Corruption in Orange County, CA Sheriff’s Department Revealed; Sheriff Resigns, Convicted on Criminal Charges
by Marvin Mentor
Former Orange County, California Sheriff Michael S. Carona and many of his staff at the Theo Lacy jail have resigned or been fired after widespread misconduct was exposed.
A 2007 Special Criminal Grand Jury investigation revealed systemic abuse and cover-ups ingrained in jail practices under Carona’s leadership. The investigation was triggered by the hour-long torture, sodomy and beating death of a pre-trial detainee by 20 other prisoners in the jail’s F-West barracks. Nine prisoners have been charged with first-degree murder in connection with that incident, but no deputies were prosecuted despite evidence that they sanctioned the assault.
Separately, Carona was indicted on federal witness-tampering, mail fraud and conspiracy charges; he went to trial in October 2008 amid a lurid backdrop of multiple extramarital affairs. His wife, Deborah, is being tried on a count of conspiracy. Carona resigned from the Sheriff’s Department in January 2008 to “fight the charges” [See: PLN, July 2008, p.30]. He was largely, but not completely, successful.
Horrific Jail Murder
On October 5, 2006, computer technician John Derek Chamberlain, 41, was brutally tortured, sodomized and beaten to death by about 20 other prisoners while Sheriff’s deputies in a nearby guard station – who allegedly arranged the attack – watched TV, sent text messages and ignored required jail walk-throughs. They then lied to investigators to cover-up their ineptitude and complicity in the murder.
Chamberlain was a pre-trial detainee charged with possession of child pornography. But while at the jail he was not under the watchful care of the guards; rather, he was in the hands of gang-affiliated prisoner “shot-callers” whom the deputies used to maintain order.
That is, the deputies literally turned over their job of enforcing jail discipline to the prisoners they were charged to control, and rewarded them for their ruthless acts with special privileges.
One of the “duties” assigned by guards was to direct beatings of child molesters. They did so by leaking confidential case information about such prisoners to their loyal enforcers, then giving them free rein to do their dirty business. While Chamberlain was not charged with child molestation, the deputies lied to one of the shot-callers by saying he was, for the intended purpose of having him assaulted.
Reports from the Grand Jury and District Attorney’s office provide many of the sordid details. Deputy Kevin Taylor was on duty in a nearby glass-walled guard station during Chamberlain’s murder, bravely watching “Cops” on TV while exchanging 22 flirtatious text messages with internal affairs investigator Monica Bagalayos. He was joined in the guard station by deputies Jason Chapluk and Phillip Le. All testified they did not notice the attack on Chamberlain until it was over. Jail rules required only one officer to man the station while the others roam the housing area.
Between 5:50 and 6:50 p.m., Chamberlain was dragged to Cubicle D, a blind spot in the unit, where he was severely beaten by successive waves of prisoners. The violence was incredible. While Chamberlain screamed and pleaded for his life he was stripped naked, sodomized, scalded with hot water, and brutally assaulted. His assailants spat and urinated on him; he was kicked and stomped when he was down.
The Coroner counted 43 displaced rib fractures alone. Some of the assailants made repeat trips to and from the bathroom to bring water to wash the bloody crime scene. One hit Chamberlain in the head so hard that he broke his hand. No one was confronted by the deputies on duty, who were only alerted to Chamberlain’s lifeless body after other prisoners called “man down.”
A review of the guard station’s log entries showed “barracks secure” at 6:00 p.m. and “barracks secure, no problems” at 6:30 p.m. It was later determined that jail officials made a retroactive phony entry in the log stating that at 2:30 p.m., Chamberlain had told the guards he was not in fear for his life. The first part of a videotape of the barracks area taken after the fatal assault was recorded over by Deputy Le.
According to testimony from several prisoners involved in the incident, Taylor had told a shot-caller that Chamberlain was a child molester who should be assaulted. In return, the prisoners would receive extra time out of their cells.
