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A street cop becomes O.C. sheriff

Sandra Hutchens believes her work experience is crucial.

June 22, 2008|Stuart Pfeifer and Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writers

With her tailored suits and thoughtful, confident demeanor, new Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens appears more like a polished corporate executive than a peace officer.

But make no mistake about it: There's a lot of street cop in the new leader of California's second-largest sheriff's department.

Hutchens spent the early years of her career patrolling violent inner-city neighborhoods south of downtown Los Angeles, arresting gang members, racing to assist deputies in danger and, in one defining moment, shooting and killing a man carrying a handgun.

She married her training officer -- her partner in the 1980 fatal shooting -- and was once slapped with a disciplinary write-up for driving too fast to assist a deputy who was in trouble. She chose not to fight the discipline, deciding it actually reflected favorably on her.

In a recent interview in her spacious Santa Ana office, Hutchens said the 1,800 deputies of the Orange County Sheriff's Department can expect an open, honest leader who understands the stressful nature of police work. Appointed nearly two weeks ago by county supervisors, Hutchens inherits a department reeling from the corruption indictment of former Sheriff Michael S. Carona and a scathing grand jury report about the shoddy performance of deputies in its largest jail.

"I think it's important to have come up through the ranks and to have done all those jobs. I know when someone is trying to pull the wool over my eyes about how they do their jobs," Hutchens said. Born in 1955 in Monterey Park and raised in Long Beach, Hutchens had led a middle-class suburban childhood. Her father was a construction worker, her mother an assembly-line worker.

She graduated from the sheriff's academy in 1978, worked as a deputy at the Sybil Brand Institute women's jail and transferred to work patrol in Lynwood, one of the department's busiest and most dangerous assignments.

On New Year's Eve 1980, Hutchens and Deputy David Anderson were patrolling the Willowbrook neighborhood north of Compton about 9 p.m. when they heard gunfire. They could tell that more than one weapon was involved.

The deputies parked their patrol car on 115th Street and approached a house where they saw women in the kitchen cooking. Hutchens, 25, drew her handgun as she walked along the house toward a garage.

Hutchens said she saw a man outside the garage who appeared to have a gun in his hand. She ordered him to drop it. Before she could confront that man, she looked into the garage and saw another man with a gun in his hand.

"Policia! Drop the gun," she recalled saying.

The man pointed the weapon at her, Hutchens said. She fired her .38-caliber revolver three times. Anderson said he thought his partner had been hit, so he fired six rounds into the garage.

One of Hutchens' bullets struck Jildardo Plasencia in the left side of his chest, killing him. Anderson's bullets hit Plasencia's 3-year-old son, Jildardo Jr., in the buttocks, and a 15-year-old boy, Juan Macias, in both legs. Both survived.

Deputies later found a .22-caliber handgun in Jildardo Plasencia's hand. It was not loaded. The Los Angeles County district attorney's office investigated the shooting and found it to have been justified.

The dead man's family sued, alleging wrongful death. The family's attorneys argued in a 1986 trial that Plasencia was seated at the back of the garage and did not point a weapon at either deputy. They told a jury that Hutchens and Anderson panicked and opened fire.

Plasencia family lawyers R. Samuel Paz and Gilbert Varela said the lack of gunpowder burns indicated Hutchens was much farther from the victim than she had testified. They said she and Anderson had no reason to fire. County lawyers said blood spatter on Plasencia's gun proved he was pointing it at her when he was shot.

A jury awarded the family nearly $1.4 million in damages -- then the largest police misconduct verdict in California. The family agreed to a $1 million settlement after the county appealed.

The family's lawyers said they still believe Hutchens testified falsely about the events that night.

"Oh, she lied, definitely lied. There is no way that she couldn't remember," said Varela, who said the shooting and her testimony should have raised questions about her qualifications to be Orange County's sheriff.

Hutchens said the shooting was tragic but justified.

The verdict's sting lingered, Hutchens said. For years, she had a recurring dream in which she faced a life-and-death situation and her weapon would not fire.

"It was hard to talk about for a while," she said. "Taking somebody's life does impact you."

In the months that followed the shooting, Hutchens and Anderson became close, drawn together by the New Year's Eve shooting and their stressful assignment. They married in August 1981, less than two years after the shooting. They divorced in 1994.

Hutchens later married Larry Hutchens, a retired assistant chief with the Los Angeles Unified School District police. They live in Dana Point.

Hutchens rose through the ranks of the Sheriff's Department, working as a sergeant, lieutenant and eventually captain in charge of the Norwalk station. She understands that patrol work can be gritty. She wants deputies who are proactive, as she was.

"She's a leader. She listens to people," said a former colleague, Los Angeles Sheriff's Lt. J.P. Harris. "She's got everything that department needs."


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