Brad Gates, Space Cowboy

The ex-sheriff's open-space dealmaking has some in San Juan Capistrano crying foul

San Juan Capistrano is a town with history, and if its residents ever forget it, there’s the yearly Swallows Festival to remind them.

At City Council meetings throughout festival season, members show up in wide-brimmed hats and bolo ties. The city attorney hikes up his jeans and buttons a plaid shirt up to his neck, and staffers field questions about water rates while in boots and rawhide vests. The Swallows Day Parade is a similar mashup of modernity and Wild West nostalgia. It prides itself on being “non-motorized,” so there are no floats. Instead, you get mariachis following marching bands and Rotary clubs in the same lineup as clans of hollerin,’ fake-gun-totin’ faux outlaws.

The day provides a chance to catch a glimpse of figures who have shaped the history of the 34,000-resident town. This past year, Bradley L. Gates, the former sheriff of Orange County, hoisted the Star-Spangled Banner from horseback down the parade route. He was leading the so-called “Portola Riders,” who mount up each year and head into the wilderness in homage to the Spanish explorers who first mapped what was to become Orange County. Elsewhere on Camino Capistrano was Anthony Moiso, the septuagenarian CEO of Rancho Mission Viejo—a firm known to many in South County as “the Ranch”—one of Orange County’s last remaining land barons and the host of the yearly Portola Ride.

Brad Gates rides in the 2010 Swallows Day Parade
John Gilhooley
Brad Gates rides in the 2010 Swallows Day Parade
Rancho Mission Viejo planned to turn the park into a retirement community, housing development and a community park before San Juan Capistrano bought it
Jonathan Ho
Rancho Mission Viejo planned to turn the park into a retirement community, housing development and a community park before San Juan Capistrano bought it

Once upon a time, Gates was the county’s most powerful politician and Moiso was his private-sector wingman. During the past year or so, though, they’ve played the role of two retired buddies, sitting on opposite sides of a negotiating table to help strike a deal for the citizens of San Juan Capistrano. Last summer, Gates and his colleagues emerged with an agreement, later approved by the council, for San Juan Capistrano to buy a well-loved riding park from Rancho Mission Viejo to preserve as open space. The deal was hailed as historic. Dozens of local equestrians showed up to council meetings to rave about the property. In the Capistrano Dispatch, Councilman Tom Hribar called the purchase one of “the most significant and positive events” to happen in the city since its 1961 incorporation.

But other figures from the town’s past sprang up to raise questions. Roy Byrnes, one of San Juan Capistrano’s early mayors, railed against the deal as “a fiasco” and a waste of money. Jim Reardon, a businessman had helped with the headline-grabbing overthrow of the Capistrano Unified School District’s leadership a few years earlier (see Daffodil J. Altan’s “Hard Knocks,” Oct. 4, 2007), said the city’s open-space-preservation efforts came out of a “corrupt process.” And David Swerdlin, another former mayor, wondered in the pages of the Dispatch whether the riding-park purchase had been “aboveboard.”

“Brad Gates is a fine, upstanding person; he did a great job as sheriff, and he is a great resident of San Juan Capistrano,” Swerdlin says. “But there’s a perception problem because his background has very close ties with Tony Moiso and the Ranch. I really doubt anything bad is going on. But you’ve got an unelected group doing the negotiating. It’s almost like a shadow government.”

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In some ways, Gates, 71, embodies a time nearly lost to the city—a time of ranches and farmhands, strong leaders and easy governing. Overlooking Interstate 5 is a mission-style office building that evokes that era. In the lobby of the Gates Professional Building, built by the lifelong San Juan Capistrano resident and his son Scott a few years ago, furniture from Gates’ childhood home sits as if part of a museum exhibit. In its windows, stained glass depicts the Boy Scout hut that was once the center of civic life in San Juan Capistrano.

The second floor of the building is home to Powermark, a marketing firm run by Colleen Edwards—a smiley, friendly volunteer publicist for and member of San Juan Capistrano’s Open Space Committee. Sitting with Edwards in Powermark’s conference room in December, Gates spoke fondly to the Weekly about the way business was run in San Juan Capistrano when he was a kid in the 1940s. “If there were problems that needed to be worked on by talking to the county, then someone would be elected to go up and get the road fixed or whatever it was,” Gates remembers, his voice that of a perennial mumbler who learned long ago how to enunciate. “So, you got pretty good consensus. When there was an issue, it was either 600 for it, or 575 for it and 25 against it or something. It was a pretty nice way to do government.”

From 1974 until 1999 (when a telegenic bailiff named Mike Carona took the reins), the lanky, redhaired Gates was Orange County’s top cop. With a portrait of John Wayne hanging in his office, he had a reputation for firm, laconic leadership.

“The aura of the Wild West clings to Gates like prairie dust to a cowpoke,” wrote The Orange County Register in 1999, after Gates retired from office. “That sound you hear is spurs jingling and a heart breaking.”

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