In the wake of a trio of dangerous criminals escaping her jail on Jan. 22, Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens stood in front of news media microphones and essentially shrugged her shoulders.
“Escapes do occur from time to time,” Hutchens said in the parlance of an entrenched bureaucrat. “We try to limit that.”
Following that acceptance of mediocrity, the sheriff then tried to shift blame for the man-made disaster that’s risking public safety from herself to the three escapees: Jonathan Tieu, 20, Bac Duong, 43, and Hossein Nayeri, a 37-year-old labeled a real Hannibal Lecter by prosecutors.
“People in jail have a lot of time to sit around and think about ways to defeat our systems,” Hutchens explained.
But she omitted a corresponding fact.
Her well-compensated deputies, who can retire at the age of 50 while collecting 90 percent of their top salaries for the remainder of their lives, are paid to sit around 24 hours a day and think about ways to keep dangerous inmates confined.
Like District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, our sheriff suffers from foot-in-mouth disease. She added another unnecessarily lame line to the other misstatements. The escape was a “very sophisticated-looking operation,” Hutchens declared.
Yes, who could ever imagine inmates would use holes in walls to flee through unguarded jail exits?
In the 1994, Academy Award nominated Shawshank Redemption, prison guard corruption and incompetence allowed an inmate named Andy (Tim Robbins) to spend 17 years digging an escape route without detection.
Back in a more troubling reality, it’s fair to ask if jail deputies weren’t watching over the trio and took at least 16 hours to learn they were missing, what were they doing?
A special, 2007 grand jury investigation revealed guards shamelessly used on-duty shifts to—I can’t make this up—watch television shows and sporting events, play video games, surf the Internet, text girlfriends, run private businesses and sleep.
Those findings occurred under the management of prior Sheriff Mike Carona, who eventually landed in federal prison for 66 months after obstructing a grand jury probe into Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) corruption.
Hutchens, a longtime manager at the scandal-ridden Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office (LASO), came out of retirement to assume control over OCSD and confidently promised to clean up the place.
If her pledge was genuine, she has failed.
Consider a sampling of facts emerging during her watch over the powerful agency:
+For nearly two years, jail visitor Ha Duc Nguyen gave gifts to a deputy and smuggled the following items to inmate Stephenson Choi Kim, a homicidal gangster with whom she recorded a sex tape feet away from a guard station: razor blades, marijuana, Snickers bars, pizza, porn magazines, tobacco, NyQuil, Vietnamese dinners, fast food from McDonalds and Carl’s Jr., pasta primavera from Olive Garden, and a cell phone plus charger;
+Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals accused two veteran jail deputies, Seth Tunstall and Ben Garcia, of repeatedly committing perjury in a death penalty case, a declaration Hutchens explained away as merely a lack of training about when officers should tell the truth on the witness stand;
+A member of the sheriff’s management, Sergeant Brent Benson, submitted under oath an affidavit that OCSD had “no jail informant program” as a way to avoid complying with a valid subpoena, even though deputies elsewhere testified finding and cultivating snitches was a routine jail task;
+OCSD lost a federal lawsuit after disgracefully harassing onetime jail Deputy Scott Montoya, who temporarily left the department to volunteer for U.S. Marine combat service during the invasion of Iraq and earned the Navy Cross for five times running through enemy fire to rescue wounded colleagues.
Like last week’s jail break, all of the scandals possess a common theme: A defiant Hutchens insisting her agency is operating smoothy with a move-on-folks-there’s-nothing-here mentality. That’s a troubling stance because there are only two explanations: She’s either a liar or a moron. Is that the type of character we deserve as our elected sheriff?
R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.