Who Shot the Sheriff?

Star witness against ex-Assistant Sheriff Jaramillo is tanking, evidence reveals mischief by Sheriff Carona

Orange County doesn't usually supply Hollywood with fodder, but on Nov. 14, 2003, a wily, foul-mouthed 67-year-old Newport Beach businessman wearing an oxygen mask spilled secrets that startled a detective in the district attorney's office.

Punctuated by coughs and wheezing courtesy of a terminal illness, Charles H. Gabbard's story involved dirty cops, slick lobbyists, extortion, murder, state legislation, the unlawful dissemination of the Haidl gang-rape video, tainted contributions to Sheriff Mike Carona, a midnight theft tied to a proposed laser device for ending police pursuits and, I'm not making this up, Shaquille O'Neal.

Don't laugh. Detective Mike Welch and his boss, DA Tony Rackauckas, didn't dismiss Gabbard as a lunatic. His wild story—which until now had been confidential—sparked FBI interest and a 10-month DA investigation. As a result, Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo—the sheriff's closest adviser—became the highest ranking Orange County cop ever charged with corruption.

"This is a sad day for Orange County law enforcement and the people of Orange County," Rackauckas said last September at a press conference to announce the arrest of Jaramillo, who was charged with six felonies. "A person sworn to protect and serve the public has violated a sacred trust."

The DA quickly claimed there was "no evidence" of wrongdoing by Carona, Gabbard or anyone else. He then refused to field questions. "I think the evidence is how we've spelled it out, and I wouldn't want to go beyond that," said Rackauckas. "I don't think that would be appropriate."

An investigation that began like an unwieldy outline for a James Ellroy novel supposedly now boiled down to just two villains: Jaramillo and his sister-in-law, Erica Hill, who was charged as an accomplice, and a less-than-wild plot: petty greed.

It was fiction.

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Extensive law-enforcement interviews and documents obtained by the Weeklyprove that the case against Jaramillo and Hill is not only riddled with holes but also so weak that convictions are unlikely if the case goes to trial this fall. According to these records, investigators:

• disregarded blatant campaign fund-raising crimes involving contributions to Carona, who recently announced his 2006 re-election bid;

• uncovered evidence of an apparent quid pro quo in which the sheriff offered Gabbard county jail inmates as free labor;

• ignored the actions of several other local cops who had financial relationships with Gabbard;

• launched the case based on Gabbard, a onetime violent career criminal with deep personal animosity against Jaramillo and with no compunction about lying repeatedly during FBI and DA interviews;

• focused on Jaramillo, despite uncovering exonerating evidence, and explored at least five different legal theories for an arrest before settling on less serious conflict-of-interest and misappropriation-of-public-resources charges.

How did the DA's office get into this mess?

* * *

On March 14, 2000, Carona personally issued written orders for Jaramillo and 17 other members of his command staff to go to the old El Toro Marine Corps Air Station at 3 p.m. two days later. Working with Gabbard, the sheriff had arranged for his deputies to witness a 90-minute demonstration of Gabbard's HALT System, which was touted as using laser technology to safely end police pursuits. Gabbard wanted cops to support his product in hopes that his company, CHG Safety Technologies, could win a lucrative state monopoly for the device. The product seemed, at least initially, to work, and as far as the deputies—including Jaramillo—knew at the time, Gabbard was merely a wealthy local inventor infuriated by crooks who risked officers' lives during car chases.

The image wasn't quite accurate. Gabbard began his adult life on the righteous path. Between November 1957 and January 1959, he applied to become a policeman in Los Angeles, Palm Springs, Placentia and Santa Ana. Each department rejected him. The Missouri native then began a 22-year crime spree that landed him in several California prisons. Charges included armed robberies, violent escape from prison, vagrancy, attempted robbery, numerous parole violations, possession of dangerous drugs, embezzlement and murder.

This is Gabbard's 2003 explanation to the Orange County DA for the 1963 murder charge: "My crime partner got shot. We were a couple of drunks trying to rob a store. Uh, you know, just bullshit like that. . . . And, uh, in fact, uh, we were on our way up [to Santa Maria] to see my wife and kids. We were divorced, so I wanted somebody to be a witness so that she couldn't say I beat her or something. Well, we [he and his crime partner] were shitfaced anyhow, uh, but I wouldn't have known if I, I, I just, you know . . ."

In early 2000, Gabbard learned he had at least one thing in common with Carona: both used lobbyist/fund-raiser Bob Levy, a former U.S. marshal with impressive ties to law-enforcement political-action committees as well as liberal and conservative political machines throughout California. Gabbard and Carona quickly decided they could use each other. The sheriff, who'd won his powerful job a year earlier, wanted campaign contributions to help frighten off potential challengers in 2002. Gabbard already had Irvine P.D. officers Denny Jenner and Phil Povey plugging his device, but he believed Carona's Boy Scout image would add legitimacy to his plans to make millions of dollars selling the HALT System to police departments across the nation.

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