Ex-Sheriff Mike Carona used all the weapons in his arsenal to trick a jury—including his knack for tearing up on demand—but still lost
“They [defense lawyers] said he got an award from the NAACP. The NAACP! I was impressed by that. I really was, you know.”
—Juror No. 1, Jerome Bell, 42 and an African-American who heard Mike Carona repeatedly use the phrase “nigger money” to describe $1,000 monthly payoffs on secretly recorded FBI tapes; he believed the indicted Orange County sheriff took bribes, lied and cheated, but voted not guilty on corruption charges
“What the lawyers say is not evidence.”
—Federal Judge Andrew Guilford’s regular admonition to the jury
“There was the tragic kidnap and murder of Samantha Runnion, a young girl who was brutally murdered in Orange County. Larry King dubbed Mr. Carona as America’s Sheriff, but it is true that Sheriff Carona came into the national limelight because he basically told the kidnapper/murderer, ‘We’re coming after you,’ and he did.”
—Defense lawyer Brian Sun explaining in his opening statement why the indicted sheriff wasn’t guilty of corruption
—Bell’s two-word, post-verdict explanation why he admires the ex-sheriff; the 2002 murder case—solved by homicide detectives, not Carona—was irrelevant to the criminal charges
* * *
On Jan 16, a jury in fervently pro-cop Orange County made modern-era Southern California legal history with, as far as I can determine, a shocking first: It convicted a law-enforcement officer of committing a job-related crime. Think about that for a moment. An Orange County jury convicted ex-Sheriff Mike Carona of witness tampering, a felony.
This is an extraordinary outcome given local residents’ resistance to holding officers accountable for illegal conduct. Recall two years ago, when a jury here refused to punish an Irvine cop who disabled the GPS unit in his patrol car, tailed a female motorist outside his jurisdiction late one night, pulled her over on a trumped-up traffic violation and masturbated in front of her until he ejaculated on her breasts.
Wearing a badge secures precious privileges for twisted souls. Which brings us back to Carona, who yet again used a little girl’s tragic kidnapping, rape and murder to advance his own interests, this time as an offensive trial tool. Never mind that the 2002 Samantha Runnion killing had nothing to do with the corruption charges Carona faced.
He wrapped his defense in his old olive-green uniform—the same one he soiled by draping it on a Russian prostitute in a Moscow hotel room. He summoned a sympathetic witness, Deputy Gary Horn, to assure jurors that Carona attended lots of “prayer breakfasts” and, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, is a dedicated husband and family man.
He shook his head angrily when Gabriel Nassar, a South County businessman, testified that the sheriff bet him 100 lousy bucks he couldn’t sell five real badges for $25,000 in campaign contributions—then, in perhaps the trial’s most spectacular moment, Nassar produced a photograph documenting the payoff. A magnificent actor, Carona even employed his best, most-hackneyed trick: He often wore a wounded look on his face during embarrassing testimony. When a deputy’s nine-year-old death was mentioned, he dramatically leaped from his chair, walked to a courtroom wall and cried—sobbed, really—in front of the jury.
But Carona saved his best theatrics for last. He shamelessly spun his historic felony conviction and pending prison sentence into a celebration that included high-fives, hugs and laughter. With members of his fan club literally tap dancing (no, really, I saw it myself) in the courthouse hallway and cheering as if someone had scored a touchdown, he called the outcome “a miracle.” He credited God for the verdicts—presumably only the not-guilty ones—and then offended the criminal-justice system by declaring himself “innocent,” a bald-faced lie some in the mainstream media dutifully regurgitated.
Let’s bring this back to reality. One minute, Carona was directing California’s second-largest police agency, enjoying a ridiculous $800 million annual budget, bossing around 4,000 employees, using veteran deputies as personal gofers, playing with elaborate spy equipment, wearing a chick-magnet uniform with four stars on the collar to pick up women, collecting almost $1,000 per day in pay and perks, and hobnobbing with White House power brokers. Unrefuted trial evidence showed he grew so treacherous he ordered a plane with a banner to fly low, annoying circles over the home of a personal enemy.
