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?

Disappointed federal prosecutor 
Ken Julian
Beth Stirnaman
Disappointed federal prosecutor Ken Julian
Carona to the media: "I love you guys!"
Beth Stirnaman
Carona to the media: "I love you guys!"

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.

“Carona would complain to me numerous times that George was going off the reservation or outside the circle, getting money and not bringing it back,” continued Haidl. Carona, Haidl and Jaramillo called themselves “Team Forever” and “brothers for life” after they assumed control of the sheriff’s department in January 1999. (Jaramillo, who has already served time for state crimes, has admitted to scheming with Carona and Haidl to corrupt the agency; his federal sentencing is scheduled for later this year.)

Everything Haidl said was lost on “Drucker.” His eyes were shut and his head had fallen back, resting on the courtroom wall. His chin pointed to the ceiling. I nudged Eric Leonard, a KFI radio reporter, who looked at the juror, shook his head and uttered, “Amazing.”

Later, Haidl testified that Carona systematically used real sheriff’s badges as carrots to lure campaign contributions. For example, though Broadcom Inc. billionaire Henry Samueli had no law-enforcement experience or training, he got a badge because, according to Haidl, “Carona said he’s a real wealthy guy worth a lot of money.”

Juror No. 8’s eyes fluttered momentarily, and then re-closed. Haidl’s words, priceless to the government, almost interrupted a perfectly good midmorning nap. Almost.

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