For some of the drunk drivers, speeders and red-light runners of Orange County, the most powerful person to know wasn’t a judge, a prosecutor or a defense attorney. It was a low-level paper pusher who rarely saw the inside of a courtroom, authorities say.
In 2010, word began spreading quietly through the seamier corners of the O.C’s vibrant car enthusiast scene that there was someone working inside the county courts who, for a price, could make a criminal charge or ticket disappear.
Over the five years or so that followed, Juan Lopez Jr. forged electronic records to close out more than 1,000 cases in ways that were favorable to the accused, according to a federal indictment unsealed Wednesday.
Lopez, prosecutors allege, took advantage of his unchecked access to the court computer system to fabricate electronic trails of justice that was never delivered. With a few easy keystrokes, he made it seem that people had served jail time, had charges dismissed or paid fines when they had not, the indictment alleged.
The 36-year-old Anaheim resident was the ringleader of a brazen bribery scheme that involved 11 other men who served as middlemen collecting and delivering payoffs to Lopez, according to the 38-count racketeering indictment a grand jury handed up against the group.
“This is the most widespread scandal to hit Orange County’s legal system since the sheriff got sent to prison,” said Virginia Landry, a respected Orange County defense attorney, referring to the 2009 sentence for former Sheriff Michael S. Carona in a corruption case. “That is a huge number of cases. It went on for such a long time under the noses of people working in the court.”