Jose Roberto Ramirez says he was just the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.
An inmate at the Orange County Men’s Jail who is currently awaiting sentencing for attempted robbery, Ramirez has a shaved head, stubbly goatee and arms covered with elaborate prison tattoos. He has spent almost all of the past two decades in state prison for a string of car thefts and drug charges beginning in 1985, when the then-20-year-old Ramirez and some fellow Santanita gang members stole baseball legend Reggie Jackson’s Porsche from outside a Newport Beach restaurant.
Ramirez ultimately wound up in Corcoran State Prison’s infamous Secure Housing Unit, where some of California’s most hardcore gang members are kept in solitary confinement. There, in 2004, he renounced his membership in the Mexican Mafia. “I got tired of that lifestyle, following orders and doing all that crazy stuff,” he explains during a recent interview at the jail, speaking into a telephone receiver on the other side of a thick plate of glass. “I wanted to make a change in myself.”
He walked out of Corcoran a free man on Aug. 8, 2008, determined to get a job and turn his life around. His path back to jail began about six weeks later. On Sept. 23, he received a telephone call from a woman he knew named Mary Dempsey, a methamphetamine addict who needed a ride. “Come pick me up,” she begged. “I’ll give you gas money.”
Ramirez drove his motor scooter to the intersection of Tustin Avenue and Collins Street in Orange, looking for Dempsey. He spotted her marching out of a Bank of America branch, followed by two women who were pointing at her and yelling.
“Let’s go!” Dempsey screamed.
“I’m not going anywhere!” Ramirez says he answered.
At that moment, an Orange police officer arrested both Ramirez and Dempsey. She admitted trying to rob the bank, but she claimed it was Ramirez’s idea.
“They ran my record,” Ramirez says. “I was sitting in the back of the cop car, and I fainted and don’t remember anything else. When I woke up, I was here at the jail.”
Because of his vulnerable status as a prison-gang dropout, Ramirez has been kept in total separation from other inmates since arriving at the jail 16 months ago. After being charged with conspiracy to commit armed robbery, he learned he could go back to prison for 23 years if convicted. His public defender advised him to take a deal. He refused and tried to get a new lawyer. When the court refused his request, Ramirez decided to represent himself, becoming what is known as a pro per defendant.
That’s how Ramirez met Joseph Szeles, a licensed private investigator who works for Orange County Superior Court’s Alternate Defense Services, which provides investigative help to pro pers. In late June 2009, Szeles visited Ramirez at the jail and showed him two pieces of paper.
“Do you want the good news or the bad news?” Ramirez recalls Szeles asking him. “The good news is that the DA’s analysis of the note is inconclusive as to whether the handwriting on the robbery note belongs to you or your co-defendant. The bad news is I did my own authentication, and it looks like the handwriting is yours.”
Ramirez looked at the two sheets of paper. Both were signed and stamped by Russell Bradford, a San Pedro-based document examiner, and dated the same day: June 22, 2009. One of the documents purported to analyze four letters written by Dempsey, including one she sent to Ramirez that cleared him in the attempted robbery. Bradford concluded that Dempsey had written that letter. The other document compared those four letters, as well as a sample of Ramirez’s handwriting, with a note announcing the robbery that Dempsey had carried with her into the bank.
“From my examination and comparison of the above documents, it is my opinion that the document listed in item 1 [the robbery note] was not printed by the person that filled out the documents listed in items 2, 3, 4 and 5 in the name ‘Mary Dempsey,’” Bradford wrote. “It is also my opinion that it is more probable than not that the document listed in item 1 was printed out by the same person who filled out the documents listed in item 6 in the name ‘Jose R. Ramirez.’”
When Szeles showed him the two documents, Ramirez was aghast. Szeles seemed to be taunting him with two competing analyses of the same evidence, one clearing him of the crime and the other suggesting his guilt.
What Szeles wanted from Ramirez was his help in dealing with other inmates who were unhappy with his services and who were complaining to another private investigator, C.J. Ford Jr. “Has C.J. Ford visited you?” Szeles asked.
