Reefer Badness

Behind closed doors last week, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and the grand jury launched a politically explosive investigation into whether a top Sheriff's Department official attempted to cover up a sensational if petty drug case.

The investigation centers on Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo and allegations he ordered deputies to conceal Gregory Scott Haidl's role in an Oct. 26 marijuana possession bust in San Clemente, according to law enforcement sources.

Nobody would care about the incident except for six salient facts:

–Haidl is the son of Jaramillo's colleague, Assistant Sheriff Don Haidl;

–The 18-year-old Haidl is out of jail on $100,000 bail facing felony charges stemming from an alleged, 2002 videotaped gang rape of an unconscious 16-year-old girl in Corona del Mar.

–Jaramillo already faces criticism for persuading the Haidl family not to cooperate with police investigating the rape charges.

–A would-be sheriff's candidate in 1997 before he joined Mike Carona's successful campaign for sheriff, Jaramillo hopes to someday succeed Carona. Haidl's support in that effort would be key: in addition to overseeing the Sheriff's Department's reserve units, Haidl is a wealthy businessman who pours campaign cash into local law enforcement races.

–Haidl doesn't want his son to be convicted in the rape case; believes he should receive no more than probation for his participation; and does not want his son to spend one minute in jail. Haidl's allies say the assistant sheriff believes the case against his son is motivated by the DA's thirst for headlines.

–If the Sheriff's Department had indeed arrested young Haidl for pot possession, he would have been in violation of his bail and a judge could have sent him immediately to jail.

“Heads will roll if the grand jury gets to the truth about what happened with Greg Haidl,” predicted one influential Sheriff's Department source familiar with the details of the probe. “It's all about obstruction of justice. That's a felony and this is serious.”

The seriousness of the investigation was proven on Nov. 6 when the grand jury called its first witness: Jaramillo. Carona's longtime confidant took the 5th Amendment, refusing to answer questions on the grounds that his remarks under oath might be incriminating. Next, on Nov. 12, the citizen panel guided by Rackauckas asked Carona to provide department audio, video and paper records of the San Clemente incident in which Haidl was eventually chauffeured to his mother's home by a deputy and released without being charged. Sources insist Carona was not involved in any wrongdoing and is cooperating with the grand jury.

Neither Carona nor Jaramillo responded to requests for comment. But for two weeks, Sheriff's Department officials close to Jaramillo and private sources allied with Haidl worked hard to keep the story out of the press. That changed when offended law enforcement officers began talking to reporters and a DA investigator opened a probe.

By Nov. 11, Lt. Sheriff Jim Amormino, senior spokesman at the Sheriff's Department, was acknowledging the affair to reporters but downplaying it as “minor.” “There was no favoritism shown here by anyone in the sheriff's department,” he said flatly. A Haidl representative described it as a “stupid story” that “proves the DA's office is trying to create bad press for Don Haidl and his son. They have a vested interest in making the Haidls look bad.”

Despite the rhetorical fireworks, everyone seems to agree on this much: On the evening of Oct. 26 near a San Clemente industrial office parking lot, Haidl and another 18-year-old (himself out on bail for an unrelated drug charge) were in a late-model black SUV driven by a 16-year-old South County boy. They had set up night lights to skateboard in the parking lot. Attracted by the lights, Sheriff's Deputy J. Roche approached and found a bag containing a small amount of marijuana in the SUV. Most of the agreement ends here.

Amormino told the Weekly that Roche confronted the three teenagers about who owned the pot and that the 16-year-old minor–not Haidl–quickly accepted responsibility. The minor was given a $270 citation and ordered to enter a drug diversion program, according to Amormino.

“Yes, Greg Haidl was given a ride to his mother's house which was five miles away as a courtesy, but was that special? No,” he said. “That's the whole story.”

Other law enforcement sources say there's much more than that. They say the pot was found not in the front seat with the minor but on the backseat floorboard underneath Haidl's keys. Recorded radio transmissions between officers at the scene reportedly show that the narcotics were repeatedly called “Haidl's pot.”

These sources also suggest that no citations were given at the scene because of high-level interference. They say Deputy Roche called Richard Downing, his on-duty sergeant, who then called Bill Hunt, a sheriff's lieutenant who doubles as the San Clemente police chief. Hunt, they say, called Don Haidl and Jaramillo for advice.

Sources claim that it wasn't until four days later when KCBS-TV reporter Dave Lopez began asking Amormino questions about the drug incident that a report was filed, pot was logged into the department's evidence locker, and the minor–who'd just been assured he would receive no jail time–agreed the drugs were his.

Asked why other law enforcement officers would have contradictory information about the same incident, Amormino said, “I don't know. I'm just relaying the facts as they've been relayed to me. To the best of my knowledge, all standard operating procedures were followed.”

Amormino promised a follow-up interview to answer more detailed questions. Two days later, at press time, he had not returned several requests for comment. Deputy Jon Fleischman, Amormino's assistant, also did not return a detailed telephone message.

“If typical [standard operating procedure] had been followed, Haidl would have been taken into custody,” said a Sheriff's Department official who spoke with the Weekly because “it makes me sick they think they can get away with this.”

As a top deputy with powerful Homeland Security intelligence responsibilities and longtime key political advisor to the second-term Carona, Jaramillo enjoyed favorable crime-fighting publicity until news accounts revealed his role in the Haidl rape case. Then, in April 2003, The Orange County Register's Aldrin Brown reported that Jaramillo and Carona had been using a Sheriff's Department helicopter as a personal “flying limousine” at taxpayer expense. Other sources have said that Jaramillo inappropriately used his sheriff's credentials to hold up a commercial airline flight for which he was late. This latest affair has some local cops wondering if Jaramillo's next trip will be the one he makes to clean out his desk.

To see R. Scott Moxley's coverage of the Haidl rape case, “Exhibit X-Rated,” click here.

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