2:39 p.m. February 20, 2013

San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department: Putting the "South" in Southern California

I had just gotten back home from a grueling month-long NSFWCORP assignment covering life in the subprime city of Victorville when I heard the news that the hunt for Christopher Dorner had finally ended.

Dorner was holed up in a cabin in a tiny town in the San Bernardino mountains above the Mojave Desert. The law had finally caught up with the ex-cop, and it was just his luck that the law happened to be the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department (SBCS), possibly the most corrupt and reckless police force in Southern California.

SBCS is in charge of policing Victorville and the surrounding subprime desert, so I know a thing or two about the force. If Dorner thought the Los Angeles Police Department was racist, corrupt and violent, well…

Dealing with the SBCS is like taking a trip to the deep South, minus the southern hospitality and charm. The force is staffed by a tight good ol’ boys network drawn from a base of white ultra-conservative ex-military types, overseen by corrupt judges and a municipal government that’s deep in the pocket of ruthless real estate speculators. It’s distinguished by brazen graft, police brutality and a general disregard for lawful policing.

SBCS deputies once drew their guns on NSFWCORP senior editor Mark Ames while he was a guest at my double-wide trailer in Victorville back in 2010. They grabbed him while he was taking a walk around the neighborhood, saying that he matched a description of some car thief operating in the area. They cuffed him, then took his keys, entered my house without a warrant, rifled through my undies and inspected my closets. In the end, they found a small stash of what appeared to be marijuana and, it has been alleged, a mysterious white crystalline powder piled on a small mirror, along with an Iranian banknote nailed to the wall — but apparently got spooked by Ames’ journalistic bonafides, particularly when one of the deputies recognized him from MSNBC. They let him go with a stern warning.

So, when I learned that Chris Dorner was on SBCS turf, I said to my wife: “No matter what happens, the end isn’t going to be pretty.”

I wasn’t the only one who thought so.

“Incompetence and a cover-up,” is what a former High Desert politician and a good buddy of mine predicted would happen during their standoff with Dorner. That is exactly what started to play out just one day later.

So what is the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department?

San Bernardino County is the largest county in the nation by area, encompassing about 20,000 square miles of mostly desert wasteland. Somewhere in the 1850s the county got its first sheriff. For a long time, the sheriff’s main duties included whipping up posses to lynch Indians and hunt down Mormon horse thieves (San Bernardino County was a big Mormon outpost then). When the railroad came through in the late 1800s, they were put in charge of protecting railroad assets from bands of armed robbers. The sheriffs excelled at their work. They also excelled at defrauding and ripping off the very community they were hired to serve.

Not much has changed.

Take San Berdoo’s previous sheriff, Gary Penrod. The man had total support of the local political machine, serving for nearly 12 years and winning three reelections unopposed, until he suddenly resigned in 2009 amid a series of scandals that threatened to expose a whole slew of crimes.

Among them was Penrod’s repeated failure to disclose a number of assets and properties, in clear violation of the California Political Reform Act, and the fact that his wife (and former longtime mistress) owned a business that had a contract with the sheriff’s department to provide deputies with psychological and grief counseling services worth nearly one hundred grand a year.

On top of everything, Penrod had been rewarding his political friends and campaign contributors with “special deputy” or “posse” badges. These were used back in frontier days to deputise groups of people, should the law need to go out hunting for a band of railroad robbers or rustlers. Penrod used them instead to bestow virtual legal immunity on his cronies. Caught drunk driving? Speeding? Maybe you were smacking around your wife and neighbors called the cops? No problem, just whip out your San Bernardino County Sheriff’s posse badge and San Bernardino deputies would give you a wide berth. Maybe they’d even drive your car home for you. According to the San Bernardino County Sentinel, hundreds of such “volunteer deputy” badges were issued by Penrod.

But despite evidence of corruption and abuse of power, Penrod was allowed to retire unmolested and uninvestigated.

The reason?

Penrod had a lot of friends. Before he became the county’s top dog sheriff, Penrod put in a lot of time and effort into proving his loyalty to the Republican political and business machine that runs San Bernardino County.

