On 12 October 2011, 41-year-old Scott Dekraai walked into a hair salon in Seal Beach, California armed with three handguns. Across two minutes, he shot nine people including his ex-wife before getting back into his vehicle and driving away. Police quickly arrived at the scene and were able to confirm the name of the shooter from his victims, arresting him half a mile away from the salon.
Dekraai pleaded guilty to mass murder when his case came to trial in March 2014 with the prosecution seeking the death penalty against him, however, his sentencing has repeatedly been delayed due to widespread concerns over the use of jailhouse informants by local prosecutors and sheriff deputies, in what is being called the ‘jailhouse snitch scandal’. Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals is now considering a sentence of life without parole over a death sentence for Dekraai who could join a further seven convicted criminals to have their sentences reviewed as a result of the scandal.
Seal Beach Mass Murder
Scott Dekraai’s connection to the Seal Beach salon was his ex-wife, 48-year old Michelle Fournier. The couple had married in 2003 but within four years the relationship had broken down and they began divorce proceedings and entered into a bitter custody battle over their 8-year-old son. Although their divorce had soon been finalized, their dispute over their son was ongoing and the day before Dekraai carried out the shooting a court hearing had recommended joint custody between them.
“Now his mother has been murdered, and he has to grow up knowing that his dad is a mass murderer. What kind of sick, twisted fatherly love might that be?”
Sandy Fannin, who was the co-owner of the salon, managed to hide in the back when she heard the first shots being fired. Her husband, 62-year-old Randy Fannin, was killed along with four salon workers; 54-year-old Victoria Buzzo, 46-year-old Laura Webb Elody, 47-year-old Christy Wilson and Dekraai’s ex-wife Michelle Fournier and two customers in the shop that day; 47–year-old Michelle Fast, and 65-year-old Lucia Kondas. 64-year-old David Caoutte was outside the salon inside his car in the parking lot when he was shot and killed.
Only one person survived the shooting, Laura Elody’s mother, 73-year-old Hattie Stretz who was also shot inside the salon. Days after the shooting, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas made it clear he intended to charge Scott Dekraai with eight counts of murder plus one attempted murder and he would be seeking the death penalty. At his arraignment hearing in November 2011, Dekraai pleaded not guilty, however, after his trial was delayed by 12 months due to information from a prison informant, he changed his plea to guilty in 2014.
In the three years since, his sentence has not been decided, leaving Dekraai unsure of his fate and the victim’s families left in limbo on the punishment the man who murdered their loved ones will receive.
Orange County Jailhouse Snitch Scandal
Serious concerns have been raised over the conduct of Orange County District Attorney’s Office and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department in relation to a jailhouse informant network it was believed they had been running for the last two decades. The use of jailhouse informants is a common and legal tactic used by prosecutors in order to obtain information which can help their cases. Informants are recruited through the Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney’s office to talk with defendants inside the jail in the hope of obtaining useful information against them.
The use of such informants has to be a formal process carried out in accordance with the rules and regulations including that informants can only gather information from defendants in jail that do not have legal representation. Furthermore, records of the use of these informants and the information they obtain must be kept and made available if they are requested.
During the penalty phase of Dekraai’s case, questions arose over the Sheriff Department’s use of informants inside of the jail where Dekraai was being held. When Judge Goethals, presiding over Dekraai’s case, requested informant-related documents from the Orange County Sheriff in 2013 they were not provided. This has led to concerns over whether these documents have been wilfully hidden or destroyed by the Sheriff’s department to cover operations which may not have been legal.
In 2015, Judge Goethals removed Orange County District Attorney’s office completely from prosecuting Dekraai due to these concerns, instructing the California Attorney General’s Office to take over the prosecution case. Dekraai changed his plea to guilty in a 2014 plea deal that would have got him life in prison instead of the death penalty but the Orange County District Attorney’s Office rejected the deal due to the severity of his crimes and it appears the California Attorney General’s office agrees.
In recent months Orange County Sheriff’s deputies and supervisors have testified in court hearings ordered by Judge Geothals that they knew nothing of an informant program, however, Judge Geothals is suspicious of their evidence, finding their claims hard to believe. Furthermore, a number of deputies have refused to answer questions about testimony they gave two years ago saying they such a program existed in the county’s jails.
The idea that law enforcement has been wilfully using illegal practices to obtain information which they then pick and choose from ensuring only the details that will help secure convictions are used, has understandably upset many people and goes against a fair and just system. In December 2016, over 30 professionals from prosecutors to fellow law enforcement officers and legal experts submitted a letter to the Attorney General making it clear their disgust at these allegations and the urgency in which they needed to be fully investigated. “We the undersigned share a firm belief in our criminal justice system and its overall ability to produce fair and reliable results,” they wrote. “Compelling evidence of pervasive police and prosecutorial misconduct in Orange County, however, has caused us grave concern.”
There are a number of other cases that this scandal has impacted, including Henry Rodriguez who was convicted of double murder in 1998. His conviction was overturned in 2016 by Judge Thomas Geothals who believed a key witness in his case was actually a jailhouse informant under Orange County’s program but this was not detailed by prosecutors during Rodriguez’s trial. Prosecutors said the witness was another inmate who had overheard conversations by Rodriguez, who had legal representation meaning informants could not be used to gather evidence in his case.
Scott Dekraai remains in jail awaiting the decision on his sentence. US News reports that a Grand Jury last month has found ‘no evidence of a conspiracy’ and that the sheriff’s department “does not have a stable of informants that routinely disperse throughout the jail to gather evidence on crimes either legally or illegally.” How this ruling will impact the decision on Dakraai’s sentence remains to be seen.