Grand Jury Report Slams Sheriff, Jail Staff
An 86-page Special Criminal Grand Jury report (with 8,000 pages of transcripts), released in February 2008, revealed what really went on in Orange County’s jails while Carona was Sheriff. The report described the Theo Lacy jail as being “in disarray,” where deputies routinely busied themselves with sleeping, watching TV or DVDs, playing video games and text messaging on their cell phones. Such misconduct was widely known, with supervising sergeants and lieutenants indifferent to this state of affairs.
Even more egregiously, Carona flouted his duty as a public servant to ensure transparency into jail operations by trying to keep the Grand Jury’s report a secret. The truth came out only after determined investigative journalists from the Orange County Register and Los Angeles Times obtained a court order to get a copy of the report.
The report revealed that Carona had taken the Fifth Amendment, refusing to answer the Grand Jury’s questions. He even refused to admit he was sheriff at the time of Chamberlain’s death. The report concluded that jail guards had failed to check F-West barracks for five hours on the day Chamberlain was murdered. Worse, they found this was not an isolated act of laziness or ineptitude by the deputies, but rather stemmed from a business-as-usual policy condoned by Carona’s entire jail staff.
To protect itself, the Sheriff’s Department arrogantly declared it would manage its own internal “investigation” instead of the District Attorney’s office, in violation of long-standing county protocol. All ranking Sheriff’s Department employees who were called to testify claimed they had no idea how Chamberlain’s death occurred, which seriously hampered the probe.
As a result, “not enough evidence” was obtained to criminally charge any of the Sheriff’s personnel. This was despite four prisoners telling the Grand Jury that deputies had informed them Chamberlain was in for child molestation – which would in theory support at least conspiracy charges.
In fact, Chamberlain’s public defender had called jail officials just hours before the murder, urging them to put Chamberlain in protective custody. Deputy Taylor said he told Chamberlain to destroy any records of his charges, but claimed Chamberlain had refused to be moved for his own protection. Such a refusal was highly unlikely, since Chamberlain had earlier called a former girlfriend and asked her to tell his attorney to “get me out of here,” stating he was afraid “something is going to happen to me.”
Taylor admitted to investigators that he knew who the shot-caller was in the unit, though he denied telling other prisoners that Chamberlain was a child molester.
District Attorney’s Office Also Critical
The Orange County District Attorney issued a press release on April 7, 2008 after the Grand Jury report was released by court order. The DA’s office acknowledged the report’s findings that floor checks in F-West barracks were required every 30 minutes, but were “seldom” performed by jail staff. Rather, the deputies “largely remained in their guard station, where they were regularly seen watching television, full length movies, playing video games, browsing the Internet, [and] chatting on-line.”
The guards sometimes left their posts for up to an hour to visit the gym. They also slept on duty at night, draping blankets over the control panels to cut out the light, and either breaking the backs of their chairs so they could recline or sleeping on mattresses. But they were not totally asleep at the switch. When supervisors approached, the guards warned each other by calling out code “10-12.” Even when awake, some deputies would go as long as 30 minutes without even looking out the windows of the guard stations.
Perhaps the most damning admission in the Grand Jury report was that deputies routinely utilized prisoners to enforce discipline at the jail by inflicting punishment on other prisoners, a practice called “taxing.” Guards rewarded the shot callers – with separate enforcers for each racial group – with new uniforms, extra meals, additional hygiene products, unrestricted movement and a free ride when they violated jail rules. The deputies intimidated prisoners who acted as enforcers by destroying their property if they failed to get other prisoners “back in line.”
The report further found that deputies were not only lazy in regard to their work duties, but also routinely denied prisoners medical treatment because they didn’t want to fill out the required paperwork. Instead, the guards used shot callers to “dissuade” sick or injured prisoners from seeking medical attention.
The District Attorney was highly critical of the fact that Carona’s office prevented an independent investigation into Chamberlain’s death. The Grand Jury found that some Sheriff’s Department witnesses gave suspect testimony, and some violated secrecy rules by disclosing their testimony and the questions they were asked to other witnesses, who then proceeded to provide false testimony themselves. The Grand Jury accused the Sheriff’s Department of substantially impeding its investigation.
