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Orange County Sheriff Fires His Top Aide

George Jaramillo, his boss' former campaign manager, is the subject of a grand jury probe about alleged obstruction of justice.

March 18, 2004|Christine Hanley and Mai Tran | Times Staff Writers

Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona on Wednesday fired his top lieutenant, who is under investigation by the county grand jury for allegedly trying to protect a colleague's son from prosecution on drug and sex charges.

George Jaramillo, a street cop-turned-lawyer with a habit of generating controversy, joined the 4,200-member Sheriff's Department as second in command after managing Carona's 1998 election campaign.

Hours after he was dismissed in a terse one-on-one meeting with the sheriff, Jaramillo said he was stunned. "I thought we were brothers. I'm at a loss as to what happened."

Jaramillo said the sheriff not only had cited no reason, but also had delivered the news in "an impersonal, callous way."

"I've been in his corner more than anyone in this planet," he said. "I've taken bullets for the guy. I have backed him, represented him and I'm proud of that service."

Carona, who had publicly stood by Jaramillo despite recent allegations, declined to publicly explain his decision. The department issued a short statement saying the move was made after the sheriff reviewed the performance of his executive team to determine if it "had the right complement to support his goals and the department's objectives."

The move comes months after the Orange County Grand Jury began scrutinizing Jaramillo's handling of criminal investigations involving the teenage son of fellow Assistant Sheriff Donald Haidl.

Gregory Haidl is accused with two other youths of videotaping themselves having sex with an unconscious girl during a 2002 party at his father's home in Newport Beach. As Newport Beach detectives were quizzing the younger Haidl at his mother's Rancho Cucamonga home, Jaramillo appeared in uniform to advise the teenager not to speak with investigators.

In October, sheriff's deputies caught the younger Haidl and two friends allegedly in possession of a small amount of marijuana. Deputies did not arrest him on suspicion of drug possession, which could have led to revocation of his bail, but instead drove him to his mother's home.

That night, in a phone conversation that was tape recorded, a sheriff's lieutenant woke up Jaramillo to tell him what had happened. Jaramillo and the lieutenant agreed not to record the incident in the activity log in hopes that the news media would not learn about the incident.

That tape recording became a key part of the probe before the grand jury, which was asked to determine if Jaramillo and other sheriff's officials obstructed justice by giving Gregory Haidl preferential treatment. The investigation has not concluded, grand jury officials say.

Sheriff's officials declined to say whether the grand jury investigation played a role in the decision to fire Jaramillo.

"The decision to let Assistant Sheriff Jaramillo go wasn't connected to anything else other than the sheriff reevaluating his executive team," said Jon Fleischman, a Sheriff's Department spokesman.

The Haidl case wasn't the first controversy to surface during Jaramillo's law enforcement career.

As a police officer in Garden Grove, he was placed on administrative leave after accusing the department of discriminating against minorities. As an assistant sheriff, he was threatened with arrest if he didn't move from a VIP area when President Bush visited Orange County. Last year, he was forced to reimburse the county $240 after having deputies give him and his wife a helicopter ride to the airport to catch a flight to Washington in time for an event at the White House.

But until now, Carona had stood by Jaramillo, even as the latest allegations swirled.

"If I had no confidence in the man," Carona said in December, "he would not be in my organization."

The two formed a strong alliance when Jaramillo led Carona's first political campaign. Afterward, Carona asked the Board of Supervisors to change requirements for being an assistant sheriff to accommodate Jaramillo. Previously, assistant sheriffs had to have had at least two years' experience as captains in the department.

Despite his anger at Carona for how he says the dismissal was handled, Jaramillo says he is taking the decision philosophically. "You get jobs, you leave jobs -- that is not problematic to me," Jaramillo said.

As for the future, "I might work in another police department, I might run my own business," he said. "I could run against Carona in the next election."

*

Times staff writer Claire Luna contributed to this report.

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