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Theft, Lies and Bribes Force California Warden’s Early Retirement, $11,500 Monthly Pension

Joe Lizarraga began working for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) in 1986. He was appointed warden of the Mule Creek State Prison (MCSP) in 2013, where he was named Warden of the Year by the California Prison Industries Authority in 2017.

Lizarraga reportedly stole from the Interfaith Food Bank Thrift Store in Sutter Creek, California on September 14, 2018. Despite earning an estimated $150,000, annually, he allegedly removed price tags from merchandise, then suggested lower prices to the cashier.

When Sutter Creek police investigated the matter, Lizarraga allegedly lied to the police chief, claiming that he did not suggest prices to the clerk. He also told the chief that he purchased the equipment for his family when it was allegedly for personal financial gain.

Lizarraga wrote a $125 personal money order in an attempt to dissuade a witness from participating in a criminal prosecution and later made a second bribery attempt using prison charitable funds, according to investigative reports.

On January 25, 2019, FBI agents raided Lizarraga’s Mule Creek office, seized his computer and escorted him off the premises. “I wasn’t walked off,” claimed Lizarraga. KCRA News said FBI officials would not confirm nor deny an investigation.

“I can confirm there’s an ongoing investigation, and Mule Creek State Prison Warden Joe Lizarraga is currently on Administrative Time Off,” acknowledged CDCR Press Secretary Vicky Waters at the time. “As this is a personnel matter, we are unable to provide additional information. The prisons administrative duties are being overseen by CDCR leadership while the investigation is being conducted.”

When he resigned in fall 2019, Lizarraga was paid $433,000 in unused vacation, leave time, holiday and weekend pay and other special pay he had accrued, noted CDCR spokeswoman Dana Simas. He collects an $11,500 monthly pension, according to the California Public Employees Retirement System.

“The investigation concluded in December 2019,” said Simas. “As a result, CDCR sustained that there had been instances of dishonesty and theft that would have been grounds to terminate Lizarraga’s employment.”

Eleven of the 16 allegations against Lizarraga were blacked out of the heavily redacted investigation report that was obtained through a public records request by journalists. Yet the report concluded that Lizarraga’s dishonesty, theft and “failure of good behavior” warranted firing.

The report did not indicate whether Lizarraga was criminally charged. The police chief and Amador County District Attorney’s office also declined to comment. 



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