The Tank Workers

As scandal engulfs the Sheriffs Department, Carona fires his high-profile assistant

Less than two weeks after OC Weekly revealed Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo's role in a possible kickback scheme, he was fired from his $135,000-per-year post and the FBI raided his office.

It was an ugly fall for the cocky 43-year-old who'd risen from an undistinguished career in the Garden Grove Police Department and parlayed a friendship with then-newly elected Sheriff Mike Carona into a plum political appointment: second in command at the $500 million-per-year agency.

A high-level Sheriff's Department source said Jaramillo was so shocked by his March 17 dismissal that he refuses to turn in his badge.

Jaramillo has more important problems. He faces Sheriff's Department, grand jury and FBI investigations into abuse of power and conflict-of-interest allegations.

Investigators are trying to determine if the former assistant sheriff participated in a bail bonds kickback scheme inside the county jail. They say powerful inmates called "tank workers" were paid several hundred dollars each time they forced a newly incarcerated inmate to hire a certain lawyer or bail bonds agency.

No one has been charged with any crime, but the probe is focusing on the relationship between Jaramillo, Creative Bail Bonds Inc. and local defense attorney Joseph G. Cavallo. A longtime friend of Jaramillo's, Cavallo is a business partner of Assistant Sheriff Don Haidl, who has made a fortune selling used government vehicles. Cavallo also represents Haidl's 18-year-old son, Gregory Scott Haidl, in an ongoing gang rape case.

"This whole county is going to be turned upside-down when the truth comes out," said Glenda Stroobant, who says her bail bonds agency has lost 60 percent of its business because of "racketeering." Stroobant says she has formally complained about jailhouse bail bonds corruption for six years. "I think the FBI investigation is wonderful. Enough is enough."

Detectives are also looking at Jaramillo's ties to CHG Safety Technologies, a Newport Beach corporation seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in government contracts for a laser device created to aid police attempts to end vehicle pursuits. Law-enforcement sources tell the Weekly that the former assistant sheriff—who has admitted accepting up to $10,000 from CHG—worked for the company while wearing his sheriff's uniform and on county time. The investigation includes a review of out-of-state banking transactions.

State laws and county ethics regulations prohibit public employees from using their offices for personal financial gain. But in media interviews, Jaramillo has insisted he broke no law, is the victim of a "witch-hunt" and will be exonerated at the end of the investigations.

Although he was an "at will" political staffer for Carona, the former assistant sheriff has threatened to file a lawsuit over the firing and, to the amusement of numerous law-enforcement officials, claims he is contemplating a future campaign for sheriff. Last week, he hired Cavallo law partner Peter Scalisi, who is also representing Gregory Haidl in the rape case. Neither Jaramillo nor Scalisi could be reached for comment.

Only eight months ago, Jaramillo basked in the national spotlight. He testified in Washington, D.C., about anti-terrorism efforts before Representative Christopher Cox's U.S. House Select Committee on Homeland Security. CNN's Connie Chung interviewed him about the investigation into the rape and murder of Stanton's five-year-old Samantha Runnion. Southern California newspapers as well as radio and television stations portrayed him as an aggressive crime fighter.

But last summer, fellow cops began to complain privately about Jaramillo. Newport Beach Police accused him of interfering on behalf of Gregory Haidl in their probe of an alleged 2002 gang rape in Assistant Sheriff Haidl's Corona del Mar home. The Orange County Register reported that he used a $720-per-hour Sheriff's Department helicopter for personal convenience. In October, a department telephone recorded Jaramillo and another deputy plotting to hide from the public a San Clemente drug bust involving Gregory Haidl. (Out of jail on bail at the time, Haidl was not cited even though officers found marijuana next to his wallet and keys.)

The first public glimpse of Jaramillo's mounting trouble was in late October, when KCBS/KCAL reporter Dave Lopez caught him emerging from the grand jury room where he'd taken the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer questions.

During the early days of the turmoil, Jaramillo remained unfazed. He joked happily about his invincibility and even taunted Lopez. He told people he had a "brotherly" bond with Carona. In a December interview with the Weekly, he left no doubt that he saw a conspiracy forming against him, but he believed that his fate was tied so closely to the generally popular sheriff that it wouldn't succeed. He took a vacation in Hawaii and spent hours upon hours trying to identify his enemies in law enforcement. He openly wondered if District Attorney Tony Rackauckas was carrying out an unspecified personal vendetta against him.

To the end, the assistant sheriff seemed unable to see that the man who wanted him out most was his boss: Sheriff Carona.

When Jaramillo arrived at the sheriff's Santa Ana offices on March 17, he was clueless that a four-and-a-half-month behind-the-scenes process was about to explode in his face. Carona had been dissatisfied with Jaramillo's role in the department since November; for legal reasons, he waited to make his move until after he'd received permission from officials in the county's human-resources department, high-level sources say.

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