Kelly Puente

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Feb 22

Man with prior DUI faces second-degree murder charge for alleged drunk-driving crash that killed 6-year-old Fullerton girl

A 53-year-old Anaheim man with a prior drunk-driving conviction was charged with second-degree murder on Wednesday for an alleged drunk-driving crash that killed a 6-year-old girl in Fullerton last week.

Maximino Lagunas Delgado’s blood-alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit at about 2:14 p.m. on Saturday when he lost control of his Toyota 4Runner on Gage Avenue and drove onto the sidewalk, killing Grace Aguilar while she was outside playing, authorities said.

Delgado continued driving on the sidewalk before crashing into a parked vehicle, police said.

Court records show that Delgado has a prior misdemeanor conviction for drunk driving in 2015 in Buena Park. He was sentenced to three years of probation and was ordered to complete a first-offender alcohol program.

After that DUI conviction, prosecutors said, Delgado was required to sign a formal statement called a Watson advisement, indicating that he understands he could be charged with second-degree murder if he drives under the influence and kills someone.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/02/21/man-with-prior-dui-faces-second-degree-murder-charge-for-alleged-drunk-driving-crash-that-killed-6-year-old-fullerton-girl/

Feb 22

Tiki Farm in San Clemente is riding the wave of tiki popularity

  • These are the first 4 Tiki mugs made by Tiki Farm in San Clemente. The names of the mugs are, from left, Log, Dental, Stoney , Drinky. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    These are the first 4 Tiki mugs made by Tiki Farm in San Clemente. The names of the mugs are, from left, Log, Dental, Stoney , Drinky. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Shelves at Tiki Farm in San Clemente display hundreds of the company’s Tiki mugs on Monday, Feb. 19, 2018. Tiki Farm is said to be the largest manufacturer of Tiki mugs in the world. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Shelves at Tiki Farm in San Clemente display hundreds of the company’s Tiki mugs on Monday, Feb. 19, 2018. Tiki Farm is said to be the largest manufacturer of Tiki mugs in the world. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Shelves at Tiki Farm in San Clemente display hundreds of the company’s Tiki mugs on Monday, Feb. 19, 2018. Tiki Farm is said to be the largest manufacturer of Tiki mugs in the world. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Shelves at Tiki Farm in San Clemente display hundreds of the company’s Tiki mugs on Monday, Feb. 19, 2018. Tiki Farm is said to be the largest manufacturer of Tiki mugs in the world. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Shelves at Tiki Farm in San Clemente display hundreds of the company’s Tiki mugs on Monday, Feb. 19, 2018. Tiki Farm is said to be the largest manufacturer of Tiki mugs in the world. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Shelves at Tiki Farm in San Clemente display hundreds of the company’s Tiki mugs on Monday, Feb. 19, 2018. Tiki Farm is said to be the largest manufacturer of Tiki mugs in the world. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Shelves at Tiki Farm in San Clemente display hundreds of the company’s Tiki mugs on Monday, Feb. 19, 2018. Tiki Farm is said to be the largest manufacturer of Tiki mugs in the world. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Shelves at Tiki Farm in San Clemente display hundreds of the company’s Tiki mugs on Monday, Feb. 19, 2018. Tiki Farm is said to be the largest manufacturer of Tiki mugs in the world. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Shelves at Tiki Farm in San Clemente display hundreds of the company’s Tiki mugs on Monday, Feb. 19, 2018. Tiki Farm is said to be the largest manufacturer of Tiki mugs in the world. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Shelves at Tiki Farm in San Clemente display hundreds of the company’s Tiki mugs on Monday, Feb. 19, 2018. Tiki Farm is said to be the largest manufacturer of Tiki mugs in the world. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Holden Westland, founder and owner of Tiki Farm, is shown with the many styles of Tiki mugs in San Clemente on Monday, Feb. 19, 2018. Tiki Farm is said to be the largest manufacturer of Tiki mugs in the world. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Holden Westland, founder and owner of Tiki Farm, is shown with the many styles of Tiki mugs in San Clemente on Monday, Feb. 19, 2018. Tiki Farm is said to be the largest manufacturer of Tiki mugs in the world. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • The Tiki mug named Log was one of the first mugs made by Tiki Farm in San Clemente. Tiki Farms is said to be the largest manufacturer of Tiki mugs in the world. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    The Tiki mug named Log was one of the first mugs made by Tiki Farm in San Clemente. Tiki Farms is said to be the largest manufacturer of Tiki mugs in the world. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • The Tiki mug named Dental was one of the first mugs made by Tiki Farm in San Clemente. Tiki Farms is said to be the largest manufacturer of Tiki mugs in the world. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    The Tiki mug named Dental was one of the first mugs made by Tiki Farm in San Clemente. Tiki Farms is said to be the largest manufacturer of Tiki mugs in the world. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • The Tiki mug named Stoney was one of the first mugs made by Tiki Farm in San Clemente. Tiki Farms is said to be the largest manufacturer of Tiki mugs in the world. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    The Tiki mug named Stoney was one of the first mugs made by Tiki Farm in San Clemente. Tiki Farms is said to be the largest manufacturer of Tiki mugs in the world. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • The Tiki mug named Drinky was one of the first mugs made by Tiki Farm in San Clemente. Tiki Farms is said to be the largest manufacturer of Tiki mugs in the world. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    The Tiki mug named Drinky was one of the first mugs made by Tiki Farm in San Clemente. Tiki Farms is said to be the largest manufacturer of Tiki mugs in the world. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Tiki Farm’s Día de los Muertos themed Tiki mug named Amor Eterno was an open edition launch for Valentine’s Day and sold 2000 mugs in first 72-hours. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Tiki Farm’s Día de los Muertos themed Tiki mug named Amor Eterno was an open edition launch for Valentine’s Day and sold 2000 mugs in first 72-hours. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • The back side of Tiki Farm’s Día de los Muertos themed Tiki mug named Amor Eterno was an open edition launch for Valentine’s Day and sold 2000 mugs in first 72-hours. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    The back side of Tiki Farm’s Día de los Muertos themed Tiki mug named Amor Eterno was an open edition launch for Valentine’s Day and sold 2000 mugs in first 72-hours. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Holden Westland, founder and owner of Tiki Farm, is shown with the many styles of Tiki mugs in San Clemente on Monday, Feb. 19, 2018. Tiki Farm is said to be the largest manufacturer of Tiki mugs in the world. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Holden Westland, founder and owner of Tiki Farm, is shown with the many styles of Tiki mugs in San Clemente on Monday, Feb. 19, 2018. Tiki Farm is said to be the largest manufacturer of Tiki mugs in the world. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

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SAN CLEMENTE – If you’re sipping on a navy grog or a fog cutter at your favorite tiki bar, chances are that frosty mug came from San Clemente.

Founded in 2000, Tiki Farm is said to be the world’s largest manufacturer of high-end tiki mugs, supplying original and custom designs for hundreds of bars, restaurants and gift shops each year.

From the brown-glazed rum barrels at Don the Beachcomber in Huntington Beach to the porthole punch bowls at San Francisco’s famous Tonga Room, Tiki Farm has supplied the mugs.

And in a growing niche market fueled by the craft-cocktail craze, business these days is booming, owner Holden Westland said.

Last year, Tiki Farm sold 150,000 mugs. This year, the business is estimating it will sell around 350,000.