Jail Staff Resign, Suspended or Fired
On April 8, 2008, Acting Sheriff Jack Anderson suspended five employees with pay and called for a review by the FBI based on the findings in the Grand Jury report. Anderson had temporarily replaced Carona following the Sheriff’s resignation in January due to unrelated federal corruption charges.
Anderson launched the largest internal affairs investigation in the history of the Sheriff’s Department, extending to potentially hundreds of present and former Theo Lacy jail employees.
On April 15 he fired internal affairs investigator Monica Bagalayos, who was allegedly pressured by Sheriff’s investigator Jose Armas to reveal her Grand Jury testimony.
Bagalayos, who was previously romantically involved with Armas, was the recipient of the 22 text messages sent by Deputy Kevin Taylor while Chamberlain was being beaten to death nearby.
Armas and Taylor were suspended with pay, as were deputies Jason Chapluk and Phillip Le. Le, who acknowledged “inmates do run the jail system,” was given immunity from criminal prosecution for his candid testimony. Armas, who later admitted he lied to the Grand Jury, quit in September 2008.
Anderson also fired jail guard Sonja Moreno, who had lied to the Grand Jury, and Undersheriff Jo Ann Galisky, a jail operations supervisor. Assistant Sheriff Steve Bishop and Captain Bob Blackburn had previously resigned in early 2008.
As to the Chamberlain murder, Anderson conceded at the outset that deputies’ use of cell phones at work was “certainly a distraction,” and that the deputies were “not doing their core responsibilities.” His corrective actions included banning cell phones and other personal electronic devices on the job and providing secure housing for at-risk prisoners. The TV sets in the guard stations were removed.
Wayne Quint, president of the union that represents Orange County deputies, said the county’s jails were safe and that it would be “unfortunate” if Chamberlain’s death was used to vilify the entire department. He noted that the jail had only one guard per hundred prisoners, whereas the ratio should be about one to fourteen. “Our deputies do a great job in a very, very difficult and violent environment. They’re dealing with bad people ...,” he said.
From the Grand Jury’s report, this appears to be embarrassingly true – as all too often those “bad people” were other deputies.
Tasering Restricted After Two Prisoners Die
In August 2008, the Sheriff’s Department announced it had banned guards from using Tasers on restrained prisoners unless they could not otherwise subdue “overtly assaultive behavior.” The ban was imposed in response to a June 2008 Orange County Grand Jury report (unrelated to the report on Chamberlain’s murder) that referred to the deaths of two Tasered prisoners as “cause for alarm.” The report covered 437 prisoners Tasered by deputies between 2004 and 2007.
Jason Jesus Gomez died on April 1, 2008 following a week-long coma after being Tasered by deputies at the Orange County jail in Santa Ana. He was serving a 90-day sentence for violating probation; his original charges were gun possession and growing marijuana.
When deputies entered Gomez’s cell after he began behaving erratically and injured a nurse’s arm, a struggle ensued. He allegedly spit at staff and bit someone’s finger. Based upon an independent autopsy paid for by his family, Gomez died due to blunt force injury to the head. “They punched his lights out,” said family attorney Stephen Bernard.
Previously, in October 2007, jail prisoner Michael P. Lass died when he was Tasered by deputies while being restrained. Lass, who was jailed for drinking in public, had refused to return to his cell; after being shot with a Taser he lost consciousness and was pronounced dead at the hospital a short time later.
The jail’s Tasering policy was called into question after the Orange County Register obtained surveillance video showing deputies Tasering prisoners Matthew R. Fleurett and Liza Munoz in separate incidents. Fleurett was strapped into a restraint chair at the time; Munoz was being held down on the floor. Both appeared to be subdued and in considerable pain. The Grand Jury noted there was “a major debate amongst experts as to whether the use of the Taser causes heart failure or death.” [See: PLN, Oct. 2006, p.1]
However, it was a feline, not a felon, that put Tasers at the Theo Lacy jail in the spotlight after two rookie deputies, Joseph E. Mirander and Duy X. Tran, were accused of Tasering a cat. While a cat’s carcass was found on jail property, the cause of death could not be determined and the inquiry was dropped, though both deputies were fired.
