Meet the New Sheriff . . .
Taking a wait-and-see stance toward OC's new top cop
If any image survives June 10's startling appointment of Sandra Hutchens as Orange County's next sheriff, it won't be the deer-in-the-headlights gaze of Supervisor Chris Norby, who seemed more surprised than anyone else that his choice, Santa Ana Police Chief Paul Walters, got nixed. It won't even be KCAL images of the tears that formed in Walters' eyes moments after board Chairman John Moorlach announced the 3-2 vote. It will be Jebb Harris' Orange County Register photograph of the jubilant retired Los Angeles County Sheriff's chief learning of her victory. Why? I'll tell you in a moment.
First, it's critical to remind folks that grabbing the reins of the Orange County Sheriff's Department is powerfully intoxicating. The mere anticipation of taking over California's second-largest police agency made a grown man—a veteran cop in his 60s, no less—tear up. But unlike Mike Carona, our FBI-indicted ex-sheriff who cried on cue once television camera crews arrived, Walters' tears were genuine. He's now nearly captured the job twice, having barely lost to Carona in the 1998 election.
Walters' supporters reacted to Hutchens' appointment with near-anger, perhaps because they felt blind-sided that their choice, conventional wisdom's front-runner in the weeks leading up to the vote, lost. Folks such as Matt Cunningham at the Red County blog and Steven Greenhut at the Register complained that a female cabal pressured the two female county supervisors to join Moorlach in a vote for who they felt was the lesser-qualified, female candidate.
The truth is that both candidates used whatever resources they could muster behind-the-scenes to win. Indeed, Walters hired the lobbying duo of John Lewis and Matt Holder, two oily Republican insiders from Carona's old camp. Although Walters has a solid record of accomplishment, the move probably helped to secure the votes of supervisors Bill Campbell and Norby, who also rely on Lewis and Holder for campaign consulting. But for many of us, that Carona tie was reason for alarm.
Nevertheless, unlike some of my brethren in the local media, I'm neither cheering nor booing the Hutchens selection. Here are three reasons why:
.Serving as OC sheriff exacerbates tragic personal flaws, as proven by the last two occupants of the office.
.Praise (or the lack of it) has to be earned by good deeds, not cheap promises—we got plenty of those from Carona, too.
.We really know very little about our new sheriff.
For example, on the day of her appointment, we learned, thanks to Christine Hanley at the Los Angeles Times, that Hutchens was the central figure in a 1980 lethal-force scandal that left one drunken man dead, two innocent bystanders with bullet wounds and cost taxpayers $1.4 million. According to Anything But Mexican author Rodolfo F. Acuna, then-Deputy Hutchens (and her partner, David Anderson) disobeyed an order to call for backup when investigating celebratory New Year's Eve gunshots. Instead, the two deputies confronted on their own a large family after such a shooting. The pair fired nine gunshots into the family's garage, killing Jildardo Plasencia, who had been holding an empty gun. They also wounded an 18-year-old man and a 3-year-old boy.
"When you take somebody's life, I don't care who they are, you live with it forever," Hutchens told Hanley.
In his 1995 book, Acuna claims attorney Samuel Paz, who conducted his own probe, proved that authorities covered up evidence that Hutchens fabricated portions of her story as an excuse for using lethal force when she had, Acuna wrote, "blindly shot into the garage." An internal investigation cleared her of wrongdoing, and LA prosecutors refused to file charges. But several years later, after Paz's investigation, a jury awarded the dead man's family $1.4 million in damages from county coffers.
Messages for Hutchens left at a telephone number provided by a Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department source were not returned.
It'd be unfair to give too much weight now to the Plasencia killing. By all accounts, Hutchens went on to have an exemplary, multidecade career. Even better: On the cusp of the greatest challenge of her life, she seems to be not just emotionally grounded, but also intolerant of dishonesty and laziness.
But we've been fooled before—which brings me back to Carona, a glorified bailiff turned OC's top cop, who packaged his corruption in smiles, hugs and warm handshakes. Here was a lawman who believed he was so immune from accountability that he willingly accepted a campaign contribution from a longtime Mafia associate, and then partied with the guy at a swank Newport Beach restaurant. Perhaps most revealing, here was a man who used the horrific kidnapping, rape and murder of a little girl for political purposes.
Of course, Carona, who is scheduled later this year to face a federal trial for operating a bribery scam, couldn't have created his mess without help. He had obsequious friends in the media. But he also surrounded himself in and outside the department with morons, degenerates and sycophants.
So how many of you know which characters are lurking in Hutchens' inner circle?
Back to the noteworthy Register photograph I mentioned: At the historic June 10 board hearing, Hutchens was seated with her hands placed together, prayer-like, in front of her chest. She had cracked a slight smile as if humbled by events.
But there was a hand gripping her left shoulder. Follow the arm past the expensive watch and the cuff links, and you'll find the face of Ronald Cedillos. When Hutchens stood to accept the vote, Cedillos—the man who'd been working behind the scenes for her selection, especially with Supervisor Pat Bates—was the first person she hugged.
For those of you who don't know, Cedillos was one of Carona's early vocal supporters. The wealthy businessman and well-connected GOP activist hobnobbed with Carona and his now-convicted former assistant sheriffs George Jaramillo and Don Haidl. Indeed, Cedillos turned his impressive Laguna Niguel estate into an off-duty personal playground for the trio. There's a good chance his name will surface during Carona's federal trial.
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The Hutchens-Cedillos relationship, however, could mean nothing. Cedillos may have entirely honorable intentions in renewing his access to the most powerful cop in OC. After all, he's never been tied to Carona's alleged criminal conduct, and, Cedillos tells me, their relationship ended poorly.
Still, as some Cedillos critics suggest, the relationship could signal the beginning of the end of our new sheriff's honeymoon.
This story originally appeared June 12 on ocweekly.com.