“In the craft-cocktail world, we’ve really become a household name,” Westland said. “We’ve been lucky to become a pretty robust business in a very unique genre.”

The first-ever tiki mugs were likely made in the 1930s for the original Don the Beachcomber restaurant in Los Angeles, where customers could take home a Polynesian-theme souvenir after finishing their tropical cocktails.

The craze exploded after World War II with U.S servicemen returning from the Pacific theater bringing a new-found love for all things tropical.

In recent years, the fad has once again surged with new, popular bars popping up – such as False Idol in San Diego and Pacific Seas at Clifton’s in downtown Los Angeles.

Westland said younger generations are enjoying a taste of 1950s pop culture, going on “tiki crawls” at bars throughout Southern Californian.

“It’s getting really big,” he said. “Tiki is everywhere.”

Born and raised in Long Beach and a Wilson High graduate, Westland, 53, has long been a fan of tiki and mid-century modern for a childhood nostalgia and Southern California symbolism.

When he launched Tiki Farm 18 years ago, he had no idea that his love for mugs would grow into a thriving business.

“I didn’t even know people were into this like I was into it,” he said.

The business stemmed from a now-defunct .com venture with pal Charlie Rubel called eBachelorpad, which sold mid-century-style furniture and a few generic tiki mugs. The mugs were always popular but they were of poor quality, Westland said, so he decided to manufacture his own.

His first order was for 300 mugs for a signing party for “The Book of Tiki” by Sven Kirsten. The mugs sold out that night.

Westland decided to try his luck at the California Gift Show, in 2001, and walked away with an order for 30,000 mugs from gifts shops around the world.

But business hasn’t always been easy.

The company almost went under in 2005 after gift shop sales – which back then were 90 percent of Tiki Farm’s business – plummeted in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, he said.

Westland attended a National Restaurant Association show and bounced back with tons of news clients.

Today, some of Tiki Farm’s original designs are coveted by collectors and can sell for hundreds of dollars each. The company is known for collaborating with artists, including Orange County-based Shag, who created some of the first designs.

This week, bids on eBay were up to $300 for a brown and cream glazed Tong Hut anniversary mug by Shag for Tiki Farm.

In addition to whimsical designs for bars and restaurants, Tiki Farm has worked with big names including Hard Rock Cafe, Anheuser-Busch, Fender Instruments, Emeril Lagassi and the House of Blues.

A limited-edition purple mug, designed for Mattel’s Hot Wheels toys in 2004, sold out online in less than a minute.

Nestled in a nondescript office space near San Clemente High School, Tiki Farm’s colorful showroom displays more than 2,000 mugs, from the original four – Stoney, Drinky, Log and Dental – to the more elaborate current pieces.

The designs go beyond shrunken heads, nautical kitsch and tiki gods. Tiki Farm has designed everything from a George Lucas mug for Skywalker Ranch to a Donald Trump mug for a Washington, D.C. pop-up bar. The back of the Trump mug says, in Russian, “Make America Great Again.”

“We have a lot of fun with our designs,” Westland said.

Fans say they love Tiki Farm for its quality and affordable pieces. Mugs sell for around $20 on the website.

Collector Tim Haack, 54, of Carson said Tiki Farm has been on the forefront of the revival.

“They’ve revived mug-making as an industry again,” he said. “And they’ve given a lot of work to talented artists.”

And what is it about tiki that people enjoy?

For Westland, it’s summed up in one word – escapism.

“It’s a sign of the times,” he said. “Society has changed so much in the last 20 years with technology. … Tiki is a nice, nostalgic step back in time. It’s a way to unwind from where we are as a people.”

Tiki Farm

Where: 1120 Calle Cordillera, Suite 101, San Clemente

Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday

Phone: 949-940-1006

Web: tikifarm.com

 

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/02/21/tiki-farm-in-san-clemente-is-riding-the-wave-of-tiki-popularity/

Feb 20

Post snitch-scandal era at the county courthouse: less trust, more digging

Your Honor, are prosecutors illegally withholding evidence that might help my client?

Did testimony come from the sheriff department’s once-secret network of jailhouse informants?

Will you let me call as a witness one of the county deputies currently declining to testify because they’re worried about self-incrimination?

Not long ago, in Orange County, defense lawyers asking such accusatory questions — all of which imply bad faith by prosecutors or law enforcement — would have faced an uphill battle.  A few confrontational lawyers might’ve put such questions forward, but judges generally wouldn’t let a jury hear them on the premise that unsubstantiated allegations, even when cloaked as questions, shouldn’t be allowed to sway cases.

That was before the case of Scott Dekraai.

In September, the man who confessed to killing eight people during a 2011 rampage at a Seal Beach hair salon was ordered to serve eight life terms without possibility of parole. Prosecutors wanted the death penalty, but then- Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals said he couldn’t issue that harshest sentence because of serious misconduct on the part of prosecutors and the sheriff’s department.

Since then, there’s been a lot less trust in Orange County courtrooms.

Not only did the Dekraai case expose tactics by prosecutors and jailers that once would have been dismissed as crackpot allegations — including the use of a secret network of informants in local jails and of prosecutors often withholding evidence that might help defense lawyers — but findings in the case were backed by a state appellate court that described cheating by Orange County prosecutors as routine and “systemic.” Rulings from Dekraai prompted an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, an inquiry that has yet to be completed.

And, critically, questions raised in Dekraai have echoed in at least seven other high-profile cases, resulting in new trials or reduced sentences because prosecutors were wary of exposing how they gathered evidence.

The upshot? Defense lawyers, public and private, say they’re increasingly wary of law enforcement and prosecutors. They’re looking harder than ever at every step of the investigation process; filing motions, taking microscopes to cases in ways they wouldn’t have prior to the Dekraai case and its revelations.

“You can’t just trust that things are being done properly,” said Newport Beach defense attorney and former prosecutor Ed Welbourn. “You have to make sure every stone is uncovered.”

Even lawyers who aren’t certain that their client’s case has been touched by jailhouse informants or withheld evidence are, in some instances, asking judges to explore such questions.

“I think that’s sort of sad,” said Newport Beach attorney Mark Frederick.  “We should have the kind of professional relationship where everyone can trust each other.”

Local prosecutors, meanwhile, are frustrated.

Most haven’t used illegal tactics to win cases, and many believe the Dekraai findings critical of the DA’s office and law enforcement simply weren’t correct, despite evidence to the contrary.

“The very best criminal defense attorneys have all remained conspicuously off this bandwagon,” said Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy, who has prosecuted several high profile cases.

“They understand making false accusations for tactical gain is not only unethical and unfair, but also fundamentally dishonest.”

Beyond Dekraai

In January, four months after the Dekraai sentencing, defense attorney Jerry Steering went into court and argued a long-shot.

Steering claimed Orange County sheriff’s deputies illegally used jailhouse informants to threaten his client, Michael Wesley Baker. Baker, of Laguna Niguel, was accused of killing his 82-year-old grandmother, Sara Mowrey, in 2009, and he’d been held in jail, awaiting trial, for three years.

Before the Dekraai case, the details of Steering’s argument — that local jailers had paid informants to threaten Baker and that they’d also threatened to put Baker’s father, serving time in prison, in a situation that could be dangerous to him as well — might have been tough to get into court. The allegation implied bad faith on the part of at least some individual deputies, and, broadly, a willingness to break rules.

