Former sheriff Mike Carona was unmistakable in his tone and unmovable in his message to prosecutors attempting to take over the investigation of a slain inmate: “If I don’t want you in my jails, you’re not coming in my jails.”
Carona’s admonishment, eight days after the Oct. 5, 2006, death of John Derek Chamberlain, was revealed in grand jury documents released this month. It showed the arrogance that kept a wall of secrecy firmly in place around the department – a wall that eventually crumbled under its own weight.
Testimony released last week showed deputies asleep at their posts, relying on jailhouse bullies to police other inmates, often by force. Top brass gave misleading testimony, altered documents and stalled the grand jury to make good on Carona’s promise to keep away outsiders. And deputies downright lied, repeatedly, to the grand jury, comparing notes with other witnesses and then denying it.
“It seems like there’s no boundaries,” said Patrick McManimon, a corrections expert involved in a 2001 federal case against the Orange County jail. “Where ever your moral compass takes you, you go.”
Corrections and law enforcement experts say the deception and secrecy were supported by a mix of arrogance, loyalty and a “code of silence.” They lay part of the blame on Orange County’s pro-law enforcement attitude and its tendency to believe police over virtually everybody else.
“Up in Los Angeles you have all these political or ethnic groups (who challenge police),” said George Wright, chairman of the Criminal Justice Departmentat Santa Ana College. “In Orange County, we like the cops, so people wouldn’t believe that (misconduct) was happening or was widespread.”
Although jail misconduct is not unique to Orange County, it rarely has reached the level that it has at Theo Lacy Facility in Orange, jail experts said.
“I think you’ve got a pretty inflamed case there. Your flagrant misbehavior is not a common thing,” said Jane Browning, executive director of the International Community Corrections Association in Washington, D.C.
“It just kind of seems to me like the Orange County Sheriff’s office went into melt down,” said James Gondles Jr., former sheriff of Arlington, Va., and executive director of the American Correctional Association. “It seems like the leadership was not paying attention.”
Secrecy, say jails experts, has shrouded the Orange County Jail system for decades. Reports of inmate abuse, deputy misconduct and illegal conditions were allowed to fester by officials who turned a blind eye out of defiance — or just plain deceit.
The culture of coverup had become so ingrained it become business as usual. But Carona – who faces federal corruption charges — took it to new heights.
“They were falsifying records, not doing things required by the court,” said McManimon, a criminal justice professor at Kean University in New Jersey. “It’s not surprising that without stopping these things, they’ve gotten to (today’s) level.”
Added Acting Sheriff Jack Anderson, “We’re still trying to get our arms around the scope of (the jail crisis).”
The grand jury’s findings further disgraced a department hobbled by Carona’s indictment on political corruption charges and subsequent resignation. Two former assistant sheriffs, George Jaramillo and Don Haidl, were also indicted for public corruption and pled guilty.
This month, two more assistant sheriffs departed after their participation in the coverup was revealed by the grand jury probe. And five sheriff’s employees were put on paid leave last week, the first step toward termination. One rookie deputy was fired.
It wouldn’t be fair to paint the entire department with the same brush.
“The vast majority of the men and women in the Orange County Sheriff’s Department perform their duties ethically and honorably,” Anderson wrote in a memo to the troops.
But no longer can deputies in Orange County depend on the built-in credibility of the badge.
As shocking as the jail revelations were last week, they are not new. In 1978, a federal court virtually took control of the jails from then-Sheriff Brad Gates, who believed that inmates shouldn’t be coddled. The judge ordered him to provide better living conditions, such as regular meals, for inmates in an overcrowded system.
Under Gates the department had numerous scandals of its own, including an assistant sheriff who allegedly sexually harassed female workers and was investigated – but not charged — in the sexual assault of a young secretary. In the ’80s and ’90s, the county paid out at least $375,000 to settle lawsuits accusing Gates of using investigators to harass and spy on political opponents. One of the settlements came after Gates was forced to take back his testimony when attorneys found an audio tape that he said didn’t exist.
In 1990, another federal court order prohibited deputies from psychologically and physically abusing inmates.
“The attitude that exists in the jail is the same attitude that existed (30 years ago),” said Richard P. Herman, an attorney involved in the federal case.
The court control was finally lifted in 2005 because most of the living standards had been incorporated into state law.
