By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Ex-Orange County assistant sheriff George Jaramillo pleaded no contest Monday to two felonies and agreed to a year in jail. Here is a story from our archives about how Sheriff Mike Carona and his top deputy planned a dynasty
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When Sheriff Carona invited Jaramillo to dinner at Santa Ana's Antonello Ristorante in August 2003, he had a painful secret to share. The men were self-described "brothers," "close" confidantes and "partners" since their underdog campaign won the sheriff's department in 1999. Their success bred a daring plan: Carona would serve as sheriff for the first half of a 16-year dynasty while grooming Jaramillo as his successor.
Despite a few early missteps, the Carona-Jaramillo team quickly grew in strength. They learned how to control the 4,000-employee agency, woo or intimidate political rivals and silence internal critics. Deputies appreciated their modernization efforts.
But the bulk of Carona's cop career involved courthouse security while serving as county marshal. Jaramillo had been a midlevel Garden Grove PD officer, known more for working public relations than solving crimes. Nevertheless, persistent media manipulation allowed the pair to build missing credentials as super cops.
The results were staggering. CNN's Larry King called Carona "America's sheriff" in 2002 during the Samantha Runnion case. Pundits pegged him as a future congressman or U.S. senator. California's last two governors—a Democrat and a Republican—brought him into their inner circles. Arnold Schwarzenegger wanted Carona as his lieutenant governor. President Bush appointed him a top adviser on national security issues.
Jaramillo was no slouch either. In the span of a few short years, the onetime door-to-door salesman had parlayed a job at the Garden Grove Police Department and a night-school law degree into serving as second in command at the powerful sheriff's department. His office calendars show a man unafraid of long days and complex issues. Under Carona, he'd developed a national reputation as a rising Latino star. A July 2003 anti-terrorism speech he delivered to a congressional homeland security committee further burnished his image. The accomplishments didn't escape notice inside the Bush White House, where articulate minority Republicans are prized.
Jaramillo and Carona: G-rated Kodak moment
To the outside world, Carona and Jaramillo looked unstoppable; an OC dynasty was not only possible but a cinch, given their newfound celebrity status. Even Hollywood executives called, interested in featuring their department in a weekly network reality TV series.
But the PR glory masked an ugly reality. The partnership had collapsed amid childish power plays, backstabbing, insubordination and ethical messes. Carona cared for his top deputy, cherished his contributions and respected his talents, but he no longer trusted him.
Complaints about Jaramillo had stockpiled. He allegedly promoted personal allies in the department, punished perceived enemies and constantly interfered with reserve units, where often wealthy or politically connected individuals get an official badge. He unsuccessfully pressured DA Rackauckas to go easy on three gang-rape defendants because one was the teenage son of Assistant Sheriff Haidl. In August 2002, an uninvited Jaramillo was threatened with arrest if he didn't leave a VIP area during a Santa Ana visit by President Bush. Detectives trying to solve major crimes claimed Jaramillo would call them to his office and make them wait extended periods of time while he chatted with others about inconsequential business.
"He was all about flexing his muscle," said one veteran deputy. "The guy was a major-league asshole."
It took several years, but Carona eventually understood the frustration. In February 2003, the sheriff made his first visit to the Long Beach airport for a Jet Blue flight. The clerk at the counter welcomed him back. Carona thanked her but said he'd never been to that airport or flown Jet Blue. The clerk then recalled a trip two months earlier when a man who said he was the Orange County sheriff had delayed a flight to Washington, D.C. Later, a shocked Carona learned the whole story: a vacation-bound Jaramillo had not only used his authority to interfere with a flight, but he'd also used the department's helicopter to visit his ill mother at Mission Hospital before flying to the airport. There, Jaramillo discovered he'd left his wallet and wife's purse inside his car parked at the hospital, ordered a deputy to retrieve the items, and commanded the sheriff's helicopter to rendezvous with the deputy's car. The department's helicopter landed off the 241 toll road and rushed the wallet and purse to Jaramillo and his wife at the Long Beach airport.
According to Jaramillo, he didn't order the deputies to fly the helicopter anywhere. He says they took it upon themselves to serve him. Disclosure of "this blown out of proportion" incident proves his enemies were determined to destroy him, he insists.
However Carona believed the assistant sheriff was his own worst enemy. At the August 2003 Antonello's dinner, Carona dropped his bombshell on Jaramillo: You don't have the temperament to lead Orange County's law enforcement. You will not get my endorsement for sheriff in the 2006 race.
The revelation stunned Jaramillo. Tears formed in his eyes. Had Carona's remark been off-the-cuff due to an exhausting workload, the late hour or too many martinis? Or perhaps the sheriff was joking, Jaramillo hoped. Hadn't they promised each other a Carona-Jaramillo dynasty? Wasn't this the height of betrayal?
Jaramillo agrees there was talk of no endorsement at the dinner and that emotions ran high. But he says it was the sheriff who was teary-eyed. Carona had begged him to remain at his side if he ran for lieutenant governor, according to Jaramillo.