My Journey from L.A. County Custody to Sheriff Lee Baca’s Wild World of Wheelin’ and Dealin’
In 2003 I was hired to write a teleplay of sorts for the 2nd Annual California Gold Star Awards: Dedicated to Homeland Security – a Donald Sterling, black-tie, $25,000 per-table fundraiser for the Orange County Reserve Deputy Sheriff’s Association held at the Disneyland Hotel. Security for the luminary-laden event was, according to the official press release and apropos of the national mood, listed as “war mode.”
Now for those of you unfamiliar with the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, the event’s principal underwriter, Donald Sterling, is one of Southern California’s largest real estate moguls. He’s also routinely accused of flagrant racism, not least of all by the U.S. Department of Justice for his attempts to exclude blacks, Latinos and prospective tenants with children from renting apartments in properties he owns. Even when it appears as though others are honoring him, words like “fake,” “ugly,” and “mirage” have been used to describe Sterling’s garish “philanthropy,” while he himself enjoys a widespread reputation for being miserly, sexist, and self-aggrandizing.
So it’s no surprise that Sterling’s 2003 Gold Star Awards wound up a salute to scheming police officials, usual-suspect politicians, and cop-groupies coating themselves in the shellac of syrupy righteousness – even if it did take several years for the veneer of “honor” and “heroism” to wear off for many of the evening’s celebrants. These days, the long string of fallen dominos looks like its heading the way of wheeler-dealer Leroy Baca as the FBI and ACLU climb into bed together to investigate the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department.
Back on that chilly April night in 2003, it was my job as “Show Writer” to be responsive to every conceit the producers chose to throw at the podium, no matter how vomitus. My duties began with voiceover narration for video tributes to select awardees and included stage direction, everything that scrolled on the Teleprompter, and “Voice of the Theater” lines such as:
And now, ladies and gentlemen, we’re pleased to introduce tonight’s Event Chair and Master of Ceremonies, Mr. Arthur Kassel.
Oh Art, I halfheartedly wish I’d worked for you before your wife, Tichi, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. At least meeting her once allows me to confirm what your minions say of you: that you were a kinder and much less agitated dude when she was healthy and happy. I, however, was left with Arthur Kassel: Baca buddy, founder of the Eagle and Badge Foundation, driver of Ford Crown Vic Police Interceptors, and bear of a gun nut who doesn’t go three feet without a Glock 17 holstered to his hip. Art Kassel, executive producer and my boss for the ’03 Gold Star Awards.
In person, Kassel is the spitting image of Broderick Crawford’s Harry Brock from the 1950 film adaptation of Born Yesterday. Everything about Art says cop groupie – from his suits to his physique to his hunter-killer bearing – and he brings out the police courtesy in people regardless of the fact that his badge reads “Reserve” and is mainly a product of his friendship with Sheriff Baca. In ’03, his police vehicle came courtesy of former Gov. Pete Wilson, who’d appointed Kassel to CA’s Department of Mental Health as some sort of celebrity/security/anti-stigma liaison. (What a shame he had to quit recently due a state audit that basically claims he did jack shit for his salary). L.A. Sheriff’s Department spokesman Steve Whitmore described Art to the L.A. Times as “an unpaid part of the Sheriff’s kitchen cabinet” and a member of the “loose-knit group of friends the Sheriff sometimes consults.”
After several years of working together, and having perfected the art of high-profile charity chintz, Donald Sterling and Art Kassel (along with others whose names I won’t blab) fashioned this particular fundraiser from pieces and players willing or bidding to return (plus maybe a handful who were convinced by the promise of reciprocity). Production staff meetings were held at Art’s Beverly Hills home or at Trader Vic’s: at either place one got the feeling of being a potentially useful source of plasma that Kassel would forget about before he put his fork down. Yet somehow the whole experience was worth feeling like the gum on the bottom of Art’s shoe. Even if the writing credit felt, well, awkward, you knew you were being allowed an exclusive peek behind the curtain of a powerful tit for tat choreography. During one meeting, for instance, Art put his pal Baca on speaker phone so we all could hear his half-joking demand, “When am I going to get my fuckin’ helicopter?”
Good God, I wondered, is it really that simple?
Kassel didn’t skip a beat. “Relax! You’ll get your helicopter; it’s being handled.” He muted the phone and said to the room, “He’s pissed the boys have only one air unit.”
Then he clicked back to Baca and countered, “Can you green light the silent auction ride or not?” He was referring to a proposed airborne ride-along in the unit the department did have at the time; I don’t recall if the ride actually made it into the event’s auction, but apparently it really is that simple.
Now, if you’re aware that this blog also serves as an information point for Where Excuses Go to Die, my chronicle of the four years I spent in the California prison system, you’re probably wondering how I got to this point. During that helicopter exchange and others like it, I wondered the same damn thing. See, when I was a pre-trial inmate in L.A. County custody, I was sent to the notorious 3rd floor modules of Men’s Central Jail and left to fend for myself for a while. For many months, I was never asked who I was, what I was doing there, or when my next court appearance had been calendared. My efforts to alert the Deputies went ignored, of course, because most jail-duty Deputies hate prisoners who “think they’re special.” Trying to speak with them is special.
My dad’s inquiries went ignored as well, and MCJ became the place where I survived my first fights, the barbarity of the “9000 Block,” and the stopgap housing known as “The Freeway.” I also got my ass kicked by several Deputies for alerting them to a body I found in a cell. But through it all I discovered a voice within me that seemed worth protecting, which is basically what Where Excuses Go to Die is about (that and finding some much-needed humility).
