More than seven months ago, I uncovered evidence that Sheriff Mike Carona had carried on an affair with Erica Lynne Hill, the sister-in-law of George Jaramillo, Carona's top aide until he was fired and then indicted. When I finally tracked down Hill and asked for her version of events, she reluctantly agreed to talk—but only after I accepted a condition: I couldn't go public with the story without her permission. After my interviews, Hill decided to keep me silent.
"Mike has betrayed George and me," Hill said at the time. "He's not a faithful person to any of his women, but I don't want to publicly embarrass him now. He has a wife and a son. I just want everyone to get on with their lives."
She wavered in April. Someone—Hill thinks someone tied to the district attorney's office—leaked secret law-enforcement records that The Orange County Register used to publicly humiliate her. The Register revealed that Carona told DA detectives in 2004 that he'd once watched Jaramillo and Hill having sex.
The sheriff protested, claiming the DA's detectives—whom he wouldn't allow to record his interview—had misinterpreted his words. Though embarrassed by the story, Hill held me to our agreement. She said she believes Carona "told an incredible lie" to discredit her with the detectives who were investigating a convicted felon's financial relationships with the sheriff, Jaramillo and herself.
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"Mike has never seen me have sex with George," she told the Weekly recently. "He's confusing what he did with me. Or maybe he was just fantasizing. Who knows with Mike?"
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There was an obvious reason the petite Hill wore dark sunglasses and sat with her back to passersby during a recent interview at a South Coast Plaza restaurant. On Sept. 9, the Register made her infamous again. Larry Welborn's story, which carried Hill's photograph, dropped two bombshells. First, it revealed that Hill told the grand jury that Jaramillo—11 years her senior—had begun an "inappropriate" relationship with her when she was around 15 years old. Questioned by Deputy District Attorney Brian Gurwitz, Hill wouldn't use the word "molestation" but did concede that the "sexual conduct, contact" began before she was an adult.
Jaramillo, who declined an invitation to testify before the grand jury, has a well-known penchant for explicit photography. But he adamantly denies he molested his sister-in-law. He says he's on good terms with Hill and his wife, Lisa, to whom he's been married for more than two decades.
"People are twisting the truth," he told me. "I have never had sex with Erica. Ever. Period. Didn't happen."
The sheriff's onetime best friend, travel companion and top adviser, Jaramillo has more to worry about than sex. Days after the Weekly reported in March 2004 that he'd accepted payments from Charles Gabbard—the convicted felon who sold law-enforcement products—Jaramillo was fired from his powerful assistant sheriff's job. He now faces up to seven years in prison if convicted on bribery charges brought by DA Tony Rackauckas and the grand jury. (Hill was initially arrested in the case in September 2004, but this summer Rackauckas dropped the charges, which were considered weak by many observers.) The 44-year-old Jaramillo, who is represented by attorney Joseph G. Cavallo, insists he's innocent and points out the Weekly discovered his extra income only because he'd reported it in his ethics filings.
"If you think Tony Rackauckas is right—and that's always a risky gamble—I'd be the first person in history to accept bribes, disclose the money on ethics reports, ask for county counsel's advice [about the transactions], and then pay taxes on [the money]," he said. "It's ridiculous."
But the charge with potential long-term ramifications was Hill's testimony about Sheriff Carona, who is seeking a third term as head of the $500 million-per-year agency. Under oath, she told the grand jury the sheriff pressured her for sex after she asked Carona to hire her husband as a deputy. Hill recalls Carona smiling, flirting and asking, "What's in it for me?"
According to grand jury records, Hill consented to Carona's advances. The sex allegedly occurred in the sheriff's truck, at his campaign offices, in his home and—as his unsuspecting son and wife stood nearby—in a hotel suite during his first inaugural party in 1999. Despite his relationship with Hill—whatever it entailed—Carona did not hire Hill's husband. The couple is separated.
Reaction to Welborn's Sept. 9 story was swift. An angry Jaramillo reiterated his innocence. Carona and his aides solicited media interviews, questioned Hill's motives, called her a liar and portrayed her as a slut.
"Anybody can make charges against a public figure like the sheriff, and it will get your attention in the media, but can she prove she had sex with him?" asked Jon Fleischman, one of Carona's two official spokesmen. "I don't think so."
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Imagine how you'd feel if the most humiliating moments of your sexual history were suddenly featured in newspapers and courtrooms as well as on radio and television news broadcasts. Hill can tell you that it's painful.
"It's a living hell," she said, looking away, biting her lip and slowly shaking her head. After a long silence, she added, "It's so frightening and horrifying that sometimes I can't think straight. I'm being used. I'm being tortured."
What bothers Hill most now is Carona's campaign to paint her as a woman prone to hurl wild, unfounded accusations. She wants the public to know she wasn't the person who used his power to win sexual favors and then lie about it; she didn't twice leak sex stories that have tainted her own image as well as Carona's reputation as a "conservative Christian." She is, in fact, the person who told me everything and then asked me not to reveal it—for fear that it would destroy Carona.
Following her grand jury testimony and the DA's decision to drop the charges against her, Hill "thought it was over, that what I said would be sealed and I could get on with my life. Then the Register story happens, and the spotlight is back on me. I didn't ask for this. I want it to go away, but I'm very tired of being kicked around."
In the wake of the Register bombshell, Hill watched the sheriff's men go on the offensive against her. Their remarks prompted her to fire back. In a two-page Sept. 13 letter to California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, the county Board of Supervisors, two local members of Congress and the media, she asked that Carona be held accountable for his conduct.
"I write to each of you because I have nowhere to turn and I hope you can help me," Hill wrote. "Mike Carona is an extremely dangerous man who hides his wickedness behind his badge. . . . I am not the only woman who has been victimized by this perverse individual. There are many others, including employees and wives and girlfriends of employees. . . . I know that as Carona continues to be exposed and the public sees him for what he truly is, he will go to any length to have me and other members of my family silenced."
Hill admits she was agitated when she wrote the letter but thinks her reaction was justifiable. She plans to hire an attorney. In coming weeks, she says, the sheriff can expect a civil lawsuit with details of their alleged sexual liaisons.
"What else can I do?" she asked. "These people have already kicked down my door [to execute a search warrant], arrested me, and they won't stop smearing me. It's sick. I'm a victim here, but I'm going to defend myself."
Wasting no time, Hill had a suggestion for Sheriff Carona: if you truly feel comfortable denying the affair, let's both sit for polygraph tests.
The thought of the sheriff strapped to a polygraph machine and forced to answer questions without the aid of his public-relations team put a smile on Hill's face.
"Mike Carona is a bold-faced liar," she said. "The last thing he would do is agree to take a lie-detector test."
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