Most Deputies Earn Over $100,000
Watching TV, sleeping and text messaging on the job don’t come cheap at the Orange County jail. Two-thirds of the Sheriff’s Department’s deputies pulled down over $100,000 in 2007, their salaries bloated by excessive overtime pay. According to data obtained by the Los Angeles Times, 27 deputies each received over $75,000 in overtime. Acting Sheriff Jack Anderson opined that such sums could only result from the deputies violating overtime rules.
Number one at the trough was Sheriff’s investigator Theodore Harris, who earned $120,000 in overtime. His total pay was $221,000, exceeding that of former Sheriff Carona and members of the County Board of Supervisors. To earn that amount would require more than 30 hours of overtime a week, every week. Harris, one of four Sheriff’s Department employees who received more than $100,000 in overtime, said most of his extra duty was on patrol assignments; i.e., away from his investigator’s duties.
Anderson noted that department policy limits overtime to 24 hours per week, and he couldn’t explain why supervisors were not enforcing compliance. There is good reason for the limit on overtime – deputies need to be alert and not tired from too many work hours when performing security-related duties at the jail.
Factoring in overtime pay, 1,122 deputies earned over $100,000 in 2007, a three-fold increase since 2003. Overtime went predominantly to jail staff, who took in $18.3 million in 2007 compared with $8.4 million four years earlier. Theo Lacy jail personnel alone received $7.8 million in overtime.
Union president Wayne Quint remarked that $100,000 per year for a peace officer was not unreasonable. “I think they should make more. They put their lives on the line. They’re filling a public safety position every time they work overtime,” he stated.
John Chamberlain, who lost his life while jail guards watched TV and otherwise neglected their public safety positions, might posthumously disagree.
The hefty overtime payments could be reduced by hiring more deputies, which would also provide more security at the jail. This was the solution recommended by a consulting firm in a report released on November 14, 2008. “Adding custody staff in the jails is the most immediate, essential and expeditious step that can be taken to reduce the level of violence,” the report stated. With Orange County facing $86 million in budget cuts in 2009, however, additional hiring for the Sheriff’s Department is unlikely.
Lawsuits Mount Against ?Carona and County
The alleged sins of former Sheriff Mike Carona continue to be challenged in court. George Jaramillo, a former Assistant Sheriff and one of Carona’s best friends until his firing in 2004, filed suit against the County claiming he had been improperly terminated. Jaramillo’s name also repeatedly surfaced at Carona’s corruption trial, though he was not called as a witness.
Former Lt. Bill Hunt had tried unsuccessfully to unseat Carona in the 2006 elections by alleging misconduct in the Sheriff’s Department. The day after the election, Carona put Hunt on administrative leave and mounted an administrative attack against him. Hunt chose to resign, then sued in federal court claiming Carona’s actions were retaliatory and violated his First Amendment rights.
Lt. Jeff Bardzik filed a federal suit alleging Carona had abused his office by discriminatorily reassigning and not promoting him because he had supported Hunt in the election.
Retired Lt. Darrell Poncy also fell victim to being a Hunt supporter. A former commander of the Sheriff’s Academy, he alleged in a state Superior Court lawsuit that he was fired for his political views. He also contended that Carona handed out badges and concealed weapon permits to his supporters as part of a “reserve deputy” program, even though such “reservists” weren’t required to undergo training. “It looks like Carona was dispensing favors,” said Poncy’s attorney, Dale Fiola. “A sheriff does not just have to enforce laws, but also comply with [them].”
The Sheriff’s Department’s reserve deputy program had been criticized by the state Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training, which decertified some of Carona’s reservists due to their lack of training and qualifications.
