over Conley’s repeated objections, Calcagno testified about the character of the prosecutor’s key witness. “I don’t believe Mr. Cochrum is very honest,” the deputy stated. “I don’t believe he is honest at all.”

Conley didn’t appreciate the testimony, saying, “I would like to interpose a further objection as to relevancy.”

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DeAngelo’s mug shot

In Orange County’s ongoing, 5-year-old jailhouse-informant scandal, Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders proved that Rackauckas, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and members of their staffs conspired for years to win convictions by cheating. They conducted “capers” with informants secretly employed to illegally obtain confessions from pretrial defendants, hid evidence, committed perjury, rationalized false statements and ridiculed their critics. Fifty-four years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled government officials, including their agents, including informants, cannot question charged defendants about their cases without their lawyers’ knowledge. To do so violates the target’s constitutional rights against self-incrimination. Such deception in Orange County has wrecked 19 felony cases so far, while law-enforcement officials here continue to claim no wrongdoing.

The resistance to reform is entrenched. For 40 years, there has been a common thread in our local criminal-justice system: onetime office mates Rackauckas and Conley, who is nowadays a superior court judge assigned to the county’s most serious trials. While exposing the present-day snitch scandal, Sanders uncovered how the pair used dubious informants such as Cochrum in the 1980s and, remarkably, how they continue to work in league to protect each other from exposure.

While handling snitch-tied People v. Daniel Wozniak, Sanders asked Conley, the presiding judge, to recuse himself given his misuse of Cochrum and failure to comply with requirements to surrender embarrassing evidence on informants. The judge refused. Sanders asked Conley for never-produced records pertaining to Cochrum, who is deceased, and the mysterious Orange County Informant Index, which—in portions pried out of the agency by court order—show prosecutors presented compromised informants as honest broker to clueless juries. The judge refused, asserting there is no snitch scandal or proof of outrageous government conduct or, as the California Court of Appeal declared, troubling lapses in prosecutorial ethics.

There probably wasn’t an Orange County judge who wanted to bury the Cochrum fiasco in Evins more than Conley.

But Rackauckas pounced in glee. In an October 2015, his public-relations office issued a press release celebrating the judge with the headline “Court finds public defender’s accusations of misconduct by OCDA to be untrue.”

Nonetheless, Sanders maintains Rackauckas’ office “has a long, persistent and alarming history of concealing informant-related and other evidence required to be disclosed by statutory and constitutional rules, while consistently refusing to address recognizable concerns about these issues.”

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Illustration by Jeff Drew. Design by Richie Beckman

It’s understandable that prosecutors would feel sensitive about people questioning their convictions. What isn’t understandable are prosecutors who block independent investigations when potential credible evidence surfaces of a wrongful conviction. For example, in the Cochrum-tied Gullet case, Rackauckas refuses to use modern advances in DNA testing to double-check if OCDA’s court win was legitimate.

In another case, People v. Kenneth Clair, one of the only eyewitnesses to a 1984 Santa Ana rape/murder told arriving cops the perpetrator was definitely Caucasian. Clair is a dark-skinned African-American. Testing of DNA from the crime scene did not bolster the case against Clark, who was transported to death row, and Rackauckas refuses to share the evidence with the defense. The convicted killer told me in a 2016 jail interview he believes the DNA belongs to a Caucasian, which is why the OCDA is hiding it.

Rackauckas’ office in 2005 quietly asked the Orange County Crime Lab to alter its DNA findings to support robbery and carjacking charges against James Ochoa, a 20-year-old Buena Park resident. The OCDA won a conviction and sent Ochoa to a Southern California prison, where he was almost killed in a stabbing. About 16 months later, legitimate DNA analysis at an out-of-county lab produced the identity of the actual bandit. Terrified about the callousness of the local criminal-justice system, Ochoa quickly moved out of state.

Will the Evins conviction—first questioned by the Weekly in 2015, a challenge ignored by the OCDA—be added to the list? Rackauckas’ office has possessed forensic-science evidence from the Anderson crime scene for 39 years. Law-enforcement officials identified DeAngelo’s DNA months ago.

Did Conley convict an innocent man?

If so, the dominos could fall on all convictions that were based on Cochrum, including a Rackauckas case, as well as raise questions whether Conley should have remained the judge on the Wozniak trial.

The pressure on the already scandal-prone DA, the judge’s pal, must be enormous.

“It’s too early to tell if there’s similarities or not [between the Anderson killer and DeAngelo],” Susan Kang Schroeder, the DA’s media flack, told reporters in July. “We don’t know.”

R. Scott Moxley’s award-winning investigative journalism has touched nerves for two decades. An angry congressman threatened to break Moxley’s knee caps. A dirty sheriff promised his critical reporting was irrelevant and then landed in prison. The U.S. House of Representatives debated his work. Federal prosecutors credited his stories for the arrest of a doctor who sold fake medicine to dying patients. Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.

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