Paul Wilson met Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas just days after his wife was murdered.
Christy, Wilson’s wife of 26 years, was murdered along with seven others in the early afternoon of October 12, 2011, after a man named Scott Dekraai burst into the Salon Meritage in Seal Beach, California, and opened fire. It was the deadliest mass shooting in Orange County’s history.
Christy, who worked at the salon as a manicurist, was there that day to get her hair cut by her longtime friend Michelle. When Dekraai burst through the door, Michelle was washing Christy’s hair. He was there to kill Michelle, his estranged wife, with whom he was engaged in a pitched custody battle for their 8-year-old son. He was wearing a bulletproof vest, and his pockets were loaded with extra ammunition. He was carrying several guns. He shot Michelle and then Christy and then five others in the salon. After exiting, Dekraai shot a man who was sitting in his car, then got into his pickup truck and drove away. The police quickly caught up with him. Dekraai confessed to the crime and was booked into the Orange County jail. Soon, Rackauckas would announce his intention to seek the death penalty.
Wilson was devastated by his loss. He’d met Christy when he was just 21. They’d raised three kids and now had grandkids. Their eldest child was about to leave for college, and they had been imagining the next phase of their life together. But instead of making plans for the future, he found himself standing in an upstairs conference room in Rackauckas’s office.
Wilson had never interacted with the criminal justice system before. He’d never been in a courtroom. He’d never even gotten a ticket, he says. He had friends who were cops, and he considered himself a pro-police kind of guy. Inside the conference room, Wilson and family members of the other victims gathered for the first time to meet the team of lawyers who would prosecute Dekraai and bring their loved ones a measure of justice.
“I just remember Tony kind of going over everything and not really telling us a lot about what had really happened there, but just assuring us that they were going to do everything that they could,” Wilson recalled recently. “I remember Tony saying — and this is just imprinted into my mind — he told us … ‘Just know, through this whole thing, I’ve got your back.’”
Wilson was impressed and thought Rackauckas was sincere. “I thought, wow, this is the system, and this is how the system works,” he said. “OK, this is on the up-and-up; these guys are for real. Little did I know.”
Witnesses had seen Dekraai heavily armed at the scene of the shooting, and he’d confessed to the crime, so it should have been a slam dunk death case in relatively conservative Orange County. But in short order, the straightforward case would go sideways, and Wilson and the other family members would wait nearly five years to see Dekraai sentenced. It wasn’t because the evidence against him had fallen apart. Instead, it was wrongdoing on the part of the district attorney’s office and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department that would hamstring justice.
Specifically, in the process of representing Dekraai, dogged public defender Scott Sanders would uncover decades of misconduct within the county’s criminal justice system — including the routine failure of prosecutors to turn over evidence to defense attorneys, and the existence of a secret jailhouse informant program designed to generate questionable evidence — that violated the constitutional rights of an unknowable number of defendants.
At first, as the situation began to unfold in court, Wilson was furious and blamed Sanders for denying justice to Christy and the other victims. But, over time, Wilson’s perspective would transform into anger at Rackauckas and the county law enforcement machinery that appeared to be denying justice for all. To date, none of the prosecutors or sheriff’s deputies implicated in the Orange County snitch scandal have been fired, or even punished. And although several agencies — the sheriff’s department, the California attorney general’s office, and the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division — have said they are investigating the matter, none have released any public findings. And for their part, both Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and Rackauckas have brushed off any notion of any intentional wrongdoing, amid mountains of evidence to the contrary.
Now, nearly seven years after the deadly shooting, and with the ramifications of the scandal still playing out, Wilson and Sanders have forged a powerful if unlikely alliance, with a common goal in mind: Hold the powerful accountable and right the Orange County justice system.
In many ways, Sanders stumbled onto the scandal. At the same time he was representing Dekraai, he was also handling another capital case, against a man named Daniel Wozniak. In the discovery materials prosecutors turned over to him in each case, he noticed an anomaly: Each of his clients had allegedly confessed details of their crimes to the same jailhouse informant. What were the odds of that, he wondered.