Starting in the late 1980s, Penrod headed up a sheriff’s substation in Hesperia, a desert suburb city bordering Victorville to the south-west. There he proved himself eager and willing to act as hired muscle for real estate developers, using his position to intimidate critics and to suppress the release of information by the press. In one instance that took place in the 90s, Penrod put the screws on Bob Nelson, an Hesperia resident who was a vocal opponent of a real estate development, by grabbing the man during a city council meeting and locking him up for a few days in a county jail, making sure to place the guy in a section of the facility that the sheriffs reserved for gay inmates.

Some of the more timid local officials were disgusted and shocked by what happened.

“The planning staff did not mind hearing what Bob Nelson had to say. We were professionals and the whole idea was to get the community’s feedback on the projects that we were processing,” said Hesperia’s former planning director. “That’s why it was so shocking when we heard that Bob Nelson had been thrown into jail to get gang raped. No one said anything to Gary Penrod about it, but I can tell you, from then on everybody looked at him like he was a Neanderthal. No one really wanted to work in a place where something like that happens to someone who is just participating in the public process.”

Not long after that, Penrod threatened to jail local investigative reporter Mark Gutglueck, who was about to publish an exposé showing that a local politician had received campaign funds through a corrupt scheme in which hundreds of untraceable low denomination checks were funneled to him by a big time real estate developer through Orange County’s GOP machine.

As sheriff, Penrod also made his department a safe haven for killer cops booted by other police departments. For instance, in 2000, SBCS hired former Riverside police officer Paul Bugar, who was fired from his previous job a year earlier. The reason? He and three other Riverside police cops put 12 bullets into a 19-year-old black young woman named Tyisha Miller, who appeared to be comatose, and possibly experiencing a seizure of some kind while in the front seat of her car. She was parked at a gas station with a flat tire waiting for her cousin to come and help, and apparently had a gun in her lap for protection.

Tyisha’s cousin called an ambulance. Instead, what she got was a squad of cops who arrived and shot Tyisha dead.

It was a gruesome scene, and it made national headlines. The deputies surrounded the car on three sides and riddled their target with bullets, including four to the head.

Despite heated protests, Sheriff Penrod stuck by his decision, saying that officer Bugar “possessed the proper qualifications for the job,” according to the Precinct Reporter.

Penrod’s predecessor, Sheriff Floyd Tidwell, was even more of a hillbilly racist, and just as corrupt. Tidwell—known to locals as “The Cowboy Sheriff”—was the son of a cattle rancher and grew up in Big Bear, a tiny mountain community not far from where Christopher Dorner made his last stand. He spent his entire life working for SBCS, serving as sheriff for a decade before retiring in 1991.

In the late 80s, the sheriff’s department was involved in a pre-Rodney King scandal in which four of its deputies were videotaped savagely beating four Latino men with batons, while they were on the ground handcuffed.

This example of police brutality was by no means unique. The department had long been known to use excessive violence, especially against minorities. What made the event special was that it was caught on video, a technology that was still relatively new at the time, and the video footage was being used against the sheriff’s deputies in court.

Tidwell clearly didn’t know how to react to this newfangled VHS personal camcorder technology. He wasn’t used to back talk, and he seemed genuinely surprised, even hurt by the video recording. He had spent his whole life smacking Latinos. Suddenly he was being forced to explain and account for his department’s policing methods.

He gave this hilarious comment to the press:

"The officers used the proper amount of force. If you want to see brutality in the video you will see it. But if you look at it with an open mind and view it carefully, you will not see brutality.”

In other words: “Yes we beat those no good Mexicans silly because they deserved it. And what of it?”

The victims eventually won a $750,000 settlement, but there was no accountability for the sheriff’s department. None whatsoever. The County didn’t even pretend to conduct an investigation.

Around the same time, a group of deputies raped a 17-year-old female in Victorville who was enrolled in the sheriff’s “Explorer Scout” program, which allows high school and college students interested in a career in law enforcement to receive limited police training and then ride along with deputies on patrol. The deputies were fired, but there did not seem to be any deeper investigation into sexual abuse within the program, despite the fact that there appeared to be a tradition of using Explorer Scouts as young “ride along” tail for San Bernardino deputies.

It’s a tradition that remained well in place until just a few years ago, after another string of molestations and rapes of Explorer Scouts in Victorville forced the department to suspend the practice.

When Tidwell retired in 1991, The Los Angeles Times published a puff piece praising him for helping “shepherd the department from a small force of deputies roaming Southern California’s outback to a modern law enforcement agency grappling with gangs and other urban ills.”

