George Jaramillo isn't on trial, but the former assistant Orange County sheriff has been taking his lumps in the federal courtroom where jurors are listening to the government's corruption case against his former boss, Mike Carona.
It seems that just about every time jurors hear something unflattering about Carona, Jaramillo's name also pops up. And sometimes, even when the testimony doesn't seem to damage Carona.
Jaramillo is on the government's witness list to testify against the former sheriff, but Assistant U.S. Atty. Brett Sagel told the judge a couple of weeks ago he hadn't decided if he'd call him.
From the outset of the trial, Jaramillo has been portrayed as the right-hand man who knew where all the bodies in the Carona administration were buried. And who, after Carona fired him in 2004, turned on his former "brother" and began cooperating with the government.
He's been described on various occasions in court as evil, a pickpocket, hatchet man, bag man, out of control, a double-crosser, a thief and an extortionist. Not to mention someone who didn't mind tipping off the media if it served his purposes.
Most of those characterizations came from the government's star witness: former Assistant Sheriff Don Haidl, a one-time friend of Jaramillo's. But Sagel contributed a couple of his own, as did Carona on a secretly tape-recorded conversation he had with Haidl in 2007.
The onslaught against Jaramillo -- which he's had no chance to rebut -- is unnerving if only because Carona early on planned that Jaramillo would succeed him as sheriff.
Like Haidl, Jaramillo already has pleaded to federal charges in connection with the Carona case. Haidl pleaded guilty to a single count of filing a false tax return, and Jaramillo has pleaded to filing a false return and failing to disclose numerous payments or gifts while assistant sheriff. Both are awaiting sentencing.
In January 2007, Jaramillo pleaded no contest to perjury and misuse of a county helicopter on charges stemming from an Orange County grand jury investigation. He received a year's jail sentence.
Haidl testified that he and his family became good friends with the Carona and Jaramillo families shortly after meeting them in the months leading up to Carona's successful run for sheriff in 1998. It was Jaramillo, Haidl testified, who first brought up the idea of raising $30,000 in campaign contributions. Carona joined the conversation shortly, Haidl testified, and the three later discussed how to skirt campaign finance laws. It also was Jaramillo, Haidl testified, who told him that he would "own the Sheriff's Department" if he joined the Carona-Jaramillo team.
Repeatedly in his testimony, when Sagel asked Haidl who was present during some allegedly illegal or nefarious activity, Haidl replied, "Mike Carona and George Jaramillo."
The Carona defense team, one presumes, would like nothing more than for jurors to believe that Haidl and Jaramillo were solely responsible for whatever nefarious activities occurred.
When the three men's friendship ruptured, it was Jaramillo who first worried Haidl the most. Carona talked of firing Jaramillo more than a year before he did, but Haidl testified that he cautioned that Jaramillo might turn vindictive. By then, according to Haidl's testimony, he'd already begun giving Carona and Jaramillo illegal monthly cash payments and other gifts.
He was so concerned, Haidl testified, that at one point he suggested Carona try to find a city outside of Orange County where Jaramillo might be named police chief. He jokingly proposed Yuma, Ariz.
During one of the secretly recorded conversations between Haidl and Carona, set up by the government, Carona is heard talking about Jaramillo. "I couldn't control this guy," he says, recounting why he fired him. "So, man, he's just -- he was just -- he's just [expletive] evil."
Even allowing for exaggeration, it was a far cry from another segment of the same conversation when Carona talks about how much he trusted Jaramillo when they teamed up for the 1998 election.
So, do prosecutors put Jaramillo, who would appear to be carrying more baggage than a Marriott hotel porter, on the stand? For courtroom strategy, I've been tapping Lawrence Rosenthal, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Illinois and now a law professor at Chapman University.
"Your clue as to whether the government thinks its case has gone well is if they don't call Jaramillo," he says. "He, as a dirty witness, is going to be a guy that the jury won't like."
"Dirty witness" is a term for someone who has pleaded to crimes connected to the case. "The fact that they called Haidl early in the case tells you that prosecutors think he's a better witness than Jaramillo," Rosenthal says. "He presents better."
Why risk calling Jaramillo at all, then? "He would surely corroborate Haidl's testimony," Rosenthal says. "In that sense, he brings something to the table."
Cumulative testimony from multiple witnesses can overwhelm a defendant, Rosenthal says, but Jaramillo and Haidl alone don't meet that threshold, even if augmented by the taped conversations that the government believes show guilt.
"If they call Jaramillo," Rosenthal says, "that is some indication they're not comfortable having the case go to the jury solely on Haidl's account."