A recent California Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation “corroborated a significant portion” of a report that an Orange County cop secretly paid a career criminal for convincing the jury in a cold-case murder trial that law enforcement arrested the right man.
For 14 years, prosecutors had been unable to hold Ramon Alvarez responsible in the June 1998 murder of Ruben Leal, an F-Troop gangster who was found in a Santa Ana residential back yard, lying in a kiddie pool packed with ice as well as his own brain and skull fragments.
Then, in 2012, Corcoran State Prison inmate Craig Gonzales provided the key to a conviction and a life-in-prison punishment. Gonzales claimed Alvarez confessed years earlier and bolstered his credibility with jurors by assuring them he’d come forward only with a civic-duty motive. The veteran jailhouse informant testified, “[Snitching was] the right thing to do.”
Unaware of any subterfuge, the California Court of Appeal two years later upheld the conviction as righteous.
But in 2018, Gonzales admitted behind the scenes to Alvarez’s federal appellate lawyers that Santa Ana Police Department (SAPD) detective David Rondou, who claimed he “never promised [Gonzales] anything for coming forward and testifying,” had, in fact, paid him $11,000.
Asked if the money had anything to do with the testimony, Gonzales stated, “Absolutely.”
He also said the SAPD cop had “instructed that if asked in court whether I was going to receive any benefit for my testimony, that I should say ‘no,’” according to a filing lodged this week inside Orange County Superior Court, where a battle continues over systemic prosecution-team cheating allegations.
Gonzales also reported he was told to keep his history of snitch work for police payments a secret.
For his part, Rondou—the subject of a September 2016 OC Weekly cover story outlining the detective’s questionable conduct in claiming to solve five other cold-case murders—supplied DOJ investigators an eyebrow-raising explanation. The money wasn’t for Gonzales, he insisted, but a sympathy gift to help the convicted felon’s daughter someday pay his funeral costs.
“Despite Rondou’s claim that he never promised Gonzales anything in return for his testimony, this assertion is simply not believable given Gonzales’ previous determination to secure payment for any information he provided,” Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders wrote in an April 16 filing in People v. Oscar Galeno Garcia.
In 2014, Sanders revealed a conspiracy that would become nationally known as the Orange County jailhouse-informant scandal. Deputies helped prosecutors win weak criminal cases by violating pretrial inmates’ constitutional rights against self-incrimination, hiding or destroying exculpatory evidence, and committing perjury during trials. One of many dozens of alarming facts that emerged included a 2009 incident in which Rondou participated in a secret pact with Oscar Moriel, a notorious snitch who said he could create realistic memories of a defendant’s guilt on the witness stand if rewarded to his satisfaction.
Such cheating has so far wrecked more than 20 major felony cases, prompted then-DA Tony Rackauckas and his entire office’s historic forced recusal from a death-penalty trial in 2015, cost Rackauckas—who refused to file perjury charges against dirty deputies—his 20-year job at the ballot box last November, and earned a rebuke by state appellate justices alarmed by the lack of law-enforcement ethics.
But, as during Rackauckas’ administration, numerous prosecutors that remain in the office for new DA Todd Spitzer, who campaigned on a reform platform, are pretending the snitch scandal didn’t happen. The tactic isn’t accidental. It’s a sly effort to maintain warped business as usual in Orange County’s criminal-justice system.
Sheriff’s deputies who worked in the Special Handling and Classification units operated the tainted informant program on a daily basis for more than a decade, court records show. Many of the officers who worked in that cesspool transferred to new posts on the streets, from which they write reports justifying arrests, then go to court to testify against defendants. In a fair system, the DA’s office would surrender evidence of its witnesses’ past dishonesty so defense attorneys can probe credibility. But that’s not happening. During the past two years, prosecutors haven’t turned over impeachment material for the aforementioned deputies in at least 146 cases.
That’s the situation in Sanders’ Garcia, in which Deputy DA Andrew Bugman claims a proper records analysis found nothing impeachable on David Larson, a former Classification Unit deputy who filed a report justifying the arrest. But Sanders calls the stance “patently unbelievable” given that cop’s work at ground zero in the scandal.
“Quite understandably, the Orange County district attorney’s office (OCDA) decided not to commit a single word to the agency’s systematic failure to turn over evidence of prior informant-related misconduct by prosecution witnesses formerly assigned to the [Orange County Sheriff’s Department’s (OCSD)] Classification and Special Handling units,” Sanders wrote in a motion aiming to recuse Bugman from the case. “The prosecution does not deny that it is in the possession of tens of thousands of pages with potentially relevant information, but prosecutors either have not studied the available information or have not undertaken good-faith discovery determinations.”
It hasn’t relaxed tensions that Bugman suggested to Superior Court Judge James Rogan, a former Republican congressman, that Sanders is worthy of potential disbarment for seeking evidence of Larson’s prior issues of moral turpitude. The prosecutor portrayed his opponent’s mission as personally motivated exploitation and manipulation of the client’s interests to conduct “a fishing expedition” based on nothing more than “speculation.”
Sanders sees the situation differently, saying Larson’s level of truthfulness is key to the defense. “The reality is that the OCDA has guided itself by a ‘Pandora’s Box’ discovery analysis,” he said. “That is, the prosecution realizes that if it begins turning over evidence of misconduct by OCSD Classification and Special Handling deputies who operated a years-long, concealed, informant program that violated defendants’ rights, it is likely to unleash a series of appropriate questions about similar past and current failures to make disclosures.”
Meanwhile, back in the Alvarez case, criminal-justice system officials are deciding whether to allow a new trial in the wake of revelations about Rondou’s secret, case-altering $11,000 informant payment.
CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott 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; earned six dozen other reporting awards; obtained one of the last exclusive prison interviews with Charles Manson disciple Susan Atkins; featured in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Best American Crime Reporting; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.