As a case in point, Marcelo Bautista and his uncle Gustavo Resendiz are suing the Sheriff’s Department and Carona in federal court after a reserve deputy flashed his badge and threatened them with a gun during a golf course dispute in July 2005. The reservist, Raymond K. Yi, was Carona’s personal martial arts instructor; he was later convicted on a state charge of making a criminal threat.
$2.5 Million in Settled ?Claims Thus Far
The family of John Chamberlain filed a wrongful death suit against Orange County, and settled in February 2008 for $600,000. The family’s attorney acknowledged that the low settlement amount was partly because a jury might not be sympathetic due to Chamberlain’s child porn charges – even though he hadn’t been convicted.
The Chamberlain lawsuit is only one of many legal actions the County has faced arising from mistreatment of jail prisoners. In fact, 47 such claims have been settled for an aggregate $2.5 million since 1997.
Notable payouts include those involving Gilbert Garcia, a prisoner who died of head injuries after an altercation with guards in 1998 ($650,000); Leonard Mendez, for bruises he suffered from deputies while being booked into jail ($95,000); German Torres, who was assaulted by deputies in 2002 after trying to stop another beating ($75,000); Joshua Wilson, after being pepper sprayed and Tasered in 2005 ($49,999); Jorge Soto, who was beaten by deputies and suffered permanent injuries while being booked for DUI ($49,999); an unnamed transsexual prisoner identified as John Doe, who experienced bleeding and extreme weight loss after being refused court-ordered testosterone shots ($49,000); and Ryan Epperson, who suffered strained shoulders after deputies beat him in 2002 when he asked for toilet paper ($45,000).
Other, lesser settlements reveal a continuing pattern of abuse and misconduct by Orange County jail guards. Roman Washington was beaten and Tasered on February 26, 2005 after he refused to answer deputies’ questions and asked to speak with his lawyer. He received seven stitches and, later, a $15,000 settlement. See: Washington v. County of Orange, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 8:06-cv-00211-DOC-RNB.
Edward Hadley accused jail guards of ordering other prisoners to attack him for making “smart” remarks in an April 19, 2005 incident that foreshadowed Chamberlain’s beating death. Hadley suffered broken ribs; his subsequent lawsuit settled for $17,500. See: Hadley v. Kopp, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 8:06-cv-00347-JVS-AN.
In a case that went to trial, a jury awarded $177,000 to jail prisoner Robert Carter for inadequate medical care in 2003. The verdict was assessed against Sheriff Carona. [See: PLN, Feb. 2004, p.23].
Most recently, Liza Munoz, who was Tasered at the Orange County jail in Sept. 2004, was awarded $25,000 by a federal jury. The jurors found she had been subjected to excessive force in retaliation for exercising her First Amendment rights. Following the June 2008 verdict, the parties reached an undisclosed settlement. See: Munoz v. County of Orange, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 8:05-cv-01179-JVS.
Pending lawsuits include those filed by Matthew Fleurett, who was Tasered while in a restraint chair at the jail; by Blaine Bowker, who alleges he was kicked and punched by a guard; and by the surviving families of Michael Lass and Jason Gomez – both of whom died after jail Tasering incidents.
“What has come to light has been glaringly known to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department for years,” stated Los Angeles civil rights attorney Sonia Mercado. “They’ve known of the physical abuse at the jail, and have decided to settle these cases or argue them before a judge, instead of taking remedial measures to improve the jails.”
Carona Charged with ?Federal Crimes
During his trial in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, California, which began in late October 2008, the criminal prosecution was billed as a “case of two Mike Caronas.” See: United States v. Carona, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 8:06-cr-00224.
On one hand, Carona was portrayed by his attorneys as a dedicated public servant. On the other, he allegedly schemed with two Assistant Sheriffs and his mistress to get rich at taxpayer expense. One plan was to transfer jail prisoners to a private facility that a well-known Republican fundraiser would build, which would then receive lucrative per diem fees from the county.
