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A new routine for Michael Carona

The man once deemed 'America's Sheriff' now spends his days hiking and preparing for trial.

October 06, 2008|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

Michael S. Carona's life has been flipped on its side since federal prosecutors accused him of accepting tens of thousands of dollars in cash and gifts from people who wanted favors from him. Once one of the most recognizable faces in law enforcement, the former Orange County sheriff now lives largely out of the public eye.

The 53-year-old Carona spends most of his time with his wife, Deborah, hiking the hills in his Orange neighborhood, methodically analyzing the tens of thousands of pages of FBI reports that are the center of the government's complex case and doting on his only child, 17-year-old Matthew, a high school athlete and musician who is in the midst of choosing a college.

As sheriff, Carona routinely flew to Washington and Sacramento for meetings with the nation's power brokers. Over the summer he had to tell friends he couldn't vacation with them in Hawaii because conditions of his bond forbade him to leave the state.

Initially upset about the allegations against him, Carona became more relaxed as the Oct. 28 trial approached, and he bonded with his wife, despite public allegations of infidelity, Carona's friends said.

When he's not home alone with his family, Carona can be seen clutching coupons at a neighborhood supermarket, cheering for Matthew's Orange Lutheran High School football team or exercising at a 24 Hour Fitness with his wife.

"They've been a united front and they wanted to face this as a couple," said Valerie Goldstein, a longtime friend of Carona and his wife. "He takes up so much of her time, I say he's the new me."

In the years before the government's indictment was handed down in October 2007, Carona had had a meteoric rise in California politics. It started in 1998, when he was elected sheriff after serving two decades with the obscure and now defunct county marshal's department.

Carona made national news in 2002 while overseeing the arrest -- and eventual conviction -- of a suspect in the kidnapping and murder of bright-eyed, 5-year-old Samantha Runnion.

The square-jawed sheriff famously turned to a television camera and told the then-unidentified killer, "Don't sleep, don't eat, because we're coming after you."

His words engaged a nation and led CNN's Larry King to label Carona "America's Sheriff" and President George W. Bush to praise him at a homeland security meeting in Washington. He socialized with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and was courted as a candidate for lieutenant governor.

Five years later, Carona stood in handcuffs and leg irons before a federal judge in Orange County, charged with conspiracy, mail fraud and witness tampering. Handcuffed beside him were his wife and his former mistress, Debra V. Hoffman, each charged with conspiring to trade Carona's power for profit.

The scene marked a stunning and humiliating fall for a man who only a few years earlier seemed to be one of the nation's most promising politicians. His long-rumored extramarital affair was now on display in a federal courtroom and on national news. He was disappointed, those close to him said, when he found out that people he once considered friends were cooperating with the government as witnesses against him.

Carona resigned in January to focus on his case. In the months that followed, he spent several hours a day reading FBI investigative records to help his attorneys prepare. He'd break each day to exercise, pedaling a stationary bike in his bedroom and pumping weights in his garage. He and his wife would often hike several miles in the hills surrounding their modest home.

The former sheriff and his wife have grown closer since the indictment and are working through the strain caused by infidelity, friends of the couple said. They have been seen holding hands as they walk together to court. They kissed in the courtroom after a recent hearing.

Immediately after the indictments, the Caronas were angry and hurt, friends said.

"It was really, really hard," said Goldstein, their close friend. "You're angry and it's unjustified and you're hurt. People are saying things about you. You either have to deal with it on a daily basis and know it's your life or you are crippled by it."

This summer, Goldstein and her husband vacationed in the Mammoth area with the Caronas. They hiked during the day, relaxed over meals at night. At home, the couples often dine together, either at one another's homes or at restaurants. Islands is a favorite, where Carona is known to order a high-protein dish that includes grilled chicken and salad.

"They take walks together every day, five to six miles. They walk and talk. I think it's really good for them. When you're on a walk for two hours, you talk a lot," Goldstein said.

Tim Klinkenberg, pastor of the Caronas' church, St. John's Lutheran Church in Orange, said he and Carona are friends. They've prayed together privately and met several times for lunch.

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