A Tale of Two Tapes

After federal prosecutors indicted Sheriff Mike Carona, his wife and top mistress on public-corruption charges in October, Carona not surprisingly declared himself “not guilty.” H. Dean Steward, Carona's defense lawyer, added that the sheriff “is so anxious to fight these charges that we have to hold him back.” David Wiechert, another Carona defense lawyer, described the case against the sheriff as a “witch-hunt.” Mike Schroeder, Carona's political strategist, schmoozed reporters with descriptions of federal law-enforcement agents whose behavior was unethical-if not criminal.

Forget the hoopla. The keys to the unraveling of Carona's two-term reign at the Orange County Sheriff's Department are simple: two tapes. One is a now-infamous 21-minute DVD made by three men gang-raping an unconscious girl on a pool table in Newport Beach. The second is a potentially more explosive three-hour audio recording that will either help Carona's cries of innocence or prove him to be one of the biggest crooks ever to wear a sheriff's badge in the U.S.

The contents of this second tape remain secret.

Weekly readers won't be surprised to learn that both tapes were made by Haidls, a family Carona plucked from obscurity and made famous. In 2002, Gregory Scott Haidl thought it would be hilarious if he and two buddies filmed themselves raping an unconscious 16-year-old at a late-night high school party. They also repeatedly shoved a Snapple bottle, apple juice can, lit cigarette (filter first) and pool cue deep inside the girl's vagina and rectum. In the process, they laughed and danced. They dragged her, slapped her, grabbed her by her hair, threw her on a pool table and spilled semen on her motionless body.

I rehash the event because Greg Haidl's rape tape was shot in the garage of his father's Newport Beach ocean-view home. At the time, Don Haidl—Greg's daddy—was Carona's unqualified but handpicked assistant sheriff. There's a good reason the usually gruff, chain-smoking elder Haidl is grinning ear to ear in his sheriff's department portrait. Until Carona gave him an official uniform with four stars on the lapels, Haidl's history included serious allegations ranging from Mexican gunrunning to bribery of a cop to masterminding massive frauds. His occupation? I'm not making this up: used-car salesman.

Hollywood, are you paying attention?

But in 1998, Haidl had the one thing Carona—a glorified bailiff without one minute of street cop experience—needed more than any other to become sheriff: a pile of cash. Estimations of his worth have ranged from $30 million to $90 million. Think Beverly Hillbillies, The Dark Side.

At the core of any scandal is sex or money. In Carona's case, it's both. You may recall that Santa Ana Police Chief Paul Walters, Carona's opponent in the 1998 race, claimed that Haidl had tried to broker a contributions-for-appointment deal with him. Walters said no thanks. Haidl landed in Carona's camp, which went on to narrowly win the election and take over the nation's fifth-largest sheriff's department. Shortly thereafter, Carona and Haidl proclaimed themselves—again, you can't make this up—”brothers for life.”

To mark his victory, the newly elected sheriff—who'd soon appear on religious broadcasting channels to announce his faith—took advantage of a woman during the height of his inauguration celebration. The lady wanted Carona to hire her husband as a deputy. The sheriff took her to a hotel room, screwed her—and then declined to hire her husband.

But revelations about the real Carona were years away from emerging in the mainstream press. The sheriff enjoyed top ranking as OC's most popular public official largely due to one gruesome event. Skilled homicide detectives at the OCSD (and the Riverside County Sheriff's Department) solved the national-headline-grabbing Samantha Runnion murder case, but Carona made sure network news cameras focused solely on him. CNN's Larry King dubbed him “America's sheriff,” a title Carona quickly incorporated in his re-election brochures. He even fueled speculation that he'd challenge Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez or U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer.

The beginning of Carona's end was Greg Haidl. The cocky, dope-smoking teenager played his prized rape tape to buddies—and then forgot where he left it. Fate stepped in. A Good Samaritan found the DVD. It eventually landed on the desk of horrified detectives at the Newport Beach Police Department.

The simple act of losing that tape ignited a chain of events that ultimately unmasked Carona and his inner circle as not just petty, egotistical bullies, but also crooks wearing badges. They were, we now know, gifted liars consumed with extramarital affairs and quick, easy cash from businessmen looking for favors that could only come from an agency with an $800 million annual budget, more than 4,000 employees and high-tech spy equipment that would excite the KGB.

What type of sheriff would take contributions from a violent Las Vegas titty-bar owner with ties to the Chicago Mafia? What type of sheriff would later pose in uniform for a picture in a Newport Beach bar with that clown? What type of sheriff would vouch for that man's character just months before the guy landed in federal prison for racketeering?

The answer: The same man who surrounded himself with Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo (found guilty in state and federal bribery probes), Assistant Sheriff Don Haidl (found guilty in a federal bribery/income-tax evasion probe), Captain Christine Murray (illegal campaign-finance scheme to pressure other deputies to make contributions), aforementioned contributor/drinking pal Rick Rizzolo (convicted of racketeering) and drinking pal/defense lawyer Joseph G. Cavallo (guilty in a federal bribery probe and guilty of running a bail-bonds scheme inside Carona's jail).

Now, thanks to the feds, Carona finds himself, his wife and a mistress added to that colorful list of characters. This was no surprise to a few of us. The sheriff had turned the OCSD into two parts whorehouse, three parts crime scene, shaped by more than a dash of self-aggrandizement.

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas is no Carona fan, but he was never going to touch the sheriff. Both men share the same top adviser: Schroeder. Indeed, Rackauckas' employees ignored direct evidence of Carona's potential complicity in a kickback scheme involving a convicted murderer/businessman who threw the sheriff a birthday party/fund-raiser involving $40,000 in illegal contributions. The sheriff claims it was a coincidence that he wrote a letter to Sacramento legislators encouraging them to grant the man a state monopoly on a proposed laser gun that could safely end car chases. Like its inventor (the murderer), the gun was a fraud.

It's frightening to think of how much worse Carona's corruption would have been if it weren't for the likes of federal prosecutors Brett Sagel and Ken Julian and FBI agent Tony Alston. But they likely would have never gotten to this point if it hadn't been for the second sensational Haidl-made tape: The elder Haidl surreptitiously wore a wire when he was alone with Carona this summer. We can only pray this one doesn't involve sex, too.

Both sides agree that one three-hour-plus segment is key. In fact, Schroeder told me he's listened to the tapes (there are two others) and concluded the contents prove the sheriff is innocent. If this is true and not just shameless spin, I challenge Carona and his advisers to do something in their power: play the tapes for the public now.

Show us the feds are liars, as you claim. Show us that you didn't try to get Haidl to perjure himself about the bribes. Show the OCSD that I've been wrong about you all these years.

We're waiting.

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