This time, Steering’s argument included a specific request: He wanted the judge to let him put on the witness stand four county deputies who have declined to answer questions in open court.  After two of the deputies were called “liars” by Goethals in the Dekraai case, the law officers — who all at one time worked in the jail — have declined to answer questions under oath on the grounds that they might open themselves to criminal prosecution.

It turned out, Steering’s argument didn’t need to get into court. Before allowing a jury to hear Steering’s allegations, the prosecutor offered Baker a deal: If Baker would admit that there was evidence for a conviction, he could go free. Baker agreed. Though prosecutors said later that their case was weak, and that the county’s offer had nothing to do with informants, Baker left jail after three years, with no parole or probation, after being accused of a crime that might have put him behind bars for 100 years to life.

“Sweetheart deal” is the description a surprised Steering offered after the settlement.

But Steering, a longtime vocal critic of police, also suggested the outcome was fair, saying of county prosecutors, “If they don’t have anything on anybody, they create their own facts.”

Deputy District Attorney Seton Hunt, writing in response to Steering’s motion, described Baker’s allegations as “outrageous” and “bizarre.”

“Defendant is clearly attempting to exploit this situation by hoping this court engages in improper speculation regarding these deputies’ (Fifth Amendment statements),” Hunt wrote.

Not every accusation against prosecutors makes it into open court.

Los Angeles lawyer Mark Hover recently tried to have charges dismissed for his client, Jimmy Truong, who was accused of shooting at officers during a Santa Ana police chase. Hover argued that law enforcement conspired to destroy video and audio recordings of the chase — allegations that, if substantiated, could have had profound effects beyond the Truong case.

Prosecutors said no video was destroyed and there was no evidence that police acted in bad faith.

In December, after a three-week hearing that wasn’t heard by a jury, Judge Goethals sided with prosecutors. The same judge who ordered local prosecutors off the penalty phase of the Dekraai case because he believe they couldn’t be trusted to provide a fair hearing, was unconvinced in the Truong case that police or prosecutors acted in bad faith.

New world?

Lawyers for the county note that the post-Dekraai courthouse is more formal, with prosecution teams more careful with the use of informants than they were prior to the Dekraai case.

Defense lawyers also note that local prosecutors are more likely to err on the side of disclosing too much, rather than too little, about their cases.

Rudy Loewenstein, who last year won a new trial for a previously convicted murderer based on the county’s use of a jailhouse informants, said prosecutors are now proactively providing some types of evidence, including background on any possible informants or law enforcement involved in the case, to the defense.

Before the Dekraai case, Loewenstein said, he would have to request the personnel file for an officer set to testify in the case to see if there was anything in the officer’s background, or the officer’s relationship with an informant, that might help the defense. Today, prosecutors provide such information without prompting.

In some cases, he added, prosecutors are turning over mountains of discovery, much of which is unusable.

“It takes more time and work to go through it all, but it might lead to resolutions you might not get otherwise, like a plea bargain, so it could save more money (for taxpayers) in the long run,” Loewenstein said.

Other defense lawyers say they’re energized by the new era of disclosure — and that they believe judges are more willing to hear them out.

“It’s an exciting moment,” said Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, who represented Dekraai. “People are less afraid to take on (law enforcement)… We’re not holding back as much when we believe we’re right.”

Still, Sanders believes a new era of disclosure by prosecutors isn’t the same as reform. He noted that the deputies accused of not telling the truth in the Dekraai case still have their jobs.

“Until we see someone fired or demoted or held accountable, I won’t believe there’s been any real change,” Sanders said. “It hasn’t happened.”

Prosecutors suggest it won’t. And if there is a day of reckoning for anyone, some add, it will be for defense attorneys who level what prosecutors insist are false allegations.

“The problem is the majority of these motions are accompanied by false accusations of prosecutorial misconduct,” said prosecutor Murphy. “Attorneys who engage in this style of litigation damage their own credibility.”

 

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/02/20/post-snitch-scandal-era-at-the-county-courthouse-less-trust-more-digging/

Feb 17

Motorcyclist killed in Newport Beach crash

A motorcyclist was killed in a traffic crash in Newport Beach on Saturday morning, Feb. 17, near John Wayne Airport, police said.

Newport Beach Police Lt. Rachel Johnson said the crash between a motorcycle and another vehicle occurred at 10:12 a.m.

All southbound and northbound lanes of Irvine Avenue, between Bristol Street and Mesa Drive, were closed due to the traffic crash. They remained closed as of 12:45 p.m.

Police did not have further details on the victim or cause of the crash.

 

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/02/17/motorcyclist-killed-in-newport-beach-crash-2/

Feb 15

Orange County couple says Irvine fertility clinic lost or destroyed their embryos

A Mission Viejo couple says their dreams of having a child were dashed when an Irvine fertility clinic allegedly lost their two embryos.

In a news conference on Wednesday, Natalia, 38, and Randall Bergman, 43, said they opted to transfer their two frozen embryos from Coastal Fertility Medical Center in Irvine to another fertility clinic in 2015 after an unsuccessful attempt at getting pregnant through in vitro fertilization.

But when lab technicians at the new clinic attempted to recover the embryos, they found the container straw was empty, the couple said, adding they couldn’t afford to go through the process again.

The Bergmans are suing Coastal Fertility for negligence and breach of contract in Orange County Superior Court.

“Our most important possession in life was our fertilized embryos,” Natalia Bergman said. “Our potential for having a child was everything for us.”

The Bergmans are expected to appear in court on Friday in an attempt to compel the fertility clinic to disclose documents related to any similar cases.

“We want other couples to speak up if they’ve had a similar experience,” said their lawyer, Adam Wolf.

The clinic disputed the couple’s allegations.

“With respect to this couple, we froze two embryos, which were subsequently transferred to another laboratory of the couple’s choosing,” it said in a statment. “That laboratory was then responsible for the storing and thawing of those embryos. We have no control over those embryos once they leave our laboratory.”

The Bergmans said they first sought help from Coastal Fertility in 2013 and produced four viable embryos through in vitro fertilization. The couple said they were heartbroken when they failed to get pregnant from two of the fresh embryos.

The third and fourth embryos were frozen. The clinic’s medical director assured them that transfers from fresh embryos were as good as transfers from frozen embryos, the couple said. They were then shocked months later to find out the clinic had changed its policy and no longer recommended transfers from fresh embryos, they said.

Frustrated, they chose to take their two remaining embryos in a transfer tank to a Newport Beach clinic. They said Coastal Fertility assured them that its laboratory team had placed a straw with their remaining two embryos in the tank.

But lab technicians at the Newport Beach clinic found nothing inside, the Bergmans said.

“No fewer than three different lab technicians studied the solution to ensure that there was no mistake,” the lawsuit says. “But, shockingly, not only was there no sign of the embryos, but there was not even any sign of any embryo debris to suggest that the embryos had ever been in the straw in the first place.”

The case is set for a jury trial in August.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/02/14/orange-county-couple-says-irvine-fertility-clinic-lost-or-destroyed-their-embryos/

Feb 14

Trial still pending for convicted killer Daniel Wozniak’s ex-fiancee, Rachel Buffett

SANTA ANA – More than a year after Daniel Wozniak was sentenced to death for killing two people in an attempt to fund his wedding and honeymoon in 2010, his ex-fiancee, Rachel Buffett, still awaits trial for allegedly lying to police after the murders.

