“AMERICA’S SHERIFF” Tarnished Badge
By G. Monty Manibog, Attorney at Law
Michael S. Corona, sheriff of Orange County, California was hailed as “America’s sheriff” after looking straight into the television camera, following the discovery of little Samantha Runion’s lifeless and violated body, and solemnly promised the killer, “we’ll get you.” True to his promise, Alejandro Avila was quickly captured thereafter and was charged and convicted of the kidnap, rape and murder of the little girl.
Corona was lionized by a grateful public, appeared on Larry King’s popular late night television show, invited to the White House by President George W. Bush and received numerous honors and accolades from an admiring public.
But as quickly as the honors and adulation for Sheriff Corona peaked, they came cascading down with the shock, bewilderment and disappointment of a failed and bitter love affair.
On January 14, 2008, Corona resigned his position to concentrate on his legal defense on serious federal indictments on corruption charges - using his office to obtain numerous gifts – a boat, tickets to sporting events, lavish trips and over $117,000 in cash, mainly from a millionaire businessman who was appointed assistant sheriff by Corona (though lacking in law enforcement experience.) Also indicted with Corona were his wife and mistress who allegedly participated in the scheme and benefits of the payoffs.
The prosecution relied heavily on the testimony of the assistant sheriff, Donald Heidl, who conceded to his role in showering Corona with gifts and engaging in other illegal activities in connection with the sheriff’s office, including “selling” deputy sheriff’s badges to many who comprised a “friends list” of $l,000 donors.
The problem with the prosecution’s case, which seemed overwhelmingly strong to begin with, was that the jury couldn’t quite accept the credibility of Heidl, the chief prosecution witness, considering that he was a principal participant, an instigator and a very major cog in that crooked wheel.
Consequently, Mike Corona was acquitted on all corruption charges by a jury who saw Heidl as the real bad guy with a leading role in the alleged criminal venture and trying to escape punishment by his testimony against the sheriff. Similar criminal charges against Corona’s wife and girlfriend were necessarily dismissed.
Despite Corona’s acquittal on the major corruption charges, which would have incarcerated him for life, the jury found him guilty in a single charge of jury tampering for which sentencing has not yet been set.
This case will be followed with much interest to see if the jury tampering charge can stand on appeal, considering Corona’s acquittal on the major corruption charges from which the jury tampering charge arose. Stay tuned to the next episode on the case of People v. “America’s sheriff” .