Less Than a Year Since She Was Appointed Sheriff, Sandra Hutchens Has Made Some Powerful Enemies

‘I’m the Sheriff First and a Politician Second’
Less than a year since she was appointed OC’s top cop, Sandra Hutchens has already made some powerful enemies

I’m sitting in the lounge area of an oversized, second-story, executive office in Santa Ana, sipping freshly made coffee and chatting—civilly and on-the-record, no less—with the sheriff of Orange County. For years, I chased down all kinds of sordid stories about former sheriff Mike Carona, now a disgraced, convicted felon looking for work from a former Florida narcotics trafficker. It’s safe to say that Carona despises me for helping to expose his true face. If he could only see me now: sitting in his onetime off-limits inner sanctum, the spot where he liked to un-holster his, uh, passion with a county secretary and, while the reputation of his $800 million-per-year department crumbled, spent untold hours planning outings with amoral but generous businessmen eager to befriend a powerful, two-faced lawman.

But the sheriff who is four feet away from me isn’t Carona. She’s not even a man. She’s a smiling Sandra Sue Hutchens, the third female sheriff in California’s 158 years of existence.

John Gilhooley
Sheriff Sandra Hutchens plays in a park with her dog, Tucker
John Gilhooley
Sheriff Sandra Hutchens plays in a park with her dog, Tucker

Last June, Hutchens lobbied the county’s Board of Supervisors to appoint her over nearly 50 other applicants seeking to finish the two remaining years of Carona’s term. By promising major reforms at a department that had been internationally scarred by her predecessor’s copious scandals, the Dana Point resident got the job in a startling 3-2 vote, defeating the conventional-wisdom favorite, Santa Ana Police Chief Paul Walters. Her staff notes that one of her stated goals—rejecting Carona’s bunker mentality for increased transparency—is genuine and demonstrated by my very presence inside the headquarters of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD).

So there we are, in a once-sullied office, both quietly sizing each other up. Like mine, Hutchens’ eyes are still sleepy for our early-morning rendezvous. She’s polite and focused. Her tall, slim, 54-year-old frame is covered in a neat, black pantsuit. Her chin-length hair is styled in its usual, shampoo-commercial-ready bob.

We quickly find three things in common. We like to rise early, take hikes and cherish books. On this day, she’s excited because she’s awaiting delivery of a Kindle 2, on which she’ll download her favorites: crime mysteries, popular fiction (from the likes of John Grisham, Patricia Cornwell and Alice Sebold) and business-leadership tomes.

Not much is widely known about Hutchens the woman, not the cop. I discover a few of her personal likes: Letterman over Leno (“He’s funnier”); seafood (particularly crab legs or salmon) over steak; wine over beer (either red or white); hiking to couch crashing (“Walking with my husband gives me time to decompress”); baseball over football or basketball (she’s an Angels fan who wishes she could attend more games); the beach over mountains; talk radio over music while driving (NPR or KFI’s Bill Handel and John & Ken); classic rock and jazz over country (she favors the Beatles, Elton John, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and singers Diana Krall and Sarah McLachlan); uniform over plain clothes (“It’s important for the public to see the sheriff in uniform”); patience over confrontation (“Confrontation rarely results in anything long-lasting”); dogs over cats (her dog, Tucker, whom she rescued from a local shelter, is a 70-pound, 18-month-old golden doodle); George W. Bush (“He’s not a great speaker, but he always spoke from his heart”) and Ronald Reagan (“He was a uniter, and he said, ‘There’s no limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets credit’”).

I ask her to surprise me with a revelation about herself. She tells me two: As a teenager, her first job was as a clerk in a sandwich-and-ice-cream shop, and “I got robbed!” Second: “Well, my father was a construction worker and an alcoholic,” she says. “That’s one reason I left home at 17. I wouldn’t say he was physically abusive. It was verbal abuse, a tough environment to live in . . . So I didn’t come from the perfect background.”

Later in our conversation, she tells me that she agrees that journalists “have to hold us [cops] accountable,” a hollow phrase when uttered by Carona. She does have some criticism for local media, however. She explains that The Orange County Register too often mixes news reporting with “its political ideology.” She believes that by downplaying or ignoring her accomplishments, the paper hasn’t always given her a fair shake. When I push for details, she pauses, mentions that they refused to publish a letter from her (an accusation that, I later learned, was mistaken), laughs and says, “Look, like cops, there are some bad reporters.”

Admitting publicly that bad cops exist is sacrilege in certain gung-ho police circles. For example, Jo Ann Galisky, an assistant sheriff under Carona, tossed reality to the wind and told me she knew of no wrongdoing by any deputy during Carona’s nine-year reign. Federal agents at his corruption trial described the affliction best: that Carona and his loyalists routinely molded their version of truth from self-serving lies. Some of those lies were eventually exposed, resulting in unprecedented criminal convictions against Carona and two of his assistant sheriffs.

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