In a case that made national headlines, Wozniak, a 33-year-old former community theater actor from Costa Mesa, was sentenced to death in September 2016 for killing his neighbor, Samuel Herr, 26, and Herr’s friend Juri “Julie” Kibuishi, 23, in a plot to steal money to fund his upcoming nuptials.

It took more than six years for Wozniak’s case to go to trail as his defense lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, raised allegations as part of Orange County’s informant jailhouse scandal.

Herr’s parents were angry and frustrated over the delays in Wozniak’s case, and now, they say, they’re frustrated that Buffett’s case is taking so long.

“I’m so tired of the delays,” Samuel’s father, Steve Herr, said in an interview this week. “Each time I’ve been told to be patient. How long can one be patient?”

Buffett was charged in 2012, two years after the killings, with three felony counts of being an accessory after the fact for allegedly lying to protect Wozniak. Her case initially was delayed pending the outcome of his trial, but now it’s caught up in a clogged county court system. She has been out of jail for years on bail.

In Orange County Superior Court on Friday, her case was delayed yet again as Senior Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy is slammed with high-profile trials.

Speaking to the judge, Murphy, one of the county’s top prosecutors, explained that he’s set to try serial killer Andrew Urdiales this month, followed by Edward Shin, accused of killing his Laguna Beach business partner. Murphy’s then slated to prosecute alleged jail escapee Hossein Nayeri, who is accused of kidnapping a marijuana dispensary owner and severing the man’s penis.

However, Judge Kimberly Menninger expressed dismay that Buffett’s case has lingered.

“This case needs to be a priority,” the judge said.

“I’m doing the best that I can here,” Murphy replied. “The case is an absolute priority.”

In court, Murphy said he has been working to resolve the case in a possible plea deal, but Buffett’s defense lawyer, David Medina, said he and his client are prepared to go to trial.

Judge Menninger set a pretrial hearing date for March 16 and assigned the case to a trial judge.

Buffett, an actress and former Disneyland princess who grew up in Seal Beach, raised public interest with her appearances on “Dateline NBC” and “Dr. Phil,” where she has denied any connection to the crimes.

“I’m innocent, and … what hurts me most in this whole situation is they’re trying to say I’m something I’m not,” she said on “Dateline.”

Costa Mesa police have long said they believe she played a larger role in the crimes but they lack the evidence to prove it.

Among the allegations in her felony charges: She is accused of repeating a story that Wozniak had told police about a mystery man being with Samuel Herr on the day he was killed. Wozniak later told police that was a lie, prosecutors said.

With a hearing now set before a trial judge, Steve Herr said he’s hopeful that the case will move quicker.

Steve Herr, who was best friends with his son, a combat veteran who had served in Afghanistan, has attended hundreds of hearings over the years, 203 for Wozniak and 48 for Buffett. Steve Herr’s wife, Raquel, and Julie’s parents, June and Masa Kubuishi, are also fixtures in court.

“I’m just frustrated with the whole justice system,” Herr said. “Sam and Julie deserve a lot better than this.”

On May 21, 2010, Wozniak, in a plot to kill Herr and drain his bank account, lured him to the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos, where he shot and killed him. Wozinak left the torso there but cut off body parts and tossed them in a Long Beach park.

To throw police off of his trail, Wozniak went to Herr’s apartment after that killing and used Herr’s cellphone to lure Kibuishi, pretending to be in need of help. He then shot and killed her and staged the crime scene to try and make it look like Herr had killed Kibuishi in a jealous rage. He wanted police to believe that Herr disappeared on his own.

Wozinak confessed to the crimes in police interviews.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/02/14/trial-still-pending-for-convicted-killer-daniel-wozniaks-ex-fiancee-rachel-buffett/

Feb 10

5 arrested in unrelated Seal Beach robberies

A total of five people have been arrested in connection with two, unrelated robberies at a Sprint store and a bank in Seal Beach, authorities said Saturday, Feb. 10.

In the first incident, two men robbed a Sprint wireless store on Seal Beach Boulevard on Jan. 28. Police said they held employees at gunpoint and raided a store safe containing cell phones and electronics.

On Tuesday, two suspects – Vaafatu Mativa, 35, of Carson and Tafilele Puaauli, 45, of Harbor City – were linked to the Seal Beach crimes after being arrested in connection with a cell phone store robbery in Santa Barbara, police said. Police subsequently arrested Crystal Viramontes, 29, of South Gate as an alleged accomplice.

In a separate incident, police on Thursday arrested Vincent Edward Wilson, 53, Long Beach and Chad Richard Dupape, 29, of Fountain Valley in connection with a robbery at Chase Bank on Pacific Coast Highway on Jan. 2. Police said the suspects brandished a large knife and demanded money before running.

Dupape was already in custody on an unrelated offense when he was arrested in connection with the crime, police said. The case has been turned over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/02/10/5-arrested-in-unrelated-seal-beach-robberies/

Feb 10

Garden Grove man sentenced to 9 years for attacking wife with meat cleaver

SANTA ANA – A man who attacked his wife with a meat cleaver, putting her in a medically induced coma for two months, was sentenced to nine years in prison on Friday.

A jury last year found Thang Van Nguyen, 48, of Garden Grove guilty of attempted voluntary manslaughter, mayhem and corporal injury on a spouse.

After an argument in their Garden Grove apartment before 7 a.m. on Jan. 19, 2016, prosecutors said, Nguyen swung the meat cleaver at his wife’s head and left her severely wounded with deep lacerations. She was placed in a medically induced coma and treated for a brain injury.

Their 8-year-old son and his teenage brother saw the conflict but were not harmed, prosecutors said. The wife survived and testified for the defense.

– City News Service contributed to this report

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/02/09/garden-grove-man-sentenced-to-9-years-for-attacking-wife-with-meat-cleaver/

Feb 09

Former Signal Hill police officer pleads guilty in road-rage incident in Irvine

SANTA ANA – A former Signal Hill police officer was sentenced to 60 days in jail on Friday for a road rage incident in which, prosecutors say, he dragged another driver out of his car and put a gun to the other man’s head for supposedly cutting him off on the I-405 freeway in Irvine.

Jacob Emory Swigger, 41, of Lake Forest pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of assault and battery by an officer for the Nov. 20, 2014 encounter.

Swigger is eligible to serve the time under home confinement with electronic monitoring, said his lawyer, John Barnett.

Prosecutors said Swigger was on his way to work, dressed in civilian clothes, when Douglas Cruse, a Lake Forest man in his 50s, changed lanes in front of him.

Authorities said Swigger responded by honking and driving after Cruse for more than a mile before he suddenly swerved in front of Cruse and forced him to stop. Swigger, prosecutors said, then hopped out, identified himself as an officer, pulled Cruse out and put a gun to his head.

The defense had argued that Swigger feared for his life because of Cruse’s alleged erratic driving and acted within his duties as a police officer.

The plea comes after his case ended in a mistrial last year when jurors deadlocked 8-4 in favor of not guilty.

Swigger left the Signal Hill Police Department a couple of years ago.

 

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/02/09/former-signal-hill-police-officer-pleads-guilty-in-road-rage-incident-in-irvine/

Feb 08

Supreme Court sides with DA in battle over civil penalties for workplace safety violations, stemming from OC case

In a case that stemmed from a fatal explosion in an Orange County manufacturing plant, the California Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that local prosecutors can pursue civil penalties against employers accused of workplace-safety violations.

