Who Shot the Sheriff?

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

The publicity didn't match the product, however. Sources say the device was rife with design flaws that helped discourage potential investors. It also didn't help that state legislatures had civil-liberty concerns about forcing people to place CHG chips in their vehicles' taillights. For example, what if crooks stole HALT devices from cops and began terrorizing drivers? By mid-2003, the company that Carona once said should win a state-mandated monopoly worth multimillions of dollars annually had crashed.

* * *

Charlie Gabbard doesn't hide animosity well. When he showed up to talk to DA investigator Welch that first time in November 2003, he was seething. He blamed Jaramillo for CHG's financial woes. (In following weeks, he'd admit that the ex-assistant sheriff was "lucky that I'm on oxygen [pumps], otherwise I would throw him out of the 11th floor window.")

During the course of the 45-minute interview, Gabbard slurred his words, answered questions that weren't asked and often couldn't finish his thoughts. But he was clearly on a mission: to badmouth Jaramillo and Hill. He hinted that they had tried to wrest control of CHG—possibly with the help of then-Laker Shaquille O'Neal.

"[O'Neal] left a message to call," said Gabbard. "So I went on, and I called him, and it was really him! And he had a LoJack on his car, and it was, was stolen, and he didn't get it back, so we had the GPS, and plus we had the HALT System. Well, the, uh, um, he came down, and Erica immediately took control. And I mean she had him eating out of her, um, hand, so to speak. And she flew off a couple of times to go different places. Shaq bought the tickets to go to Oregon and someplace else, and when I told her that's a no-no, I did it in a nice way."

Although he couldn't recall details, Gabbard said he felt forced to offer O'Neal 50 percent ownership in CHG. For unknown reasons, the proposal collapsed. By the time the interview was over, a rambling Gabbard claimed without an iota of proof that Jaramillo had illegally obtained a copy of the Haidl gang-rape video and was showing it to friends, had extorted him because of his criminal history, and had blocked a Sheriff's Department investigation into an alleged midnight theft of CHG property. He literally ran out of breath with accusations. Welch was forced to stop the tape recorder several times so Gabbard could compose himself.

None of his claims stuck. Ten months later, the DA's office ultimately found a highly technical statute, California Penal Code Section 424—the misappropriation of public funds—to charge Jaramillo for alleged conflicts of interest. Oddly, not once did investigators ask Gabbard the key question: Did he pay Jaramillo to conduct the demonstrations? The attempt to nail Hill, who has never been a public official, with misappropriating public funds seems an even larger stretch.

But in the end, Deputy DA James Laird is stuck with Gabbard as a star witness. Does that mean the case is in trouble? Here's Gabbard's explanation to the FBI on why he can't keep his stories straight: "Sometimes I can't even remember what the hell day it is."

rscottmoxley@ocweekly.com

Additional Carona-Jaramillo stories, see "Sheriff Con" and "Sheriff Con Part II."

[This article was published on Wednesday, April 13, 2005.]

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