Ex-Sheriff Mike Carona Used All the Weapons In His Arsenal to Trick a Jury. He Still Lost

Ex-Sheriff Mike Carona used all the weapons in his arsenal to trick a jury—including his knack for tearing up on demand—but still lost

“They [defense lawyers] said he got an award from the NAACP. The NAACP! I was impressed by that. I really was, you know.”
—Juror No. 1, Jerome Bell, 42 and an African-American who heard Mike Carona repeatedly use the phrase “nigger money” to describe $1,000 monthly payoffs on secretly recorded FBI tapes; he believed the indicted Orange County sheriff took bribes, lied and cheated, but voted not guilty on corruption charges

“What the lawyers say is not evidence.”
—Federal Judge Andrew Guilford’s regular admonition to the jury

A jubilant Carona laughs 
after a jury clears him of
five of six felony charges
Beth Stirnaman
A jubilant Carona laughs after a jury clears him of five of six felony charges
George Jaramillo and Carona pay off their $100 bet with Gabriel Nassar (center)
George Jaramillo and Carona pay off their $100 bet with Gabriel Nassar (center)

“There was the tragic kidnap and murder of Samantha Runnion, a young girl who was brutally murdered in Orange County. Larry King dubbed Mr. Carona as America’s Sheriff, but it is true that Sheriff Carona came into the national limelight because he basically told the kidnapper/murderer, ‘We’re coming after you,’ and he did.”
—Defense lawyer Brian Sun explaining in his opening statement why the indicted sheriff wasn’t guilty of corruption

“Samantha Runnion.”
—Bell’s two-word, post-verdict explanation why he admires the ex-sheriff; the 2002 murder case—solved by homicide detectives, not Carona—was irrelevant to the criminal charges

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On Jan 16, a jury in fervently pro-cop Orange County made modern-era Southern California legal history with, as far as I can determine, a shocking first: It convicted a law-enforcement officer of committing a job-related crime. Think about that for a moment. An Orange County jury convicted ex-Sheriff Mike Carona of witness tampering, a felony.

This is an extraordinary outcome given local residents’ resistance to holding officers accountable for illegal conduct. Recall two years ago, when a jury here refused to punish an Irvine cop who disabled the GPS unit in his patrol car, tailed a female motorist outside his jurisdiction late one night, pulled her over on a trumped-up traffic violation and masturbated in front of her until he ejaculated on her breasts.

Wearing a badge secures precious privileges for twisted souls. Which brings us back to Carona, who yet again used a little girl’s tragic kidnapping, rape and murder to advance his own interests, this time as an offensive trial tool. Never mind that the 2002 Samantha Runnion killing had nothing to do with the corruption charges Carona faced.

He wrapped his defense in his old olive-green uniform—the same one he soiled by draping it on a Russian prostitute in a Moscow hotel room. He summoned a sympathetic witness, Deputy Gary Horn, to assure jurors that Carona attended lots of “prayer breakfasts” and, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, is a dedicated husband and family man.

He shook his head angrily when Gabriel Nassar, a South County businessman, testified that the sheriff bet him 100 lousy bucks he couldn’t sell five real badges for $25,000 in campaign contributions—then, in perhaps the trial’s most spectacular moment, Nassar produced a photograph documenting the payoff. A magnificent actor, Carona even employed his best, most-hackneyed trick: He often wore a wounded look on his face during embarrassing testimony. When a deputy’s nine-year-old death was mentioned, he dramatically leaped from his chair, walked to a courtroom wall and cried—sobbed, really—in front of the jury.

But Carona saved his best theatrics for last. He shamelessly spun his historic felony conviction and pending prison sentence into a celebration that included high-fives, hugs and laughter. With members of his fan club literally tap dancing (no, really, I saw it myself) in the courthouse hallway and cheering as if someone had scored a touchdown, he called the outcome “a miracle.” He credited God for the verdicts—presumably only the not-guilty ones—and then offended the criminal-justice system by declaring himself “innocent,” a bald-faced lie some in the mainstream media dutifully regurgitated.

Let’s bring this back to reality. One minute, Carona was directing California’s second-largest police agency, enjoying a ridiculous $800 million annual budget, bossing around 4,000 employees, using veteran deputies as personal gofers, playing with elaborate spy equipment, wearing a chick-magnet uniform with four stars on the collar to pick up women, collecting almost $1,000 per day in pay and perks, and hobnobbing with White House power brokers. Unrefuted trial evidence showed he grew so treacherous he ordered a plane with a banner to fly low, annoying circles over the home of a personal enemy.

The next moment, the man who had harbored delusions of unseating U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer was arrested by FBI and IRS agents, became unemployed, and was forced to watch a two-month trial that annihilated his carefully manufactured image as a decent human being. He is now a cop-turned-convicted felon, prohibited from serving on government boards and barred from voting. He cannot possess a firearm or hold public office. He also now faces incarceration in a federal prison.

It’s not just Carona’s critics who acknowledge how far the ex-sheriff has fallen. During his closing argument, defense lawyer Jeffrey Rawitz, a skilled attorney (and former federal prosecutor) who charmed the jury with his wit, conceded that his client is a liar who committed acts that were “nothing to be proud of.” Included on that list, according to Rawitz, was the fact that the sheriff secretly took $5,100 from businessman Don Haidl. (Bank-deposit records prove Carona’s wife, Deborah, who faces an upcoming trial, deposited the money on two successive days.) Rawitz called it “an awkward transaction,” but then argued that Haidl—a used-car salesman whom Carona named assistant sheriff of Orange County and gave full police powers, including access to police databases, an office, a gun, a gold badge and a fully loaded cop sedan, despite his lack of law-enforcement training—got nothing in return.

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