On March 19, 2009, workers Jose Jimenez, 51, of Garden Grove and Isidro Echeverria, 34, of Oceanside were killed when a water heater exploded at Solus Industrial Innovations, a plastics manufacturing plant in Rancho Santa Margarita.

The Orange County District Attorney’s Office subsequently filed criminal charges against two Solus employees for violating state safety standards by unsafely operating the water heater. Carl Richardson, the plant manager, and Roy Faulkinbury, the maintenance supervisor, pleaded no contest in 2014 and agreed to pay a total of $450,000 to the victims’ families.

The District Attorney’s Office also filed a civil lawsuit against Solus alleging it maintained an unsafe work environment.

Solus appealed on the grounds that the district attorney’s civil action was preempted by federal labor law, and the Fourth District Court of Appeal agreed.

But in a unanimous ruling, the State Supreme Court reversed that decision, stating that federal law does not pre-empt state claims based on workplace safety “when, as in California, there is a state plan approved by the federal secretary of labor.”

After the water heater was installed, supervisors allegedly decided not to use an industrial-grade boiler because it would have required a gas line and instead bought a $500 residential water heater from Lowe’s.

It was installed without a permit and used to melt plastic for the conveyor line, prosecutors said. Both victims were decapitated in the explosion.

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health determined that the accident was caused by lack of safety features and charged Solus with five violations of state occupational safety and health regulations. With Thursday’s ruling, the District Attorney’s Office can once again pursue the monetary penalties.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/02/08/supreme-court-sides-with-da-in-battle-over-civil-penalties-for-workplace-safety-violations/

Feb 02

Sparked by the Blaze Bernstein case, officials propose new legislation against hate crimes

SANTA ANA – Prompted by the investigation into the killing of college student Blaze Bernstein, officials on Friday proposed a new bill that would expand hate crime laws in murder cases to include gay victims.

Samuel Lincoln Woodward, 20, of Newport Beach has been charged with murder for allegedly stabbing Bernstein, 19, in a Lake Forest park last month. Authorities are investigating whether the case was a hate crime.

Woodward has told authorities he met with Bernstein that night to “catch up,” according to an affidavit, and that Bernstein kissed him on the lips while the two were sitting in a parked car and he pushed Bernstein away. He also told investigators that Bernstein later exited the car and walked alone into a park.

While the sentence for murder is 25 years to life, a person could face life without parole or the death penalty if prosecutors file special-circumstance allegations.

Under current law, the special-circumstance allegations for a hate crime include victims who were killed because of their “race, color, religion, nationality or country of origin” but it does not include sexual orientation.

California Senate Bill 971, authored by state Sen. Janet Nguyen, R-Fountain Valley, would expand special-circumstance allegations to include sexual orientation or gender.

In a news conference on Friday, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said the Bernstein case highlighted the law’s “glaring omission.”

Rackauckas, however, would not say specifically whether a hate crime was a factor in Bernstein’s killing and declined to discuss details of the case.

The bill would not impact the case, he added.

“As we strive to protect all members of society, it’s a glaring omission that sexual orientation is not a protected class of crime victims of special-circumstances murder in California,” he said. “Unfortunately, laws often need to be revised in light of tragic situations.”

Sex orientation is a factor for other hate crime charges under California’s Penal Code.

Woodward, who is being held without bail, is set to be arraigned in Orange County Superior Court Friday afternoon.

Authorities have said that Woodward allegedly stabbed Bernstein, a University of Pennsylvania sophomore home for winter break, while the two were alone on the night of Jan. 2. The teen’s body was discovered a week later in a shallow grave in Borrego Park in Foothill Ranch, a short distance from the Bernstein home.

According to a news report, Woodward allegedly had ties to a neo-Nazi group called Atomwaffen Divisionton, which bills itself as a neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic and anti-government organization with about 100 members nationwide.

Bernstein, who was Jewish, had attended the Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana with Woodward. Before his death, Bernstein had told a friend in text messages that he was interested in pursuing Woodward and that he believed Woodward was “closeted,” according to the affidavit obtained by the Southern California News Group.

Bernstein’s parents have said their son’s death might have been a hate crime.

“Our son was a beautiful, gentle soul who we loved more than anything,” they said last month. “We were proud of everything he did and who he was. He had nothing to hide.

“We are in solidarity with our son and the LGBTQ community,” the Bernsteins added. “There is still much discovery to be done, and if it is determined that this was a hate crime, we will cry not only for our son, but for LGBTQ people everywhere that live in fear or who have been victims.”

  • Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and California Senator Janet Nguyen announce new legislation that would add sexual orientation and gender to penal code 190.2 making it a special circumstance in Santa Ana on Friday, Feb 2, 2018. Rackauckas had a picture of Sam Woodward, the accused murderer of Blaze Bernstein at the announcement, but refused to acknowledge a connection.(Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and California Senator Janet Nguyen announce new legislation that would add sexual orientation and gender to penal code 190.2 making it a special circumstance in Santa Ana on Friday, Feb 2, 2018. Rackauckas had a picture of Sam Woodward, the accused murderer of Blaze Bernstein at the announcement, but refused to acknowledge a connection.(Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and California Senator Janet Nguyen announce new legislation that would add sexual orientation and gender to penal code 190.2 making it a special circumstance in Santa Ana on Friday, Feb 2, 2018. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and California Senator Janet Nguyen announce new legislation that would add sexual orientation and gender to penal code 190.2 making it a special circumstance in Santa Ana on Friday, Feb 2, 2018. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and California Senator Janet Nguyen announce new legislation that would add sexual orientation and gender to penal code 190.2 making it a special circumstance in Santa Ana on Friday, Feb 2, 2018. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and California Senator Janet Nguyen announce new legislation that would add sexual orientation and gender to penal code 190.2 making it a special circumstance in Santa Ana on Friday, Feb 2, 2018. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and California Senator Janet Nguyen announce new legislation that would add sexual orientation and gender to penal code 190.2 making it a special circumstance in Santa Ana on Friday, Feb 2, 2018. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and California Senator Janet Nguyen announce new legislation that would add sexual orientation and gender to penal code 190.2 making it a special circumstance in Santa Ana on Friday, Feb 2, 2018. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/02/02/officials-sparked-by-blaze-bernstein-case-propose-new-legislation-against-hate-crimes/

Jan 31

Man who allegedly set fire to homeless couple’s tent in Santa Ana is a ‘family man,’ lawyer says

SANTA ANA – A lawyer for a man accused of setting fire to a homeless couple’s tent this month said his client was concerned for the safety of his family and other children in the neighborhood.

James Anthony Lawlor, 35, is facing felony charges of attempted murder, arson and possession of flammable material for allegedly setting fire to a homeless couple’s tent set up in a vacant lot at Bristol and Tolliver streets. Prosecutors said that Lawlor, who lives in the neighborhood, confronted the homeless man outside of the tent at about 8:20 a.m. on Jan. 19 and kicked the victim in the face.

Lawlor drove off in his truck but later returned with a gasoline can and lit the tent on fire while both victims inside, prosecutors said, with the man sustaining minor burns in addition to injuries from being kicked. Santa Ana police arrested Lawlor six days later.

His defense lawyer, Mark Fredrick, said that Lawlor has no criminal history and was concerned for the safety of his 12-year-old daughter and other local children.

“He’s a family man, and this is something that is completely out of character,” he said.

On Wednesday, residents said they were concerned because neighborhood children were walking pass the couple’s tent on their way to King Elementary School, less than a block away.