So in those moments in Art Kassel’s house – one containing easily a thousand or more framed photos of him and every tough-on-crime VIP out there – with him sitting next to me wearing that gun, with his twin Crown Vics outside, and with the L.A. County Sheriff suddenly asking what I’d written for him, I felt electrified, duplicitous, and grateful.
All these years later, as the FBI demonstrates to the world that Baca’s jail and the Deputies who run it are everything they have been accused of being for decades; as Baca is forced into holding televised Town Hall Q&As with inmates inside the dungeon itself, he’s got to be asking himself the same thing I was back then: How the hell did I get here?
On the night of the Gold Star Awards ceremony, though, a red carpet entrance allowed hired photographers to play like hungry paparazzi; celebrity presenters, recipients, and seat-fillers included Honorary Event Chairs Gena & Chuck Norris, among others; Ketel One hosted a popular vodka ice bar; and the duel silent and live auctions filled the coffers of the OC Reserve Association. Shaq showed up wearing his newly issued LA Port Authority uniform, and the ballroom was decorated so patriotastically you’d have thought the Japanese had just surrendered. Holier-than-thou super-honkies and their weird-boned, carved-face wives paraded around with so much glowing orange skin you were tempted to hold out a sack for candy and ask, trick or treat?
One of my event-directives was to ask presenters for their last-minute changes and pretend to give them to the Teleprompter guy. The A-listers were gracious and had few alterations. B-listers noted their preferences and asked for stage direction. C-listers itemized revisions with a sense of entitlement and a dismissive wave, and D-listers were incoherent. An assistant to Lee Baca requested that a phrase be removed from what the Sheriff was reading because he’d been stumbling over two of the words in it. I actually meant to comply, but then I forgot about it ‘til the very second Baca took the stage. Just like the lady said he would, the Sheriff botched the phrase but kept repeating it to get it right. It was a long 15 seconds. As he came back down the ramp, shaking hands and chatting, I waited for a break and fessed up. Baca squinted at my laminate, then laughed and wrapped me in a giant bear hug. Holy shit! I thought. I wonder what he’d do if he knew who he was hugging! I almost thanked him for his Department’s “hospitality” but decided to enjoy the professional accomplishment instead.
As for that question of how I got to this point, the short answer is that one of the names I won’t mention thought I was worth a shot at the work, so she promptly fed me to Art Kassel. That April ’03 gala was actually the third gold-plated show I’d written for Kassel and Sterling and even Lee Baca. But while the unexpected personal growth their world held for me did come courtesy of our fleeting personal connection, in the years since I’ve had many occasions to marvel at how similar cops and criminals truly can be. I present for you now a virtual salad of links and deeper reading recommendations on the post-show fates of presenters, recipients, and sponsors of the 2nd Annual California Gold Star Awards:
- O.C. Sheriff & Gold Star Host Mike Corona:from “America’s Sheriff” and White House homeland security advisor to a 66-month conviction on federal corruption charges in 2009
- Assistant Sheriff & Gold Star Honoree Don Haidl: from high school dropout to Newport Beach millionaire to Reserve Division coordinator and member of Corona’s “Team Forever” until he cut a plea deal by ensnaring his boss, Haidl is easily the most unrepentant repeat-offender on this list. With decades of misbehavior under his belt, it’s no surprise Don sired Greg Haidl, a sex offender and convicted gang rapist despite dad’s attempts to strong-arm the O.C. District Attorney’s office into trying his son as a juvenile. Having hired a dozen high-priced lawyers, a former CA Supreme Court justice, four private detective firms, a professional publicist, a full-time audiovisual expert, and O.J. Simpson’s jury consultant, Haidl was not too happy when he couldn’t buy his preferred version of “justice” this time around
- Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo: a key aide and O.C. Sheriff’s Department lackey in the rape case against Don Haidl’s son, Jaramillo was the third leg of “Team Forever” until he was fired by Corona in 2004. He pled out at 27 months for fraud a year later.
- New York City Police Commissioner and Gold Star Honoree Bernie Kerik: once under consideration as Secretary of Homeland Security, he began a four-year sentence for multiple felony counts — including lying to federal investigators – in 2010.
- Event Chair & Executive Producer Art Kassel: from special assistant to Gold Star Honoree Stephen Mayberg, Director of the CA Department of Mental Health, to a 2011 state auditor’s investigation of wasted funds and questionable ties as “special advisor” to L.A. Sheriff Lee Baca
- Event Sponsor & Gold Star Honoree Lou Perez: the founder of employment giant CheckMate Staffing, this O.C. millionaire’s company declared bankruptcy and changed leadership after law enforcement officers and investigators raided 22 offices for evidence of massive work-comp fraud just seven months after accepting his award. Despite a 2006 arrest, Perez is still Chairman of the Board and raking in the dough.
- Honorary Event Chairman & LA Clippers Owner Donald Sterling: Where to start? Sterling just can’t stay out of the spotlight, even when he’s trying to “help” underprivileged kids.
Tags: Bernie Kerik, Checkmate Staffing, Don Haidl, Donald Sterling, George Jaramillo, Gold Star Awards, L.A. County Jail, L.A. County Sheriff, Lee Baca, Lou Perez, Mike Carona, O.C. Sheriff, Shaquille O'Neal