Ramirez feigned ignorance. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
Ramirez says Szeles then held the two sheets of paper up in the air. “This one can help you,” Szeles said, waving the first letter. “I can show this to the DA, and you can probably get three years.”
Szeles didn’t have to explain what would happen if he decided to show the other handwriting analysis to the prosecutor. “It would go in the discovery file and automatically go to the DA,” Ramirez says.
Ramirez had no idea what to do. Who would believe his story?
A week later, Szeles met with Ramirez again to hand over some paperwork for his case. Without realizing it, he accidentally handed the inmate the two competing handwriting analyses. Now, Ramirez had what he felt was proof to back up his claim that Szeles was trying to blackmail him.
The Weekly has obtained and reviewed the handwriting analyses. Recently reached by the Weekly, Bradford vouches for the results of the reports, but acknowledges it was odd he’d done two separate reports that mostly dealt with the same samples. “Yeah, that’s silly,” Bradford says. “I normally don’t do that.”
Bradford says that after he sent Szeles the first report concerning Dempsey’s handwriting, Szeles called him at 8 a.m. on June 23 saying he had new handwriting samples he needed examined. He says he actually wrote the second report concluding that Ramirez likely wrote the bank-robbery note on June 25 and misdated it June 22 (the same date as the first report).
He agrees it was odd Szeles asked him to do the second report, specifically asking him to compare Ramirez’s handwriting to the bank-robbery note. “He’s supposed to be helping [Ramirez]?”
Ramirez knew of only one person to whom he could turn for help: Ford. He called the PI and left him a voice message, which the Weekly has reviewed. “When you get a chance, will you please come and see me?” Ramirez begged. “Mr. Szeles did something very, very illegal in my case, and I got proof now. . . . I don’t know what to do, Mr. Ford; please come and talk to me!”
* * *
Nine months later, C.J. Ford Jr. is stretched back in his seat in his second-story office behind a liquor store near the intersection of Interstate 5 and the 91 freeway in Fullerton. He’s chuckling and shaking his head as he listens to a rambling, two-minute voice-mail message from John Lake, an inmate at the Men’s Jail whom Ford jokingly refers to as the dean of the pro per defendants. Lake calls Ford almost every day. Unlike other inmates, pro per defendants are allowed to use the telephone every day. Lake, for better or for worse, seems intent on exercising that right to the fullest extent possible.
“This guy calls up all these attorneys and government agencies, and then tells them to return his call at my telephone number!” Ford says, laughing. “So a lot of the time my phone rings, it’s actually someone calling for Lake, and I’m like, ‘Sorry, he’s not here right now!’”
Ford regularly gets telephone calls from Lake and other jail inmates, including Ramirez, because for the past several months he has been helping them document their complaints about Szeles.
Initially, he thought the inmates were just whiners, maybe even crazy, but as he dug deeper, he found some startling information about just how Szeles got into the detective business. He also found a wealth of evidence that Szeles was benefiting from an arrangement inside Orange County’s court system unparalleled anywhere else. Szeles appeared to be handling a dozen or more cases at any given time, and all of his clients were jail inmates who had no other option. Unlike Los Angeles, where no fewer than 97 licensed investigators are listed on the court’s website, Orange County has no such published list, and Ford could find no evidence that anyone other than Szeles was getting this work. Szeles did not respond to several requests to be interviewed for this story.
Ford has been a self-employed private investigator since 1984. He chose the career after experiencing one close call too many as a bounty hunter chasing often-violent fugitives. He specializes in cases that have already gone through the court system; his clients have already been convicted of a crime and are serving out their sentences either at the Orange County jail or in state prison. Two years ago, at the request of the Orange County chapter of the NAACP, Ford agreed to interview black inmates at the Orange County Jail who had complained about their treatment there.
It was in March 2009, while Ford was interviewing those inmates, that he received a telephone call from Edward McKenna, who had heard about him while awaiting trial for rape, robbery, use of a deadly weapon and stealing a car. “McKenna had been accused of assaulting a minor, a person not quite 18 years old, and he was saying he was innocent and that the victim had signed a false statement prepared for her,” Ford recalls. “He said he had this investigator, Joseph Szeles, whom he wanted to interview the girl, but that he wouldn’t do it. He said he wanted to fire his investigator.”