Carona was elected in 1998 as a reformer, someone who would end jail overcrowding and, unlike Gates, reach out to ethnic minority groups. But the promises gave way to profiteering.
Former Assistant sheriff Jaramillo coaxed bribes from a Newport Beach businessman. Haidl tried to use his connections to help his son fight accusations of sexual assault.Carona promoted a public image of a family man while only half-heartedly hiding his mistress.
Enter young, impressionable deputies, fresh from an academy where they began and ended every sentence with “Sir,” where they were taught not to question superiors. They then spent their first eight years in a jail system where loyalty means turning a blind eye to slovenly, heavy-handed co-workers.
They realize that “all the stuff they were told in the academy about honor and integrity was really B.S.,” Wright said. “What kind of attitude do they take (when they get promoted) to patrol?”
At the time of Chamberlain’s death, Carona’s popularity was waning and a federal indictment was only a year away, but he still held thrall over the majority of voters. His political talons remained as sharp as the points on his sheriff’s badge.
Carona was still the man-in-charge that October night when Chamberlain was sodomized with a toothbrush and stomped to death. Inmates accused deputies of instigating the attack by falsely labeling the victim as a child molester.
Former Assistant Sheriff Jo Ann Galisky initially decided that the sheriff’s department would conduct the homicide investigation, in violation of a 20-year county policy that called for the district attorney’s office to do it. That policy was put in place out of concern that too many people were dying in the jail under Gates.
Testimony and documents would later show that sheriff’s detectives did little to try to corroborate the inmates’ story. In fact, Carona and others vowed their support for the deputies at the same time the department was supposed to be investigating them.
In March of last year The Orange County Register published “Death Sentence,” a in-depth investigation of the Chamberlain slaying based on the sheriff’s own crime reports, crime scene photos, audio recordings and other evidence.
The Register revealed the TV-watching deputies, the alterations to the jail log.
The public backlash led the Board of Supervisors to form an office of independent review to monitor the sheriff’s department. And, the district attorney convened a special grand jury in May 2007. The sheriff’s department was quickly awash in subpoenas.
But even on the witness stand the lies kept coming.
Internal affairs investigator Jose Armas – someone in charge of keeping deputies honest – lied to the grand jury, denying he tried to get a witness to disclose secret testimony. Caught in the lie, Armas explained, according to transcripts, that he considered the conversations with the witness to be personal and confidential.
Deputy Sonja Moreno lied to the grand jury, denying that she disclosed her testimony to another deputy at the center of the Chamberlain probe.
Wright said it was understandable for good deputies to keep the secrets of the bad ones.
“Would it be difficult for you to blow the whistle on one of your colleagues, burn them to the ground? Multiply that by 100,” Wright said.
Then the brass joined in the coverup.
Carona took the Fifth – nine times. He wouldn’t even admit that he was sheriff at the time of the slaying.
The grand jurors discovered that Galisky, the assistant sheriff, had altered a document in December 2006 to show that the sheriff’s department usually investigated all jail deaths, which was not the case. The document was presented to the 2006-2007 grand jury, the first to look at the Chamberlain case.
“I don’t think it was my intention to mislead the grand jury,” Galisky testified, when called before the new set of jurors in January 2008. She testified that sheriff’s investigators were more experienced in jail culture and security, more equipped to handle the investigation. She testified she was merely editing the document.
Former assistant sheriff Steve Bishop exasperated jurors when he refused to admit that the district attorney had always investigated jail deaths. Bishop called it a matter of semantics. He said the sheriff and the district attorney had their own interpretations of the protocol.
Finally, the prosecutor became so frustrated he asked, “Why is it so important to sheriff’s department personnel — and specifically you — that you cannot change your opinion and say, ‘We goofed up?’ “
Now the moral compass has been passed to Anderson, who has called on the FBI, an independent auditor, the board of supervisors and the district attorney to help to help him put things right.
Recently, he sent a sternly worded memo to the troops, ordering them to turn in any co-workers who aren’t following the rules, calling them part of the “cancer.”
McManimon praised Anderson’s approach.
“He could have done what the other guy did,” said McManimon. “Swept it under the rug.”
Said Anderson: “I’m always going to do the principled thing over the political. If that’s going to be my demise, it’s a good way to go down.”
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