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Sheriff's candidate James Hellmold isn't running from his past

CrimeLaw EnforcementTrials and ArbitrationLee BacaPoliticsElectionsJustice System
L.A. County Assistant Sheriff James Hellmold is running for the post vacated by Lee Baca
Candidate James Hellmold is a 25-year veteran of the Sheriff's Department
James Hellmold, who is running for sheriff, is the son of Sheriff's Department employees

After 25 years in the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, where he rose to assistant sheriff, and with a father who served as a deputy for more than three decades and a mother who worked for the agency as a civilian, James Hellmold is not running from his past.

"I'm an insider 100%," he said.

Some may argue that's a questionable strategy for someone campaigning for sheriff, the person who will head a department that had been thrust into the spotlight in a series of scandals, including the indictment of deputies for allegedly abusing inmates and others accused by federal authorities of harassing minorities.

But Hellmold doesn't see it that way.

The assistant sheriff stresses his knowledge of the department and his loyalty to it and the respect he has gained from the community through his career, while at the same time trying to distance himself from the problems it faced under the former sheriff, Lee Baca.

"I'm not someone in cahoots with the executives of the past," Hellmold said.

He gets angry when he sees the scandals rubbing off on the deputies patrolling the streets of the department's 42 contract cities and those working in the courts, jails and across Los Angeles County.

"When they say the Sheriff's Department has a culture of corruption are you referring to my father and the other on-line deputies?" he asks. "I can't bear it any more, dragging the entire department through the mud for political opportunism."

At the same time he talks of his respect for Baca, whose sudden resignation forced the June 3 primary. "I admire his vision of education, rehabilitation and alternatives to custody for low-level offenders."

Hellmold has been close to Baca since he served as his aide and driver in the late 1990s. Baca later promoted him two levels in the department hierarchy to assistant sheriff. Baca also picked him to help put reforms in place in response to the jail abuse scandal.

But he's sensitive to accusations that his relationship with Baca fueled his rise.

"I've been shot at, assaulted, entered a burning building to rescue a child who died, and people say you're Baca's driver and that's how you got ahead," Hellmold said angrily.

Hellmold learned his boss was considering resigning in January, a couple of days before the sheriff announced his decision. Baca, he said, called him on a Sunday and asked if he wanted to join him at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Los Angeles. After the service, the two men went to a nearby El Pollo Loco.

"What do you think about me retiring?" Baca asked.

"I told him I thought it would be a good idea to step down," Hellmold recalled. "I think he was surprised. I'm not a yes man. To me, friendship means honesty."

When Baca made his announcement, he said that Hellmold and another assistant sheriff, Todd Rogers, who also is running for the job, were both well-qualified to take over as the top lawman.

Despite the comment, both candidates say Baca is not helping them.

Hellmold has not always followed convention, and he points to criticism he received when he spoke at the funeral of a well-known gang member killed by a rival crew. Although he couldn't pull himself out of the Grape Street Crips, Brandon Bullard had stopped recruiting youths who were going to school.

"In his own way … he was trying to do the right thing," Hellmold said. "It may have cost him his life."

Hellmold has worked with youngsters to keep them out of trouble and has encouraged deputies to do the same. He started a midnight basketball league in Compton and then chastised deputies for pulling over the players who were going or coming from the games.

He has encouraged his deputies to follow his lead, and several have worked as volunteer coaches in high schools, including Compton Centennial, Lynwood and L.A. Jordan, Hellmold said.

"It means a lot to me if you're mentoring kids," he said.

"Sweet" Alice Harris, a Watts-based community organizer, said Hellmold has been helping her since he was Baca's driver, coming around so often that the youngsters she works with got to know him. He showed up at last year's Christmas party, bringing two of his teenage sons. Harris described his talk to the kids as, "Stay in school, then one day we'll have a job like him. You can buy a home, buy a car. You won't have to kill and steal."

Hellmold, 46, grew up in West Covina and had been living in San Bernardino County until recently moving into Los Angeles County, a requirement for the sheriff's post.

Hellmold said he had long wanted to return to the San Gabriel Valley but housing prices kept him out. He bought his house in Covina early last year, and he's still trying to sell his house in Chino Hills.

"I'm not hiding the fact I just moved into Covina," he said.

Hellmold also recently changed his registration to Democrat, having started as a Republican and then registering as decline to state.

"I've been a Democrat for many years in my deeds and values," he said.

Hellmold has pressed his candidacy among the county's minority groups. He announced his candidacy at the First AME Church, with civil rights attorney Connie Rice, Harris and a group of Latino ministers there showing their support.

"There are lots of fractured relationships between law enforcement and the community," Hellmold said. "My goal is to strengthen the relationships."

Rice said that she has endorsed him because "he was my partner for reform in the Sheriff's Department." She said he forced recalcitrant deputies to work with gang intervention workers.

"I figured he was ahead of his time," Rice said.

Hellmold wants to set up advisory committees and sponsor forums so people can vent their complaints. "Sometimes frustration comes when people feel their voice is not heard and they don't know who to contact," he said.

He discounts an incident in 2010 which he used a South Asian accent in a prank phone call he made at a retirement roast.

A department panel found the call was "ill-conceived and, while lacking malicious intent, had the potential to cause embarrassment to the department."

Records show Hellmold received counseling after the incident.

"I don't think anybody took it to be offensive," he said. "People who know me know nothing except positive relations comes with everyone I interact with."

jeff.gottlieb@latimes.com

Twitter: @gottliebjeff

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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