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The mistress, the wife and the O.C. sheriff

The State

For Michael Carona, the private and the public overlapped.

December 28, 2007|Garrett Therolf, Stuart Pfeifer and Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writers

Preparations were underway for Deborah Carona's 50th birthday party when the host learned who would be attending the party. He was stunned.

Among the guests invited to the celebration for the wife of Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona was the lawman's mistress, Debra V. Hoffman.

"I said, 'If you're going to invite her, I'm not going to have it at my house,' " Joseph Cavallo said he told the sheriff, then a close friend and political ally. The two have since parted ways and Cavallo was recently sentenced to jail in a kickback scheme involving bail bond agents.

The sheriff relented and Hoffman did not attend.

But friends and associates of the sheriff said the 2001 birthday bash -- midway into Carona's first term and not long before Larry King dubbed him "America's sheriff" -- was indicative of the frenzied lifestyle that Carona was juggling as he ran the state's second-largest sheriff's department.

Deborah Carona was a member of a moneyed and prominent family that was mentioned as a point of reference in F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." Debra Hoffman was a struggling but charming attorney, 15 years younger than the sheriff's wife. Their lives bumped together often.

Both women appeared at official functions together, the wife often sitting in the first row, Hoffman in the second. Photographers working for the Sheriff's Department sometimes snapped photos of the two women together and sometimes of both posing with the sheriff.

But just beyond public view, associates say, the sheriff's behavior with his mistress was reckless, even defiant: a trip to Las Vegas, text messages and pet names.

Now, Carona, his wife and mistress have been accused in a broad public conspiracy case that alleges that the sheriff sold his office for a stream of gifts and money. All three have pleaded not guilty and said they expect to prevail at trial. Carona, his wife and Hoffman all declined to be interviewed for this story.

On the morning after he was charged, Carona was ushered into a courtroom ordinarily reserved for drug runners, bank robbers -- the sorts of alleged criminals the sheriff had spent years trying to sweep off the streets.

The two Debbies sat nearby. Like the sheriff, they were in handcuffs.

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'In love'

Twenty-year-old Mike Carona was stuck stocking shelves at the Sunrise Market in Los Angeles County, working alongside his teenage wife and trying to make ends meet. But his young wife said in an interview with the Times that she knew Carona already had his eyes on another woman.

The other woman was Deborah Belasco, the daughter of a former California deputy attorney general and a member of a theater family that is mentioned in Fitzgerald's novel and included the prolific playwright and theater owner David Belasco.

Carona's then-wife, Janna, said she suspected she was losing her husband just six months after they married in 1975. She noticed a canceled check for flowers she never received. Half a year later, the marriage was over.

She chalked it up to her husband's ambition. He was "kind, positive and upbea," but he played "all the right cards, all the time," she said. "That was just his personality."

Carona took a job as a deputy marshal in 1977, spending the next decade working his way up the chain of command.

Debbie Belasco's best friend at the time, Nancy Clark, said she has no idea whether Belasco became romantic with Carona while he was still married.

"I just remember they were very, very happy and very in love," Clark said.

Clark said they enjoyed a romance with simple pleasures and that Belasco never flaunted her family's connections.

"None of us had much money back then. So we would get together and eat spaghetti, go to the beach and listen to music," she said.

Belasco was an admirer of Jackson Browne and Emmylou Harris, lived in a spartan Newport Beach apartment and drove "some old beater" around the county. "She was sort of a hippie," Clark said.

When Belasco married Carona in 1980, Clark helped her plan a modest ceremony for about 100 guests at an Irvine park. It was followed by a reception with music by a local rock band.

The new Deborah Carona worked at the public defender's office for a couple of years before becoming a probation officer. One of her old bosses remembers her well. "Even though you could tell she came from money, she dealt very well with people on probation and didn't mind doing it at all," said Harold Cook. "She was very polite and never dressed flashy. She sort of dressed like the Kennedy women."

As Mike Carona climbed the ladder at the Orange County marshal's office, his wife maintained her job and focused on raising their son. "She was very much a background person," said Clark, who is an advocate for alternative sentences for drug offenders. "A lot of women in this county would have had some creases erased from their face and go shopping. She didn't do that."

But one former co-worker said Deborah Carona's work began to slacken after her husband became Orange County sheriff in 1999.

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