Ford’s wife, a school principal, had just told him that because of cutbacks, she wasn’t going to be working over the summer, so Ford was eager to make some extra cash. He told McKenna he’d be happy to take his case, but that he didn’t want to hear anything more about it until he was appointed as his investigator because without that protection, he could be called as a witness against McKenna. Ford knew that to work as an investigator for inmates at the OC Jail, he needed to be on the court’s panel. So Ford drove down to Santa Ana to fill out an application with Alternate Defense Services.
Getting on Orange County Superior Court’s panel of licensed investigators turned out to be not so easy. The secretary at Alternate Defense Services told Ford he needed to talk to the agency’s manager, Robert Matherly. “Matherly gave me so much trouble,” Ford recalls. “He was telling me, ‘Well, we don’t really have any formal panel. Some attorney needs to appoint you.’ And I said, ‘You must have some sort of procedure; at least give me an application.’”
After Matherly reluctantly approved his application, Ford was hired as an investigator for Stephen Carlstrom, one of nine inmates at Theo Lacy Jail who are currently being charged in the November 2007 murder of John Chamberlain, a fellow inmate whom others in the jail thought was a suspected child molester (see “I Lit the Fire,” April 3, 2008). “I got that case because Carlstrom insisted that I do the work and, quite frankly, because I don’t think anybody else wanted the work,” Ford says.
Ford fully expected that McKenna would be his next client. However, when McKenna sought to have Szeles removed from his case and replaced with Ford, Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals, who handles all pro per criminal cases in Orange County, denied the motion. Meanwhile, McKenna had given Ford’s telephone number to numerous other inmates, all of whom had had Szeles appointed as their investigator by Goethals and all of whom wanted that PI taken off their cases: George Cross, Victor Garcia, Eugene Pool, Douglas Mackenzie, Curtis Metcalf, Joseph Preciado, Christopher Rodriguez, and the aforementioned Lake and Ramirez.
The Weekly obtained these complaints, all of them handwritten, all voicing the same concerns about Szeles: He was acting as if he were an attorney, claiming he was friends with both the judges and prosecutors at the courthouse, and could work out a deal for them if they used him as an investigator. More important, they assert that Szeles was refusing to interview witnesses if he didn’t think it was necessary and that he was sharing information about their cases with the DA’s office.
“At first, I thought McKenna was just exaggerating or maybe that he was a little bit crazy,” Ford says. “But when all these guys started telling me the same things—not exactly the same stories, but various versions of the same thing—I started to wonder about Szeles.” So on May 26, 2009, Ford sent a letter to Goethals detailing the complaints and asking the judge to investigate them. “I do not know Mr. Szeles, and I am not trying to get him into any trouble,” Ford explained in his letter. “I do not know what is true or false in regards to these complaints. I do not want you to think I am trying to capitalize on this situation and take any business from Mr. Szeles. I really feel this is a very important issue that the court needs to be aware of, so that it can be dealt with.”
Meanwhile, seven of the inmates who complained to Ford filed motions asking to have Szeles removed from their cases and replaced with Ford. “These motions all came up to Judge Goethals, and he denied them,” Ford says. “Goethals did not respond to my letter at all. Most judges care about what’s going on in their courtroom, but all Goethals did was deny the motions. I’m 100 percent convinced that he has a bias against pro pers.”
After McKenna filed a motion to have Goethals dismissed from his case, Goethals filed a response to his claims of bias. “I am not biased or prejudiced against or in favor of the defendant in this action,” Goethals argued. “At all times, the statements and actions taken by me in this and every proceeding over which I have presided have been done in furtherance of what I believe were my judicial duties.”
