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A clean break in O.C. sheriff

Sandra Hutchens, the first woman to hold the post, pledges to dispel the scandals of the Carona era.

June 11, 2008|Stuart Pfeifer and Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writers

In a historic break from a male-dominated, deeply conservative past, Orange County supervisors on Tuesday named a woman and former Los Angeles County cop to lead its troubled Sheriff's Department and help bury the legacy of its indicted former sheriff.

Sandra Hutchens, a 53-year-old retired Los Angeles County sheriff's division chief, becomes the 12th sheriff of Orange County and the first woman to hold the position. She pledged to be an agent of change in a department that has suffered through scandals, criminal indictments and withering criticism.

The vote puts her in charge of California's second-largest sheriff's department, replacing Michael S. Carona in what supervisors hope will signal an era free of the turmoil that marked his nine-year reign. Carona, who resigned in January, is facing federal corruption charges.

Until two weeks ago, few people in Orange County's power structure had even heard of Hutchens, a Dana Point resident who spent nearly 30 years with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

She won the job in a 3-2 vote, edging longtime Santa Ana Police Chief Paul Walters, whom many considered to be the front-runner in the county's nationwide search.

"I will live up to the confidence you have placed in me today," Hutchens told the board after the vote. "I am a change agent. I will be a change agent in the Sheriff's Department."

Supervisors agreed that the department needed radical change. Carona's indictment in October was the crowning blow in a series of scandals that included the conviction and jailing of one of his assistants, the highly publicized gang rape trial of another assistant's son, and a grand jury investigation that depicted Orange County's largest jail as nearly barbaric, with inmates enforcing the rules and some jailers napping or watching television instead of making their rounds. In one instance, an inmate was beaten to death as a jailer watched the television show "Cops."

Orange County political observers said Hutchens' appointment represented a break from tradition, with supervisors saying that they wanted a cop unconnected to the county's Republican power brokers, who enjoyed tremendous access during Carona's tenure.

"It's a surprising choice for conservative Orange County to go outside the county and pick a female," said Fred Smoller, a political science professor at Chapman University in Orange. "They were really convinced they had a problem in that department and it was a result of politics. They really wanted to restore the integrity of that office."

Shirley Grindle, a political watchdog who wrote the county's campaign finance ordinance, agreed that Hutchens was not the typical Orange County officeholder.

"I'm elated. I'm just elated. She's not a part of the old-boys club," Grindle said. "I'm so glad we have someone in the Sheriff's Department who doesn't owe their job to anyone."

Wayne Quint, president of the union that represents Orange County's deputies, said the officers were looking forward to working with Hutchens. He said Hutchens' gender was irrelevant.

"I think for some time we have needed a leader at the top. And I think we found one. And I think she'll do a great job," Quint said. "We look forward to working with Sandra Hutchens and getting this department back to what it is supposed to be doing -- and that's putting bad people in jail."

Hutchens, who becomes the third female sheriff in California, will oversee more than 4,000 employees, a budget of more than $700 million and the task of turning around a department tarnished by allegations of influence peddling, cronyism and mismanagement.

Federal prosecutors allege that Carona began engaging in a broad conspiracy to enrich himself, his wife and a former mistress even before he was elected to his first term in 1998. Court documents describe a furious pursuit of cash and gifts, including more than $200,000 in payments and loans, a boat, luxury box seats to the World Series and ringside seats to a Las Vegas boxing match. Carona issued badges and in some cases guns to campaign contributors and other allies without proper training or background checks, records showed. George Jaramillo, once Carona's confidant, was fired as an assistant sheriff and later agreed to serve a year in jail for lying to a grand jury and misusing a county helicopter. Donald Haidl, a wealthy businessman who helped bankroll Carona's campaign, resigned as an assistant sheriff because of the fallout over his son's arrest in a sexual assault case that resulted in a five-year sentence.

In April, a court unsealed transcripts from a grand jury investigation into the death of Theo Lacy Jail inmate John Derek Chamberlain, finding that he was savagely beaten by other inmates while a guard in a nearby station watched television and sent text messages to friends. The case was among a series of questionable inmate deaths and other jail violence in recent years.

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