Sixteen years later, Tidwell was back in the news when his son and daughter-in-law were hauled in front of a judge. Here’s The Los Angeles Times from 2007:

“More than a dozen people in the bail bond business, including Danial Tidwell, son of former San Bernardino County Sheriff Floyd Tidwell, were indicted Friday on a host of charges, including perjury, falsifying documents and grand theft.

The 15 people involved worked for Boone’s Bail Bond, Arzate Bail Bond and Bail Hotline, according to the San Bernardino County district attorney’s office. Eight employees of Boone’s in Fontana were indicted, including owner Danial Tidwell, 53. He was indicted on two counts of possessing assault weapons, one count of receiving stolen property and one count of grand theft of a firearm. His wife, Shirley Tidwell, 47, was indicted on a charge of filing false and forged documents and perjury.”

The Tidwell clan operated a string of bail bond companies, and for years had been using an illegal kickback scheme to dominate the bail bond business in San Bernardino County. It was a simple racket: the Tidwells used inmates inside the county jail system as sales agents who would refer other inmates to their company. In return, their inmate-agents got cash payments, free phone calls and lower bail premiums.

In the end, a friendly county judge reduced their charges to misdemeanors, slapped the Tidwells with minor fines and let them go on their way.

In the course of the case, investigators stumbled onto something unexpected. Tidwell’s sons had a bunch of unregistered guns in their house with tags that read “San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Evidence Room” still attached. Surprise! The guns came from their father, who, as it so happened, had been stealing confiscated weapons from his department evidence room for decades. Everyone seemed to know about it. I guess it was just seen as one of the perks of being top dog sheriff. Here’s The Los Angeles Times again:

Floyd Tidwell, the former sheriff of San Bernardino County, pleaded guilty Monday to four felony counts of concealing stolen property as investigators said he took at least 523 guns from evidence rooms during his eight-year tenure.

During his terms, from 1983 to 1991, Tidwell would walk through evidence rooms “as if shopping, to take his pick of weapons,” one sheriff’s official said. Among the weapons was a military M–2 carbine, a fully automatic assault weapon banned under state and federal gun control laws.”

The sheriff begged not to be sent to jail. “I’ve put a lot of people away,” he groveled in front of the judge, saying that he’d never make it out. The crooks would skin him alive. Of course, a friendly county judge took pity on the old sheriff. Tidwell’s punishment? A $10,000 fine and no jail time.

The lack of accountably is shocking, even compared to neighboring ultra-conservative Orange County.

Compare the gentle treatment of Penrod and Tidwell with what recently happened to Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona, who was indicted on a long list of corruption and abuse-of-office charges: fraud, conspiracy, witness tampering—you know, basic sheriff stuff like that. Carona beat most of the rap against him, but was nabbed and found guilty of witness tampering and sentenced to 66 months.

Which brings us to Christopher Dorner.

It’s been a week since the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department standoff with Christopher Dorner resulted in his death. There is strong preliminary evidence showing that the sheriff’s deputies intentionally ignited Dorner’s cabin with incendiary grenades, rather than attempt to take him into custody alive. The current sheriff, John McMahon, has repeatedly denied this, claiming that the fire was accidental:

“We did not intentionally burn down that cabin to get Mr. Dorner out….We believe that this investigation is over, at this point, and we’ll just need to move on from here.”

McMahon spent his entire career working the same good ol’ boy network of back-desert cops that both Penrod and Tidwell came from. So we shouldn’t expect much in the way of cooperation.

What happens in San Bernardino County stays in San Bernardino County…

Postscript: As this article goes to print, news is emerging that someone from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department has been shopping around “extremely gruesome” death scene photographs of Christopher Dorner to various media outlets. The pics were offered to tabloid website TMZ. It declined to purchase the pics, but here is how TMZ described the goods:

Christopher Dorner’s badly scorched, partially dismembered body was photographed after his death …

The top of Dorner’s head is gone … presumably the result of the self-inflicted gunshot wound that ended his life after the gun battle at a remote cabin in Big Bear, CA last week.

The body is missing several limbs … including an arm and parts of a leg … and his midsection is charred from the fire that consumed the cabin during the Feb. 12 shoot-out.

Back channel chatter

There is a scribble about this dispatch in the backroom, with two contributors.