Goethals did, however, agree to send McKenna’s case to a new judge, Gregg L. Prickett. On Jan. 5, McKenna appeared in Prickett’s courtroom. In handcuffs, from behind a wire cage, McKenna sought to argue once again that Szeles should be removed from his case and replaced with Ford, whom he hoped to call to testify about what other inmates had said about Szeles. “You can call him if he has any actual testimony, not hearsay testimony,” Prickett said. McKenna also sought to read a lengthy statement into the record, which appeared to be a mixture of his life story, a claim of not guilty by reason of insanity, his allegation that he was framed in a prior case in Riverside County, and his general dissatisfaction with Szeles.
Impatient, Prickett reminded McKenna that he’d already submitted his statement in writing. “You may call Mr. Szeles to the stand if you wish,” Prickett added. Szeles, a roughly 6-foot-tall man with thinning white hair and dressed in a worn-looking gray suit, took the stand. Because McKenna seemed incapable of actually asking Szeles any questions, Prickett instructed Szeles to explain what he’d done for McKenna.
“When I found out that this was a 3-year-old case, I contacted the DA to get any new discovery, and I contacted the prior public defender . . . three times, and did not get a response,” Szeles said. “Then I wrote a letter that did not get any response. I contacted her supervisor, went to the judge and clerk to get that discovery. Ultimately, I did get that discovery a month or so later.”
Prickett then asked Szeles how he responded to McKenna’s allegation that he often refused to investigate specific things McKenna hoped could help his defense. “I explained to him what I said to all my pro per defendants,” Szeles said: That he worked for Alternate Defense Services, and that if a request “doesn’t make sense to me, if it’s an unusual request,” he wouldn’t fulfill it. “I’d be defrauding the county of Orange,” Szeles said. “That was in April, and from about that point, he was upset with me, and he refused to see me.”
* * *
After failing to get Goethals to investigate Szeles, Ford forwarded the complaints to the Orange County district attorney’s office—which sent them back to Goethals. “We determined that no crimes had been committed and that it was a matter between the defendants and the court,” says DA spokeswoman Susan Kang Schroeder. “We were told by Judge Goethals that he would take care of it.” Ford also sent the complaints to the California Attorney General, the Commission for Judicial Performance and the Department of Consumer Affairs, which grants licenses to private investigators.
The more Ford learned about Orange County’s system for handling pro per cases, the more he perceived an inherent bias against such defendants, he says, and the more he felt he was being subjected to some kind of discrimination, perhaps because he’s African-American. And the more he learned about Szeles, the angrier Ford became that this man was the only person who seemed to be benefiting from the system, earning anywhere from $500 to $2,000 or more per case he handled.
“So, I confronted Szeles,” Ford says. “He was sitting outside a courtroom, and I said, ‘My name is C.J. Ford, and I think we have some things to talk about.’” Szeles refused to talk. “He said it was none of my business,” Ford recalls. “So I said, ‘Well, you’re right. At this point, we have nothing to talk about.’”
One of the last things Ford did in his investigation was to drive out to a courthouse in Riverside to look up a case number that had Szeles’ name on it. As it turned out, Szeles had become a private investigator after he was fired from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in 1990 for hitting his 15-year-old stepdaughter. The incident came to light after Szeles’ stepdaughter told her maternal grandmother and reported the assault to her school principal. Szeles sought to overturn his dismissal, arguing that because the assault took place at home and not at work, it was irrelevant to his job. The court upheld the dismissal.
The appeals court’s ruling on Szeles’ motion to have his termination reversed describes the assault in detail. “On Oct. 17, 1990, while seated at the dinner table, you . . . and your daughter Amber were having a discussion regarding a problem with the electrical outlet in Amber’s bedroom,” the ruling states. “Amber, who is 15, made a comment that you thought was disrespectful. You responded by striking Amber in the face approximately four times, resulting in traumatic injury, to wit: nose bleed, discoloration around both eyes, bruised lips, and swelling around the lips and nose areas.”
Part of the reason Szeles was fired by the sheriff’s department was because the agency felt he had been dishonest about the assault, stating that when the department interviewed Szeles, he was “evasive” in his answers and stated he had only struck his daughter twice instead of four times. Szeles also stated that he was never “contacted by Child Protective Services regarding allegations of [his] prior abuse of Amber,” when he was in fact “contacted on Jan. 3, 1990, by a Child Protective Services worker and refused to answer questions or set up an appointment to discuss the matter.”
