Iron Mike

Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona announced on July 19 that his deputies had arrested Alejandro Avila, the alleged killer of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion, whose terrifying abduction and murder two weeks ago seized the attention of the nation. During the 24 hours between the discovery of Runnion's body in Riverside County and Avila's arrest in Lake Elsinore, Carona appeared in an unprecedented stream of live television press conferences in which he warned parents to watch their children closely because a serial killer may be on the loose.

If there was any doubt that Carona would understand the seriousness of the mission at hand, it vaporized on CNN July 18 when he warned the killer, “Don't eat, don't sleep because we're coming after you.”

The leadership he displayed during the hunt for Avila filled an ever-widening vacuum in Orange County's law-enforcement community. For more than two decades before Carona took office, the department was run by Brad Gates, who made former LA Police Chief Daryl Gates (no apparent relation) seem like an approachable guy, presided over a string of sex scandals, and used his powerful office—like J. Edgar Hoover before him—to spy on his political enemies. Gates also used his post on a powerful land-use board to handle planning issues in South County, where he owned expensive real estate.

The county's other current top cop, District Attorney Anthony “Tony” Rackauckas, started his job in November 1998, the same month as Carona. Then the Orange County marshal, Carona campaigned for sheriff as an outsider, and he was ridiculed as a phony cop by opponent Paul Walters, Santa Ana's police chief. (The Weekly was the only newspaper to endorse Carona over Walters.)

Rackauckas, who was a judge when he ran for DA, also campaigned as an outsider. But unlike Carona, he has been the subject of mounting corruption allegations ever since he won his office. Last month, the Orange County grand jury finished its investigation into charges that Rackauckas has used his position to protect friends and political contributors from prosecution, looked away while his staff used county assets and work time for personal and political purposes, shielded his wife from a civil investigation, and signed off on his chief investigator's practice of charging his bar bills to the public.

A typical example of Rackauckas' style of leadership—which also happened to be a major feature of the just-finished grand jury probe—goes like this: one of his business partners and campaign contributors, Patrick N. DiCarlo, calls Rackauckas to complain that a mobster is extorting him. Rackauckas tells his staff to investigate. His staff returns with a different story; they say DiCarlo is in business with East Coast organized crime—hardly the profile of a mob victim. DiCarlo calls Rackauckas and complains that the cops are on his back. So Rackauckas fires his lead investigator and personally calls off the investigation of DiCarlo. Later, Rackauckas gives DiCarlo another gift: a handgun and a concealed-weapons permit.

Compare that to Carona's handling of a potentially damaging criminal investigation involving one of his assistant sheriffs, Donald George Haidl. Haidl's 17-year-old son was one of three youths arrested July 12 and charged in the videotaped rape of an unconscious 16-year-old girl at Haidl's Corona del Mar residence. Carona didn't interfere in the investigation, and all three suspects were immediately arrested; they will be charged as adults.

Carona's agency hasn't been immune from scandal. One of Carona's first problems involved Haidl himself. Carona hired Haidl, a fellow conservative Republican and businessman, despite the fact that Haidl's company, Nationwide Auction Systems, had been the subject of a five-year investigation by the California Department of Motor Vehicles for illegally skimming money from cop-auctioned vehicles. (Ironically, Haidl was also investigated for offering to fund Walters' campaign in return for a top job at the Sheriff's Department.)

And just last week, Carona's department was sued by a group of Orange County jail inmates who allege that deputies routinely arrange fights between groups of rival gang members behind bars.

Except for the latter, those problems pale next to Rackauckas' catalog of abuses. Unfortunately for Orange County residents, Rackauckas has already announced his intention to run for a third term in March 2006. With his swift arrest of Avila, Carona virtually guaranteed himself a third term. This past March, he ran unopposed in his second race for sheriff. The only problem: when he first ran for office six years ago, he swore he'd serve only two terms as sheriff—a pledge aimed at avoiding the type of self-aggrandizing legacy left by his six-term predecessor, Gates.

Carona has become OC's Rudy Giuliani. That may make sticking to the two-term pledge a lot less painless, prognosticated Larry King of CNN.

“Sheriff Mike Carona of Orange County, California, is a new national media hero, and deservedly so,” King wrote in his online column. “Wouldn't shock me if somebody tried to get him to run for president.”

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