In early 2014, Sanders filed a more than 500-page motion in the Dekraai case alleging misconduct by prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies who were behind the illegal use of jailhouse informants. In essence, the scam involved moving prolific informants into cells close to certain defendants in an effort to have the snitches extract confessions, a scheme that blatantly violated the defendants’ rights to have counsel present during any questioning by the state, which includes government-recruited informants.
Sanders argued that the misconduct was so endemic that the district attorney’s office should be recused from prosecuting Dekraai and the death penalty should be taken off the table. The judge overseeing the case, Thomas Goethals, granted a hearing on the allegations, which spawned months of tortured testimony from prosecutors and deputies who variously tried to explain away the allegations as bogus: Where discovery hadn’t been turned over, it was the result of honest mistakes or random orders to withhold documents; and there was no organized snitch program, sheriff’s deputies averred. At least three deputies would end up committing perjury.
The insertion of the misconduct hearing into the trial was a sharp departure from the way the case was supposed to go — Wilson had expected a straight line through the evidence against Dekraai to a death sentence. When he asked the prosecutors about what was happening, they blamed Sanders. “They kept telling us, ‘Oh, the defense is trying to create something to prolong this and just cause issues; it’s nothing. Don’t worry about it, nothing is going to happen,’” he recalled.
At first, he believed them, and he lashed out at Sanders, both inside and outside the courtroom. Under California law, victims have the ability to speak in court, and throughout the lengthy hearings, Goethals was careful to allow the family members their say. Wilson vigorously went after Sanders, who he said had “blood on his hands.” At one point, Wilson questioned whether the defense lawyer’s children “should be proud of me,” Sanders recalled. The words stung, but Sanders understood where Wilson was coming from. “You’d rather it not be said, of course, but you understand it. You understand him and his kids losing their mom. And he’s in this litigation, and he’s going, ‘Why are we talking about informants? How did this somehow become such a big part of the case?’” Sanders said. “The DA’s office says it’s just a defense lawyer being overzealous. That’s the messaging every day. I never felt angry at him, even in those moments — and they were very strong.”
But little by little, as the evidence of misconduct accumulated, Sanders noticed a shift. The “deception” by the sheriff’s deputies who were trying to claim there was no jailhouse informant system “was so much in your face,” Sanders recalled. Occasionally, he would look back into the courtroom gallery to gauge the reactions of Wilson and the other family members, “and you could see they were starting to get very frustrated about the whole experience.”
Indeed, the more Wilson heard, the more disturbed he became. “It was hard,” he said. “And I really had to take myself out of being a victim and understand what Scott was trying to do. And the more and more I would go to court and see what Goethals was saying, and then go back and look at it again, and read about it, it really started to make sense to me.” He began to understand that what Sanders was alleging went far beyond his case and his pain and implicated wrongdoing in any number of cases — malfeasance that put both defendants and victims in jeopardy.
Wilson’s perceptions were solidified when Goethals took the unusual step of recusing Rackauckas’s entire office from prosecuting Dekraai. “I realized this was really shady,” Wilson recalled. “There were layers to this, and it was going to unfold and probably be a much bigger deal than we ever imagined.” He went from speaking out in court against Sanders to speaking out against Rackauckas.
Ultimately, Goethals would also take the death penalty off the table, and on September 22, 2017, Dekraai was sentenced to eight consecutive terms of life without parole. About a month later, Sanders got an unexpected phone call. It was Wilson. He said, “Hey, what’s the chance you want to get together?” Sanders remembers Wilson asking. The two met at a coffee shop, “and we sat down, and we started talking, and we’ve been talking ever since,” Sanders said. “With all of the negative aspects of losing his partner, and the impact on his family, I think he decided he really wanted whatever happens here to turn into a positive event in terms of accountability. And he hasn’t moved on that.”
