Don Haidl--a wealthy car auction owner and corrupt Orange County assistant sheriff--loved to drink booze, chain smoke cigarettes, hurl nasty cuss words, surround himself with obedient thugs and wear the expression of a gruff codger.
But Haidl, who reportedly died from natural causes late Tuesday night at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach at the age of 61, also played the piano, enjoyed fine tastes in autos and couldn't block tears when he tenderly thought of one of his sons, Gregory, who infamously put the family name in one of the region's most disgusting sex crimes in 2002.
That stark dichotomy is present even in Haidl's most lasting public contribution. Though he had no law enforcement training in 1998, he used stacks of cash, expensive gifts and huge, illegal campaign contributions to convince soon-to-be sheriff Mike Carona to give him a real badge, lofty title over 2,000 real deputies and full police powers within California.
In short, Haidl funded Carona's corrupt rise, reveled in all its sick glory and then brought down the dirty sheriff who was so cocky that he partied in public with Las Vegas organized crime associates and, despite that shocking fact, won a President George W. Bush appointment to a National Security board following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
"Don Haidl's willingness to cooperate with the federal case, after pleading guilty, is the primary reason Mike Carona is no longer the sheriff and is a convicted felon in federal prison today," Assistant United States Attorney Brett Sagel told reporters this afternoon.
It is true that Haidl wore a secret wire to record Carona talking about burying evidence of their crimes and then became a witness for the government against his old pal. The testimony was so damning of the sheriff, in large part, because Haidl's witness stand descriptions of the corruption--personal and professional--repeatedly included evidence of his own warped nature. Money and power and ruthlessly manipulating both to reward friends and punish personal enemies was at the heart of the Carona--George Jaramillo--Haidl operation that guided California's second largest sheriff's department for more than half a decade.
Money, influence and dastardly tactics almost allowed Haidl to rob justice from Jane Doe, the unconscious 16-year-old girl who was gang raped in his Corona del Mar house.
Thankfully, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas didn't cave to the threats. After a second grueling trial in the case, his office won convictions, and six-year prison sentences for the younger Haidl and his two cohorts who videotaped themselves sexually assaulting Doe and shoving a pool cue, lit cigarette, apple juice can and Snapple bottle into her vagina and rectum. Old man Haidl actually paid at least $1.5 million for a laughable defense that accused the victim of raping the three males to launch a porn career.
You won't be surprised that Haidl's lethal courtroom assassination of Carona's character wasn't voluntary. Federal agents caught him trying to illegally write off his son's legal bills on his income taxes and convinced him that the only way to reduce or eliminate his punishment was to cooperate in their probe of the sheriff. He took the deal to avoid spending a day in prison.
On the day I met Haidl in November 2003 the corrupt trio was at the height of its power at the sheriff's department and he wanted me to know the contempt he had for investigative journalists. He spotted me outside Orange County's Central Courthouse in Santa Ana and called my name. I looked back and saw him lighting a cigarette, taking a long inhale, blowing out the smoke, making his hand into a gun and pointing it at me.
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With a gravelly voice, he said without a smile, "Nice to meet you, buddy."
Then, he dramatically fired his imaginary gun at my face.
He didn't know it at the time, but that blast backfired.