Anna Gonzalez, 23, said she saw the homeless man in the alley one morning while walking her son to King.

“He was talking to himself,” she said. “It was a little scary.”

Santa Ana Police Cpl. Anthony Bertagna has said investigators were looking into the possibility that Lawlor was frustrated with transients in his neighborhood but added there is no excuse for his alleged crimes.

Lawlor is facing seven years to live in prison if convicted, according to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office. He was being held in lieu of $1 million bail and is scheduled to appear in court on Tuesday.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/01/31/man-who-allegedly-set-fire-to-homeless-couples-tent-in-santa-ana-is-a-family-man-lawyer-says/

Jan 31

Son of former ‘Real Housewives of Orange County’ star seeks to have attempted-murder charges dismissed

SANTA ANA – The son of a former “Real Housewives of Orange County” star is seeking to have a judge dismiss attempted-murder charges against him because police recorded his jailhouse phone calls while he was legally representing himself – a move that violated his constitutional rights, his lawyer said.

Joshua Waring, the troubled son of former reality TV personality Lauri Peterson, is facing three counts of attempted murder for allegedly shooting and wounding a man in Costa Mesa before leading police on a chase in June 2016.

Prosecutors said they filed the two additional attempted-murder charges because a man and a woman were standing nearby when Waring allegedly fired the gun.

Waring, 28, was set to face trial in Orange County Superior Court this week, but in a document filed on Monday he alleges his right to a fair trial was violated when law enforcement monitored and recorded his telephone calls from jail while he was acting as his own lawyer.

Tustin defense lawyer Joel Garson, who is now representing Waring, said a 41-page report shows that a Costa Mesa police investigator monitored and recorded Waring’s telephone calls in jail from at least June 2016 through February 2017.

Waring was “pro per,” meaning he was representing himself, during much of that period and calls pertaining to his defense strategy were recorded and turned over to prosecutors in the case, Garson said in court documents.

Garson said the report on the recordings, which the District Attorney’s Office gave him, was “somehow lost” until it surfaced on Friday, just days before the trial.

“Particularly egregious is the fact (that Waring) was being recorded on the days he was engaged in his pro per preliminary hearing, one that (the investigator in court) sat at counsel table as the case agent,” Garson wrote.

Garson on Tuesday said the recording is a serious violation and warrants a dismissal of all charges. A judge is set to consider the issue on Feb. 13.

“I don’t see any remedy other than dismissal,” Garson said.

A representative of Costa Mesa police referred comment to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.

Michelle Van Der Linden, a spokeswoman for the DA’s Office, said prosecutors are reviewing the facts and case law and “will respond accordingly at the next scheduled hearing.”

Before the most recent incidents, Waring, a San Juan Capistrano resident, had more than a dozen mostly drug-related misdemeanor and felony charges.

His mother was one of the original “Real Housewives of Orange County” but left the TV show after three seasons as her son battled drug and legal problems.

In November, he was charged with a felony for allegedly having an alcoholic beverage called “pruno” in jail, according to court records. In July, he was again charged with felony possession of an alcoholic beverage in jail, and also a misdemeanor for allegedly being under the influence of a stimulant.

He is now facing multiple felonies and misdemeanors for allegedly shooting a 35-year-old man in the lower torso on the 2900 block of Babb Street in Costa Mesa and then fleeing in a BMW. Prosecutors said he led police on a chase, at one point getting into a traffic accident, and then ran before surrendering in a Santa Ana store.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/01/30/son-of-former-real-housewives-of-orange-county-star-seeks-to-have-attempted-murder-charges-dismissed/

Jan 28

Red flag warning issued for much of Southern California as temperatures rise

The National Weather Service has issued a red flag fire weather warning for much of Southern California amid gusty winds and rising temperatures.

The warning was set to begin at 10 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 27 and continue through 3 p.m. Monday, Jan. 29 in the Santa Monica Mountains area, Los Angeles County mountains, Angeles National Forest and the Santa Clarita and San Fernando valleys.

It was set to run from 7 p.m. Saturday to 4 p.m. Monday for inland Orange County, and the valleys and mountains of San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego counties.

An alert posted Saturday by the National Weather Service
An alert posted Saturday by the National Weather Service

The warning comes as unseasonably warm temperatures and hot, dry winds pick up this weekend and continue into next week.

Coastal regions could see gusts up to 30 mph, while inland regions are expected to see gusts up to 50 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

Some areas could see record-breaking highs and temperatures up to 20 degrees warmer than average. Riverside was expected to see a high of 83 degrees on Sunday, while Anaheim could see a high of 87 degrees.

Woodland Hills could see a high of 89 – three degrees higher than the record set in 1984, while Long Beach could tie its record of 88 degrees set in 1976.

Authorities reminded residents to stay vigilant during the high-risk weather.

A high temperature chart posted by the National Weather Service on Saturday.
A high temperature chart posted by the National Weather Service on Saturday.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/01/27/red-flag-warning-issued-for-much-of-southern-california-as-temperatures-rise/

Jan 26

Former Jehovah’s Witness church elder in Cypress, and ex-Long Beach teacher, sentenced to 6 years in prison for molesting 13-year-old boy

A former Long Beach teacher and Jehovah’s Witness church elder was sentenced to six years in prison on Friday for sexually assaulting one of his students who also served in his congregation in Cypress, authorities said.

Jason Morris Gorski, 44, of Fort Mill, S.C. pleaded guilty in November to two counts of lewd acts with a minor under 14 for molesting a 13-year-old boy in Buena Park in 2007-2008, according to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.

Prior to the crimes, Gorski worked for about four years as a school teacher at the now-shuttered Southwestern Longview Private School in Long Beach, where the victim was one of his students, prosecutors said. Gorski at the time of the crimes was an active member of the Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall in Cypress, which the victim also attended.

Gorski moved in 2010 to South Carolina. Gorski was arrested in 2016.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/01/26/former-long-beach-teacher-and-jehovahs-witness-church-elder-sentenced-to-6-years-in-prison-for-molesting-13-year-old-boy/

Jan 26

Dennis Rodman charged with misdemeanor drunken driving in Newport Beach

Former NBA star Dennis Rodman was charged on Thursday with misdemeanor drunken driving stemming from a Jan. 13 traffic stop in Newport Beach.

Prosecutors allege his blood-alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit when he was pulled over at 11:11 p.m. near 4500 West Coast Highway.

His lawyer, Paul Meyer, said that after his arrest Rodman, 56, immediately went into a residential treatment program and committed to long-term outpatient treatment.

“He recognizes the problem and is working hard,” Meyer said in a statement. “No one questions his big heart and care for others. In recent months, he completed his community-service obligation (for a previous case) by donating many hours in long-term care facilities and making a real difference in people’s lives. I think the responsible way that Dennis is facing his current situation will be an inspiration to many others.”

This isn’t his first traffic-related incident in the county.

In February 2017, Rodman was sentenced to three years of probation for misdemeanor charges stemming from going the wrong way onto the I-5 freeway in Santa Ana and, authorities said, prompting a crash.

Rodman, known for his bright hair and outlandish behavior on and off the court, played for 14 years in the NBA for several teams, including the Detroit Pistons, the Chicago Bulls and the Lakers. He retired in 2000.