Although there is some precedent for the kind of alliance Sanders and Wilson have formed, it is unusual. Victims’ families and the defense lawyers tasked with advocating for their loved one’s killer are generally siloed and pitted against one another, at times encouraged by prosecutors, who often claim the allegiance of victims as theirs alone. But the backdrop of misconduct that infected the Dekraai prosecution disturbed both Sanders and Wilson equally. “I now know that the system, it’s broken,” said Wilson. “It’s got to work for everybody. You can’t cheat. Everyone has to follow the system in place.”
Wilson and Sanders talk regularly, discussing what they can do together to try to ensure that the county’s law enforcers are held accountable for the damage they’ve done to the criminal justice system. In part, that involves meeting up in court to catalog what is happening in other cases impacted by the snitch scandal; to date, Sanders says that 18 cases have been overturned, with charges dismissed or reduced or new trials granted.
Wilson finds the fallout sickening. He recalls, in particular, sitting in the courtroom when one of the county’s most prolific informants was sentenced. Oscar Moriel was a local gang member awaiting trial on an attempted murder charge that could have sent him to prison for life. He has admitted to having killed at least five people. Yet Moriel was offered a deal for 17 years based on his jailhouse informant work. By the time he was sentenced, he’d already spent more than 13 years in jail, ostensibly awaiting trial, meaning he’ll likely be back on the street before the end of the decade. “This is a serial killer,” Wilson said. “Are you kidding me?”
Wilson has implored the Justice Department to prosecute the deputies who lied on the stand about their knowledge of the workings of the illegal jailhouse informant system, to no avail. (A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment for this story.) And he’s become an outspoken critic of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and his predecessor, Sen. Kamala Harris, for all but ignoring the crisis in Orange County. Indeed, Wilson was disgusted by a recent appearance Becerra made in Orange County, standing with OCSD administrators and praising the department’s work to investigate the Mexican Mafia — a notorious gang with which Moriel and at least one other snitch wrapped up in the scandal had some affiliation. Meanwhile, Wilson said, there has been no movement in the attorney general’s alleged investigation into the Orange County corruption — an investigation now more than three years old.
“Attorney General Becerra, I wanted to be wrong about you and your agency, but the unwillingness to take on the Orange County Sheriff’s Department is obvious. The OCSD is laughing at the lack of accountability,” Wilson wrote in a recent opinion piece published in the Orange County Register. “If there are no prosecutions, rest assured that laughter will translate into more cheating, more cases destroyed and the blame will rest squarely with the attorney general’s office.”
Wilson says he’s tried to schedule a one-on-one meeting with Becerra but has been rebuffed. (The California attorney general’s office did not respond to an email requesting comment.)
There’s no reason to believe that the scandal in Orange County will go away anytime soon. And Wilson and Sanders each credit the other with keeping them motivated as they press forward. “A lawyer wanting to have this impact is still relatively common,” said Sanders, but he says Wilson’s determination has provided inspiration. “Here is someone who no one would envision moving to this place. [He has] an ability to touch so many more people than I would.” In the process, they’ve become friends, and Sanders says he doesn’t want to let him down. “Day in and day out, he wants answers and accountability,” Sanders said. “I understand how slow the process can be, and what you may hope for [in] accountability doesn’t always look exactly like that. He’s saying, let’s not accept anything short of people being held accountable in the truest sense — meaning in jail. He gets it, and it’s kind of refreshing.”
For Wilson, there’s no turning back. The life he knew with Christy by his side is gone — taken in a fit of violence that lasted less than two minutes — and instead he found himself with a front row seat to scandal. Rackauckas’s office robbed the Seal Beach victims of their dignity, Wilson says. “He took that away from Christy,” he said. “The DA should have been there fighting for Christy. And he wasn’t.”
Wilson has made it his mission to see that justice finally comes to Orange County. “I think I’m really in the fight of my life because I have decided to be very vocal about it, and I’m telling you, and I tell this to Scott Sanders — only because I know the same thing about Scott: I’m not quitting. I’m going after these guys,” he said. All these years later, Wilson points out that he still considers himself pro-police and a law-and-order person — and that’s precisely why he’s taking aim at those in law enforcement who have abused the system. “If you’re a good cop, we trust you and we’ll fight for you. But if you’re part of their dirty little organization, time’s up.”