Conversations involving Carona, secretly recorded by former Assistant Sheriff-turned-informant Don Haidl, were entered into evidence during the trial. Carona’s former mistress, co-defendant Debra Hoffman, was charged with conspiracy, mail fraud and failure to report money she received from Haidl during a 2001 bankruptcy filing. It was alleged that Haidl, a millionaire businessman, gave money to Carona and George Jaramillo, an Assistant Sheriff who had previously served as Carona’s campaign manager, “to ensure power and influence.”
Haidl testified that he laundered $30,000 for Carona’s first election campaign for Sheriff in 1998, paid him $1,000 monthly cash bribes, and gave him a power boat among other items. He also paid $65,000 to Hoffman at Carona’s request, plus monetary loans. In total, Haidl said he provided over $420,000 in cash and gifts to Carona and his mistress, either directly or indirectly.
In return Carona appointed Haidl to the position of Assistant Sheriff, which let him enlist friends and relatives as reserve deputies, complete with badges and weapon permits, in a pay-to-play scheme. “We talked about a get-out-of-jail free card, we talked about owning the Sheriff’s Department,” Haidl testified.
Carona also ensured that Haidl’s teenage son, Greg, received preferential treatment in a drug-related case, and tried (unsuccessfully) to intervene in a separate case when Greg was charged with – and eventually convicted of – sexual assault.
The recordings of Carona and Haidl’s conversations revealed how the cash payments were “untraceable” and how no one would know about them without “a pinhole [camera] in [Haidl’s] ceiling.” Carona knew well about such cameras, as he had four in his own office. On tape, during profanity-laden discussions, Carona agreed to match his testimony with Haidl’s when they appeared before a federal grand jury.
Meanwhile, Jaramillo pleaded guilty to unrelated state corruption charges and was sentenced to a year in jail; he also pleaded guilty to federal tax and mail fraud charges.
Haidl accepted a plea bargain for tax fraud and agreed to testify against Carona in exchange for leniency.
At mid-trial in November 2008, jurors in the Carona case were given a look into the former Sheriff’s sexual escapades. He and his attorney-mistress Debra Hoffman had a love nest, took getaway trips to Las Vegas in private jets, and maintained a secret bank account. Lisa Jaramillo, George’s wife, cried and apologized to Deborah Carona as she testified about the former Sheriff’s mistress. Lisa testified that Carona also had an affair with her sister, who was on his campaign staff.
This was part of the prosecution’s case to show that the two-faced Sheriff Carona did not fit the public persona of a “conservative Christian crime-fighter.” The courtroom atmosphere was tense, with Carona and Hoffman, his former mistress, sitting at separate defense tables while Carona’s wife sat stoically in the gallery.
The federal trial lasted ten weeks and concluded on January 16, 2009, with Carona’s attorneys referring to the former Sheriff’s friends who testified against him as liars and snitches. Carona, who had refused a plea bargain, didn’t testify on his own behalf.
After six days of deliberations the jury returned not guilty verdicts on the charges of mail fraud, conspiracy and one count of witness tampering. Carona was found guilty on a second count of witness tampering. He put his head on the defense table and cried when the verdict was read – thus ends the career of a man once described as “America’s Sheriff.” Carona will be sentenced at a later date; his wife and mistress were to be tried separately. The prosecution later dropped charges against both.
A New Sheriff In Town
Damage control could not save the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, which was irrevocably tainted under Carona’s tenure. Any attempted replacement leadership from the existing ranks of the Department simply would not withstand further public scrutiny.
Accordingly, the County Board of Supervisors appointed an outsider as the new Sheriff – retired Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Dept. division chief Sandra Hutchens. “She is the anti-Carona,” stated Supervisor John Moorlach.
The 53-year-old Hutchens will have to be tough indeed to clean up the many years of institutionalized misconduct and the stygian stench of abuse and corruption in the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. We wish her luck. She’ll need it.
Sources: Los Angeles Times, Orange County Register, Sacramento Bee, San Francisco Daily Journal, San Jose Mercury News, Associated Press, www.badcopnews.com, OC Weekly, LexisNexis Jury Verdicts and Settlements
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login
Related legal cases
Munoz v. County of Orange
Washington v. County of Orange