The next moment, the man who had harbored delusions of unseating U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer was arrested by FBI and IRS agents, became unemployed, and was forced to watch a two-month trial that annihilated his carefully manufactured image as a decent human being. He is now a cop-turned-convicted felon, prohibited from serving on government boards and barred from voting. He cannot possess a firearm or hold public office. He also now faces incarceration in a federal prison.
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.
“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.
Sagel asked Haidl why Carona gave a concealed-weapon permit to an Orange County businessman tied, in FBI wiretaps, to an international narcotics-smuggling ring. Haidl recalled, “He said, ‘I’m the sheriff. I can do whatever I want.’”
Prior to his arrest in 2007, Carona had unwittingly spoken into a recording device worn by Haidl, who’d quietly agreed to cooperate with federal agents in exchange for a lenient sentence in a tax-fraud matter. On the tape, the then-sheriff worried that it would be “problematic” if federal prosecutors Sagel and Ken Julian learned of his ties to the businessman.
But “Drucker” wouldn’t be able to link that portion of Haidl’s testimony to Carona’s admission, either. He was sleeping again. This time, his mouth was wide open. His head eventually flopped to the left—a little farther, and his ear would have rested on his shoulder.
I looked across the courtroom at Carona. His head swiveled from Haidl to Juror No. 8, who was now leaning at a 45-degree angle toward the lap of the juror to his left, Deatherage, the lone woman. She shot her colleague a horrified expression and loudly rocked her chair. The sudden, squeaky noise drove open the juror’s heavy eyelids. Clearly startled, he gulped and gazed around the courtroom, attempting to adjust to the light. He had just missed 17 consecutive minutes of testimony.
This travesty didn’t offend everyone. Across the room, Carona cracked a smile, perhaps recalling assurances by Rawitz that “we really like this jury.”
The payoff arrived. In the biggest law-enforcement-corruption case in OC history, “Drucker,” a man who didn’t bother to pay attention or take a single note, quickly established during deliberations that he was a solid vote for Carona, and according to multiple sources, he didn’t see much need to debate his stance. One juror later described him to me as “stubborn” and “obstructive.”
* * *
After the verdicts had left some trial observers flabbergasted (a few tearfully angry), “Drucker” and a band of other old-white-male jurors, the ones who pushed the panel to go soft on Carona, huddle together in the courthouse lobby making small talk. Outside, dozens of reporters and seven Los Angeles-based television station cameras await their explanations for going easy on Carona, who year after year failed to publicly disclose expensive gifts such as private jet rides, free hotel rooms, dinners, booze, a boat, custom-made suits, thousands of dollars in casino gambling chips and $5,000 monthly payments to one of his mistresses, funds used to conduct their affair.
But the jurors have no intention of talking. Their guard, a humorless employee of the U.S. Marshal’s service, stands nearby. I inquire, “Why don’t you guys want to answer questions?”
“Drucker,” a chain smoker visibly craving a cigarette, and several other jurors turn, look at me and frown. A tall one with thick black eyebrows, his identity shielded by court order, shrugs his shoulders, and then turns away.
Moments later, while Carona declares victory, these men, who’d refused to take a firm stand against the corruption of the most powerful office in Orange County, silently disappear into a community that’s in awe of its celebrities, even the ones who are dirty cops.
* * *
The verdicts aren’t two hours old. I’m driving north on Interstate 405 to KOCE-TV’s headquarters to discuss the trial on Rick Reiff’s Inside OC with Mickadeit. My cell phone rings.
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“Hey, Moxley,” says Jeffrey Rawitz, Carona’s lead defense attorney. “You’re right. Mike was no angel. He was probably just as hypocritical as you’ve always said. But you’re the best investigative reporter in the county. It’s important when you write your obituary of this case that you let people know that the federal government had no business bringing these charges. They tried to criminalize acts that may have been ugly, but just weren’t illegal. . . . Can you think about writing that?”
I laugh. Rawitz is good. He wasn’t satisfied getting just one miracle that day.
Get all the backstory! See our Carona Archives here.