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.

And yet in the face of such revelations and the conviction, an outwardly euphoric Carona would have you believe that he’d won.

“I absolutely feel vindicated,” said Carona, who was captured on secret FBI recordings unambiguously wondering aloud if anyone had photocopied the serial numbers on the $100 bills stuffed in envelopes for him. “Beyond vindicated . . . I never gave up the belief that I was innocent.”

The jury unanimously ruled that Carona attempted to sabotage a federal grand-jury probe investigating bribery at the sheriff’s department, a serious felony especially when committed by a sitting sheriff. On five other counts, including conspiracy and mail fraud, the panel acquitted him. This outcome begs the question: If Carona wasn’t guilty of the core criminal counts, why would he have repeatedly attempted to coach a potential witness to lie to the grand jury about those activities?

In post-verdict interviews, some jurors seemed rattled—even angered—by the question. For example, the foreman, a soft-spoken man, answered it this way: “Well, it’s just a complex case.” Pressed, he said, “It’s been very emotional. Some of us haven’t been able to sleep at night.”

Jerome Bell, the lone African-American on the panel, neatly summed up the opinions of numerous jurors. “Carona’s an arrogant guy,” he said. “He took advantage of his power. . . . Do I think he took the $1,000 [monthly bribes]? Yeah, at some point.”

Later, Bell explained that Carona definitely had his “hand in the cookie jar” but had been clever enough to cover his tracks.

So, if the sheriff took bribes, why all the not-guilty verdicts?

“It goes back to the jury instructions,” said Bell.

Whatever. Jurors’ excuses never made any sense.

Frank Mickadeit, the Orange County Register columnist Carona used to announce his 2006 re-election, began the trial more skeptical of the government’s charges than anyone in the media. He flipped. After seeing all the evidence, Mickadeit concluded our ex-top cop was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Reg columnist also got the best juror quote. Marcia Deatherage of San Juan Capistrano told Mickadeit, “It was a terrible verdict to have to bring to the citizens of Orange County because [Carona] was guilty.”

Such statements outraged John and Ken, KFI-AM 640 radio’s afternoon current-affairs talk-show duo. They pronounced jurors “morons” and asked, “How the hell did the jury find Carona not guilty on five of six charges when they had the tapes of him covering up all the things he did? Are they insane?”

Nope, the answer is worse.

*     *     *

It was in early November, day eight of Carona’s corruption trial, and Haidl, the key prosecution witness and the ex-sheriff’s longtime confidant, sat on the stand describing why Carona ignored George Jaramillo’s lack of law-enforcement qualifications to make him the No. 2-ranking man at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department after the three men stole the 1998 election.

“George was the front guy,” Haidl—the man who illegally contributed more than $150,000 to Carona’s first campaign—said slowly in a raspy voice shaped by years of alcohol and cigarettes. “George was the buffer. He was the bagman. He was the one that was supposed to insulate Carona from the world. He was supposed to be the bad guy, and Carona was supposed to be the good guy. That was always the plan.”

While Haidl testified under direct examination by Assistant United States Attorney Brett Sagel, I was disgusted— but not by Haidl, whom I’d met during his son’s nationally infamous gang-rape trial. From my back-row perch—the makeshift spot for reporters inside Judge Andrew Guilford’s 10th floor Santa Ana courtroom, I had direct sight of the faces of each member of the jury. One, juror No. 8, an elderly white male I’d already nicknamed “Sam Drucker” because of his resemblance to the befuddled, grandfatherly character on the 1960s television series Green Acres, was asleep.

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