Under the leadership of Mike Carona—our N-word-tossing, fanny-slapping, vodka-slurping, money-hungry, FBI-indicted ex-sheriff—the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) sank into an ethical cesspool. It didn’t make a difference if a deputy was a hard-working public servant (and I know quite a few in this category) or a lazy degenerate. OCSD careers promised damn-good pay, lots of paid time off, no repercussions for wrongdoing and generously funded retirement at the spry age of 50, more than a decade and a half before the rest of us. But there’s apparently another unpublicized perk: If you happen to be a deputy and a pedophile, count on the department to shield you from justice, too.
Before you starched-jeans types at the deputies’ union hyperventilate, swallow the olives from your martinis, drop your glossy vacation brochures and spout off about me, know that this is not me saying this.
The accusation was made by District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, a former superior-court judge.
On June 11—after reportedly unsatisfactory meetings with sheriff’s deputies, Rackauckas sent then-Acting Sheriff Jack Anderson a four-page letter detailing dereliction-of-duty concerns that, if half-true, should make OC residents vomit. According to Rackauckas, the OCSD appears to have attempted to protect a serial pedophile, Deputy Gerald F. Stenger III, from criminal prosecution. Ultimately, Stenger escaped prosecution by committing suicide in April. But at the top of a long list of blunders, according to Rackauckas, was the department assigning the investigation to Myrna Caballero, a deputy who was on a first-name basis with Stenger—and who the DA says repeatedly botched the probe in ways that made it tougher to win a conviction.
John McDonald, spokesman for the sheriff’s department, please tell us Rackauckas is wrong.
“That gets into a personnel matter, and we can’t talk about that,” McDonald says.
It’s against the law to tell the public if a deputy and the deputy she had been assigned to investigate were buddies?
“We investigate our own all the time,” he says.
In his letter, Rackauckas spelled out his concerns, including:
•Caballero failed to conduct separate interviews with potential key sex-crimes witnesses and victims, tainting the information.
•Caballero told one victim, a boy allegedly molested by the deputy beginning at the age of 8, to make what would have clearly been a suspicious call to the deputy at work (he’d never called the deputy at work before), and then failed to ensure the call was recorded.
•Despite the fact that Stenger attempted suicide two hours after Caballero officially revealed the investigation in November 2007, sheriff’s officials let him return to full duty without a single condition or any special oversight—and, get this, allowed him to monitor the investigation via department computers. (Five months later, he later fatally shot himself in the head in an unmarked patrol car in a parking lot near a South County shopping center where his alleged victim worked.)
•Twelve days after Stenger’s November suicide attempt, Caballero and colleague Sergeant Jim England were “oddly” chummy with the 41-year-old Stenger, soothing his fears by assuring him that charges wouldn’t be filed—a claim Rackauckas called “highly unusual” for deputies beginning to interrogate a suspect.
•Though Caballero knew the unmarried Stenger had an adopted son in his Aliso Viejo home, she never interviewed the child to see if he’d been molested; Stenger was under suspicion of molesting a boy he had befriended through local Little League baseball and the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County programs.
•Though it’s standard procedure to seek a search warrant in such cases because pedophiles often store images of their crimes on home computers, Caballero didn’t bother to get one. (Later, DA’s office investigators searched Stenger’s computer and, despite his efforts to erase images, were able to retrieve videos of the deputy molesting his own adopted young son, as well as “thousands” of other child-porn images, according to Rackauckas’ letter.)
•After the sloppy investigation, Caballero told Deputy District Attorney Tony Ferrentino in the sex-crimes unit that he should “reject” prosecuting Stenger because of her “feelings” that no crime had been committed.
Under Carona, the sheriff’s department would have responded to such a letter from Rackauckas with a stiff middle finger. But times have changed, right? After all, there’s a new sheriff in town. And Sandra Hutchens (pictured) won her mid-June appointment to replace Carona and Acting Sheriff Anderson by portraying herself as the Angel of Anti-Internal OCSD Corruption. Surely, Hutchens would be horrified to learn that the department may have protected a pedophile deputy.
Hutchens was appointed to her post on June 10, the day before Rackauckas sent his letter; she was sworn in on June 19. Proving she’s not a novice bureaucrat, the newly minted sheriff fired off a defensive June 26 blame-the-messenger letter to Rackauckas. Hutchens wrote that Captain Tim Board, who oversees criminal investigations, “assumes full responsibility for failing to identify any deficiencies in the investigation,” and then, despite that admission, she got pompous.
“I am somewhat uncertain as to why you would question the way our respective offices handle internal investigations,” Hutchens wrote in her a letter—which the sheriff’s office refused to share with me even after I filed a formal California Public Records Act request. (I obtained the letter through other law-enforcement sources.)
Perhaps, Sandra, the answer to your wonderment is elementary: Rackauckas questioned this investigation because the conduct of the OCSD in this case was, well, questionable.
Hutchens, who recently told Cameron Jackson, host of KUCI’s The OC Show, that she will seek election to her office in 2010, declined to field my questions about Stenger or the DA’s complaints. If she had, my first would have been: After all we’ve learned about deputy corruption and incompetence in recent years, can the public have confidence when one Orange County sheriff’s deputy controls the criminal investigation of another deputy?
Instead, Hutchens issued a short written statement that “acknowledged and accepted responsibility for missteps that had taken place,” claimed unspecified “appropriate measures were subsequently taken to ensure that there would be no recurrence of those missteps,” and reiterated what she told Rackauckas: Deputies investigating criminal complaints against deputies in the same department “is the standard for law-enforcement agencies throughout California.”
While Hutchens seems to be hiding behind the status quo, Rackauckas appears to want to play—at least in this circumstance—the role of reformer. We’ll have to see how this plays out, but for now, the DA is saying the right things.
“The Stenger investigation reveals the classic problem when a law-enforcement agency investigates its own,” Rackauckas says. “The perception of bias, whether fact or fiction, is an impediment to public confidence in law enforcement.”
— R. Scott Moxley / OC Weekly