Furthermore, the court noted, Szeles appeared to have had disciplinary problems on the job. On July 15, 1988, Szeles had been docked 13 days’ pay “for creating a disruption of court proceedings and treating the court’s Traffic Commissioner discourteously,” and on April 19, 1990, he’d been demoted from sergeant to investigator for “incompetency and discourteous treatment of employees.”
Given that track record, Ford believes that Szeles never should have been granted a license to work as an investigator. According to the state’s guidelines, licenses can be revoked if the applicant has committed “assault, battery, or kidnapping, or using force or violence on any person, without proper justification” or for “dishonesty, fraud or deceit.” Ford says he forwarded this information to the Department for Consumer Affairs and that the agency is investigating Szeles; the agency refused to comment for this story—or confirm the existence of an investigation.
* * *
On Feb. 23, Ford filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against Alternate Defense Services and supervisor Matherly, alleging he was being discriminated against because of his race. “Plaintiff has been denied appointment to specific criminal cases involving pro per defendants,” the lawsuit states. “Explicit requests for Plaintiff’s appointment by 14 pro per defendants have been denied. During that same period, another less-experienced panel investigator [Szeles] . . . has been awarded and continues to be awarded all pro per cases. This practice continues even though that other investigator is under investigation by the Department of Consumer Affairs.”
In response to a Public Records Act request, the Orange County Superior Court’s media liaison, Carole Levitzky, provided the Weekly with a list showing that in 2008 and 2009, Szeles handled 98 cases for Alternate Defense Services—roughly the rate of one new client per week, a tremendous case load for a single investigator. According to the county controller, Szeles earned $200,816.84 in 2008 and 2009.
“There are literally hundreds of licensed investigators in Orange County who would love to be on the list, if there were one,” said one private investigator with more than 25 years of experience who also serves as an executive for a major professional association. (He asked to not be identified by name because it could compromise his ability to get work.) “The county needs to put out a request for proposal so everyone has a fair chance to get on the panel. There is no way you can have a legitimate, fair, unbiased system with nobody on a list and one man getting all the work—and it’s impossible for one man to do all that work.”
Because of Ford’s lawsuit, neither Goethals nor Matherly were made available for interviews, and neither responded to written questions the Weekly submitted to Levitzky.
The pro per defendants themselves were far more eager to talk. In a series of interviews both by telephone and at the Men’s Jail, four of them complained about the work Szeles had done in their cases. “Pro pers have no constitutional rights,” complained McKenna. “All this is straight-out fraud. I was framed, and Szeles says he won’t investigate this. I’ve been in this county jail for three and a half years now with no investigation, and they are just trying to wait me out, make me take a public defender and give up my pro per rights. They are using straight-up fraud against me.”
Ramirez has pleaded guilty to robbing the Bank of America on Sept. 23, 2008. He claims that after Szeles tried to blackmail him with the handwriting samples, he filed a motion to meet privately with Goethals so he could tell him what happened. But Goethals insisted on having Szeles attend the hearing. “This was supposed to be confidential,” Ramirez says. “I stood up and pleaded the Fifth.” A few weeks later, Ramirez gave up his pro per status. “I just knew I couldn’t get a fair trial with Szeles as my investigator,” he explains.
Ramirez’s new attorney told him that even if his co-defendant, Dempsey, took the stand and told the jury Ramirez had nothing to do with the crime, his past criminal record could be used against him. He’s scheduled to receive his formal sentence of seven years on March 15. “My attorney told me that this was the best deal I was going to get,” Ramirez says. He thought about going before a jury, but he figured that in Orange County, a Latino former gangbanger with a lengthy prison record would never get a fair shake.
“I didn’t want to go to prison for 23 years,” he concludes. “The only reason I took this deal is out of fear.”
Editorial intern Sandeep Abraham provided research assistance for this story.
This article appeared in print as “The Bad Detective: Some hapless OC Jail inmates are feeling burned by their own PI.”
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).