City News Service contributed to this report.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/01/25/dennis-rodman-charged-with-misdemeanor-drunken-driving-in-newport-beach/

Jan 26

Prosecutors agree to 3-year sentence, not life, after defendant claims illegal use of snitches

A man who faced a possible life term in prison if convicted of killing his grandmother, will get out immediately, after three years in jail, as part of a plea deal agreed to Thursday by Orange County prosecutors.

The deal marks at least the eighth high-profile murder or attempted murder case to result in a reduced sentence after allegations that local prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies misused jailhouse informants.

Michael Wesley Baker, 35, had long been suspected in the death of his grandmother, Sara Mowrey, who disappeared from her Laguna Niguel assisted living home in January 2009.

But as part of the deal struck Thursday Baker pleaded guilty to a single count of being an accessory after the fact, and a single count of solicitation to commit murder, according to court records. The original charge against Baker included murder with three counts of solicitation to commit murder. If convicted of those charges he faced more than 100 years to life in prison.

The plea was reached after Baker accused Orange County law enforcement of illegally using long-time jailhouse informants, Raymond “Puppet” Cuevas and Jose “Bouncer” Peredes, to threaten him while he was in custody. Baker, in court documents, also accused two sheriff’s deputies of threatening to kill his father if he did not confess to undercover officers.

Baker did not admit guilt Thursday but acknowledged that authorities had sufficient evidence to convict him. He will not have to serve probation or parole and was expected to be out of custody on time served by early (Friday), said his lawyer Jerry Steering.

“If there ever was a sweetheart deal offered to a criminal defendant in Orange County Superior Court, this is it,” Steering said. “(Baker) is a free man now.”

Prosecutors said Thursday that the plea had nothing to do with informants. Instead, they said, the case against Baker would be “challenging to prove.”

“We evaluated our position and decided in light of all the circumstances, this was the best outcome,” said Michelle Van Der Linden, spokeswoman for the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.

Van Der Linden pointed out that the victim’s body was never recovered and that the alleged crime took place nearly a decade ago, both factors that would make it tough to get a conviction.

“Since that time, we have re-evaluated some of the evidence gathered and determined we were likely to lose critical evidence… and if evidence were to be suppressed, we may not (have been) able to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.”

But the decision to drop the case against Baker — who had been investigated since 2009 and in jail for three years — also came less than a month after Steering filed paperwork detailing his client’s accusations against investigators.

According to court documents, Baker said he was forced to give incriminating statements in the Mowrey case while in custody on an unrelated crime, five years ago. Baker said Orange County Sheriff’s Deputies Benjamin Garcia and William Grover threatened to kill his father — William Warren Baker — who at the time was in prison for running a real-estate Ponzi scheme and cashing his mother’s Social Security checks after he had reported her missing.

Garcia and Grover are two of several local deputies caught up in the county’s informant scandal. Sheriff records show that for years deputies ran a network of jailhouse informants who coaxed evidence from accused criminals, and that prosecutors used that information to gain convictions — a practice decried in at least two court rulings.

Over the past two years both deputies have invoked their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination when called to testify in cases connected to informants.

Baker’s lawyer, Steering, said he believes prosecutors agreed to the deal as a way to hide details of their investigatory tactics.

“They get a cold case and, if they don’t have anything on anybody, they create their own facts,” Steering said.

Prosecutors disagree. Deputy District Attorney Troy Pino, writing in response to Steering’s motion, described Baker’s allegations as “outrageous” and “bizarre.”

“Defendant is clearly attempting to exploit this situation by hoping this court engages in improper speculation regarding these deputies’ (Fifth Amendment statements),” Pino wrote before agreeing to the plea deal struck Thursday.

Pino also told the court that he planned to use “voluntary statements that (Baker) made to undercover officers who posed as inmates before he was formally charged.”

Steering said the informants, Cuevas and Peredes, were paid up to $1,500 each, per day, for getting information from Baker. Court records in other cases show that Cuevas and Peredes — both former Mexican Mafia leaders — were paid more than $335,000 over a four-year window for work as informants throughout Southern California, though the documents do not detail amounts paid for specific cases.

In court documents Baker also claimed that an undercover officer masqueraded as an attorney to entrap him to commit a crime — an allegation also flatly denied by Pino.

Instead, Pino wrote in response to Baker’s allegation that an undercover officer pretended to be a legal assistant who offered to connect Baker with the services of a hit man, allegedly to help him cover up the murder of Mowrey. That ruse was not illegal, Pina argued, because “defendant does not have a right to seek the services of a hit man and a person acting as conduit to the services of a hit-man is not an attorney.”

At least one family member, related to both Mowrey and Baker, said Thursday that she was “devastated” by the deal that lets Baker go free.

“Nine years is a long time to live without knowing what happened to your mother,” said Leanne Loudin, Mowrey’s daughter and Baker’s aunt.

Loudin, who described Mowrey as a loving mother and a former Orange County court clerk, believes Baker killed Mowrey.

“There isn’t any justice for mother, and that’s the thing that really hurts.”

Mowrey was reported missing from her assisted living home on Jan. 13, 2009, leaving behind her hearing aid, walker, medication and purse. Baker was reportedly the last person to see her alive the previous night.

Investigators suspect that Baker killed her and disposed of her body in a nearby trash bin, but her body was never found. Officials said Baker also later tried to solicit undercover deputies to kill a person who had witnessed him trying to get rid of the body.

Baker was arrested and charged with murder in September, 2014.

Though Baker’s allegations against deputies were disputed by local prosecutors, it wasn’t the first time he’s accused investigators of lying. And, in a previous case, evidence backed his claim.

In 2009, eight months after Mowrey went missing, Baker was arrested on suspicion of burglary at a Laguna Niguel home. He told deputies he was in the area looking for a friend because he had run out of gas.

He was charged in part because deputies said they didn’t check to see if his car was operational. But footage taken by a dash-cam video player showed a deputy checking Baker’s car and learning it was, indeed, unable to start, as Baker claimed. Prosecutors eventually dropped the charge.

Staff writer Tony Saavedras contributed to this report. 

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/01/25/prosecutors-agree-to-3-year-sentence-not-life-after-defendant-claims-illegal-use-of-snitches/

Jan 25

Man convicted in fatal drive-by shooting on 91 freeway

SANTA ANA – An Orange County Superior Court jury on Wednesday convicted a 49-year-old Anaheim man of first-degree murder for fatally shooting a passenger in another vehicle on the 91 freeway in Anaheim in 2014.

In addition to murder, David Arzate Cabrera also was convicted of possession of drugs for sale and possession of a firearm by a felon. He faces life in prison without the possibility of parole when he returns to court for sentencing on March 23.

Prosecutors said mechanic Agustin Villegas, 32, was on the 91, heading home from work when Cabrera, driving a sedan, suddenly shot him in the head.

Villegas died at the scene. A cousin was driving while his 13-year-old son and his 15-year-old nephew were both sitting in the back seat.

Prosecutors said Villegas and Cabrera were strangers, but Cabrera, a cocaine dealer, had told police that he believed Cabrera had been following him that day and wanted to rob him.

At the time of his arrest, police searched Cabrera’s home in an Anaheim trailer park and found a Nissan in the driveway with a secret compartment in the center console. The compartment held $15,000 in cash, 15 grams of cocaine, and a Glock pistol with the same type of ammunition used in the shooting, authorities said.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/01/24/man-convicted-in-fatal-drive-by-shooting-on-91-freeway/

Jan 24

Former Tustin podiatrist charged with insurance fraud

A former Tustin podiatrist was charged with seven felony counts of insurance fraud for allegedly billing for several patients for medial services that were never performed, authorities said onTuesday.

