Sheriff Con

New evidence suggests Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona—dubbed “America's sheriff” by CNN's Larry King and touted as a potential running mate for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger—lied about his role in a police-corruption scandal investigated by the grand jury.

On Oct. 26, 2003, deputies found Greg Haidl, son of a then-assistant sheriff, and two of his buddies illegally skateboarding and “smoking pot behind some industrial buildings” in San Clemente. A small sandwich bag of marijuana and a pipe sat beside Haidl's wallet and keys. Officers also noted that the then-18-year-old—already out of jail on bail for allegedly participating in the gang rape of an unconscious minor—looked stoned.

As drug busts go, it was relatively inconsequential except that Haidl was chauffeured home without arrest or citation and official public crime logs were doctored to conceal the event. In the days following, reporters learned of the incident, sheriff's officials surreptitiously drafted a new incident report, eliminated any reference to Haidl's drugs and backdated the record. A crime report could have jeopardized Haidl's $100,000 bail in the gang-rape case.

Nobody would have known about the special treatment and cover-up, but someone leaked news that deputies at the crime scene conferred with not only Assistant Sheriff Don Haidl but also George Jaramillo, then second in command of the Orange County Sheriff's Department. Audio transmissions obtained by reporters fingered Jaramillo as the mastermind of the cover-up. In the recording, Jaramillo expressed alarm “that the press will be all over this.” A deputy responded that the file would be hidden. The revelation put Jaramillo in a media firestorm.

The story might have died quickly but for one critical fact: Carona publicly distanced himself from the actions of Jaramillo and his deputies. In a December 2003 interview with KCBS reporter Dave Lopez, Carona denied any knowledge of or complicity in the Oct. 26 Haidl incident. The televised exchange was unambiguous:

Lopez: Did you ever receive a call, whether it be on [Oct.] 26, 27 or 28, [about] taking Don Haidl's son home?

Sheriff: No, sir.

Also in this issue

Read R. Scott Moxley's update on this story, posted Feb. 25

The sheriff lied. SBC telephone-company records reviewed by the Weekly show that Jaramillo did call his boss that night. In fact, the conversation between Jaramillo and Carona lasted twice as long as Jaramillo's chat with the on-scene deputy minutes earlier.

Jon Fleischman, a media spokesman for the sheriff, said he was unaware off the Lopez interview but was “absolutely sure” that Carona had eventually admitted to receiving the call from Jaramillo.

“The sheriff is certainly not trying to hide anything,” said Fleischman. “He did get a call, but only well after the incident.”

But phone-company records show that Jaramillo called Carona's personal phone line at precisely 11 p.m. on Oct. 26 while deputies still held young Haidl at the scene in San Clemente. Carona and Jaramillo talked for six minutes, during which time, according to sources, the assistant sheriff fully briefed his boss and received support for decisions to release Haidl, escort him home and doctor the public crime log.

“He not only knew about everything that happened,” said a source, “but the sheriff also approved it. He said, 'Good job, man.' And he worried that someone would leak the story. He specifically called the Orange County Sheriff's Department a fucking sieve.”

Records show that a minute after Carona ended his conversation with Jaramillo, a deputy at the scene radioed the department's dispatcher that he been ordered to “transport the subject home.”

Apparently, without knowing about the Carona-Jaramillo telephone call, the grand jury launched an investigation into possible abuse-of-power allegations against Jaramillo and lower-ranking deputies. During the seven-month probe, the citizen panel—dominated by Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas—oddly didn't bother to call the sheriff as a witness under oath. In June 2004, the grand jury closed its case, without enough evidence to indict the deputies.

But it was too late for Jaramillo. He'd been fired by the sheriff in March. Carona said unconvincingly that he'd kicked out his closest personal friend and longtime aide merely for a management reorganization. Later, the elder Haidl resigned, claiming he wanted to focus on his son's numerous legal woes.

Jaramillo—who now faces felony charges that he tried to use his office for personal gain—declined to comment for this story. But a source familiar with the pot-bust scandal believes Carona “screwed” the deputies involved in the incident. One veteran officer was so disturbed by the “backstabbing” that he resigned.

“Mike Carona was a coward because he not only knew about what George and the deputies did for that boy [Haidl], but he also approved it and then let his staff suffer under the microscope and pressure of the grand jury,” said a source. “He could have ended the whole mess by simply admitting the truth, but he wanted his deputies to take all the heat. The record of George's phone call to Mike underscores the sheriff's dishonesty.”


This story was originally published online on February 23, 2005.

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