Renae Louise Witt, 47, is awaiting extradition from Oregon to Orange County to face charges, according to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.

If convicted, she faces up to 16 years in prison, authorities said.

Prosecutors said Witt was a podiatrist practicing in Tustin, where she is accused of submitting fraudulent billing for services not rendered on six patients from 2015 to 2017.

Prosecutors said she billed Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Cross/Blue Shield a total of $174,395 for various medical services she never performed.

Witt moved to Oregon and was arrested after Anthem Blue Cross contacted the Orange County District Attorney’s Office to report potentially fraudulent billing.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/01/23/former-tustin-podiatrist-charged-with-insurance-fraud/

Jan 20

20,000 people show up for Women’s March in Santa Ana

An estimated 20,000 people are gathering in Santa Ana on Saturday, Jan. 20, marking the one-year anniversary of the Women’s March that saw millions of people across the nation fired up in protest after President Donald Trump’s inauguration.

Hundreds of marches are planned this weekend around the country and in other parts of the world.

This year’s march plays out against a backdrop of the #metoo and #timesup movements, and as a surge of women run for public office, from school board to the U.S. Senate.

Organizers say the marches will represent a wide range of issues, including immigrant, worker and disability rights, and the environment.

The demonstrations are underway hours after the federal government shut down, with President Trump and Congress unable to cut a deal.

  • Julia Moreno, left, and Gina Tiffany, center, take part in the OC Women’s March along with 20,000 others in Santa Ana on Saturday, Jan 20, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Julia Moreno, left, and Gina Tiffany, center, take part in the OC Women’s March along with 20,000 others in Santa Ana on Saturday, Jan 20, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Gina Tiffany, a volunteer with planned parenthood leads the OC Women’s March in Santa Ana on Saturday, Jan 20, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Gina Tiffany, a volunteer with planned parenthood leads the OC Women’s March in Santa Ana on Saturday, Jan 20, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Retired federal judge Lynne Riddle marches in the second annual OC Women’s March in Santa Ana on Saturday, Jan 20, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Retired federal judge Lynne Riddle marches in the second annual OC Women’s March in Santa Ana on Saturday, Jan 20, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Women lock hands in solidarity during the second annual OC Women’s March in Santa Ana on Saturday, Jan 20, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Women lock hands in solidarity during the second annual OC Women’s March in Santa Ana on Saturday, Jan 20, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Bella Briceno, 2, flexes her muscles during the second annual Women’s March in Santa Ana on Saturday, Jan 20, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Bella Briceno, 2, flexes her muscles during the second annual Women’s March in Santa Ana on Saturday, Jan 20, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • A woman in a downtown Santa Ana store window shows her support as 20,000 protesters take part in the OC Women’s March on Saturday, Jan 20, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    A woman in a downtown Santa Ana store window shows her support as 20,000 protesters take part in the OC Women’s March on Saturday, Jan 20, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • A woman burns incense before the Women’s March in Santa Ana on Saturday, Jan 20, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    A woman burns incense before the Women’s March in Santa Ana on Saturday, Jan 20, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • An estimated 20,000 marchers take to the streets ofSanta Ana on Saturday, Jan 20, 2018 during the second annual Women’s March. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    An estimated 20,000 marchers take to the streets ofSanta Ana on Saturday, Jan 20, 2018 during the second annual Women’s March. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Women’s Marcher’s, including men, women and children, hit the streets of Santa Ana during the second annual event on Saturday, Jan 20, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Women’s Marcher’s, including men, women and children, hit the streets of Santa Ana during the second annual event on Saturday, Jan 20, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Briana Walker takes a picture with her daughter Mabel, 3, during the Women’s March in Santa Ana on Saturday, Jan 20, 2018. Walker says she was in the hospital last year but promised to make it to this year’s event. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Briana Walker takes a picture with her daughter Mabel, 3, during the Women’s March in Santa Ana on Saturday, Jan 20, 2018. Walker says she was in the hospital last year but promised to make it to this year’s event. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Rose Blyth-Howard with her daughter Lillie, 6, listen to speakers at the Women’s March in Santa Ana on Saturday, Jan 20, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Rose Blyth-Howard with her daughter Lillie, 6, listen to speakers at the Women’s March in Santa Ana on Saturday, Jan 20, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • An estimated 20,000 people take part in the second annual Women’s March in Santa Ana. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    An estimated 20,000 people take part in the second annual Women’s March in Santa Ana. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • The mounted patrol keeps a watch on the Women’s March with an estimated 20,000 people in Santa Ana on Saturday, Jan 20, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    The mounted patrol keeps a watch on the Women’s March with an estimated 20,000 people in Santa Ana on Saturday, Jan 20, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • An estimated 20,000 people take part in the second annual Women’s March in Santa Ana. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    An estimated 20,000 people take part in the second annual Women’s March in Santa Ana. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • An estimated 20,000 people take part in the second annual Women’s March in Santa Ana. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    An estimated 20,000 people take part in the second annual Women’s March in Santa Ana. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • An estimated 20,000 sign-carrying marchers take part in the second annual Women’s March in Santa Ana. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    An estimated 20,000 sign-carrying marchers take part in the second annual Women’s March in Santa Ana. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • An estimated 20,000 sign-carrying participants walk in the second annual Women’s March in Santa Ana. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    An estimated 20,000 sign-carrying participants walk in the second annual Women’s March in Santa Ana. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Retired federal judge Lynne Riddle marches in the second annual OC Women’s March in Santa Ana on Saturday, Jan 20, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Retired federal judge Lynne Riddle marches in the second annual OC Women’s March in Santa Ana on Saturday, Jan 20, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

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Led by six Native American women dressed in traditional garb, a diverse crowd of marchers stepped off at the corner of Flower Street and Civic Center Drive in Santa Ana and snaked around the block before spilling onto Main Street.

Waving thousands of signs, the marchers cheered and danced to songs by Cyndi Lauper and Beyonce. They chanted: “When we fight we win!”

Attendees said they were there to support many social justice causes, including women’s rights, reproductive rights and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, known as DACA.

“I’m worried for the future of our country,” said Lorraine Gayer of Huntington Beach, as she held a sign with a picture of the Statue of Liberty that read: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled Norwegians.”

Holding a sign that read: “Now you’ve pissed off grandma,” Sonja Dominguez, 80, of Fountain Valley said she was inspired by her granddaughter to march.

“I just can’t bring myself to call that man president,” she said. “He’s not my president.”

Many marchers who attended last year’s the event said they were delighted to see as many, if not more, participants this time.

“It’s wonderful to see so many people who feel the same way we do – outraged,” said Carol Hajdu, from San Fernando Valley. “But as exciting as this is, we hope we don’t have to keep doing this for many years to come.”

Jon Trask, 57 of Orange, walked among a crowd of women Saturday morning, cane in hand. He was still recovering from multiple back surgeries, but said he felt if he was well enough to walk at the gym, he was well enough to join the march.

He said he was particularly motivated by the poor state of health care and foreign policy.

“I would never feel quite unrepresented the way I feel now,” Trask said. “You have to lend your weight to it, you have to at least show up. I’m not a sign maker, I’m not a big slogan person or anything – but I should be here.”

Some scenes from the march:

 

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/01/20/thousands-to-gather-for-womens-march-in-santa-ana/