Orange County’s former top lawman, the man talk show host Larry King once dubbed “America’s sheriff” for his relentless pursuit of a child killer, has been freed from prison after serving time for witness tampering and has returned to his home in Orange, where he will complete his sentence.
Former Sheriff Michael S. Carona, whose fall from power foreshadowed an overhaul of the top rung in the Sheriff’s Department, is currently with his wife and son, attorney Michael Schroeder said.
Before he began serving time in 2011, Carona was seen as a rising political star. He drew national attention when he appeared on “Larry King Live” after the kidnapping and murder of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion. He vowed to track down the killer, and the man later convicted in the girl’s death was arrested days later.
But Carona’s public stature eroded when investigators began looking into reports of secret cash payments, sexual affairs and political irregularities, such as providing badges and concealed weapons licenses to campaign contributors.
Carona, 59, was indicted in 2007. During closing arguments in his 2009 criminal trial, Assistant U.S. Atty. Kenneth Julian described how Carona had accepted illegal campaign contributions and gifts from self-made millionaire Donald Haidl, who sent custom-tailored suits, a powerboat and cash his way.
Haidl testified that he had given Carona more than $30,000 before taking on a volunteer assistant sheriff job, which earned him a county car outfitted with emergency lights and a siren. Haidl had built his fortune selling used police cruisers and other vehicles.
Their relationship, though, frayed when Haidl’s teenage son was sentenced to six years in prison in a highly publicized sexual assault case. Haidl’s son was released in 2008, the same year Carona resigned to fight criminal charges of his own.
Carona celebrated “an absolute miracle” in 2009 when a jury acquitted him of all but one of the six felony charges he faced, convicting him in connection to a recording Haidl had made of Carona trying to persuade Haidl to lie to the grand jury.
The statute of limitations had passed for many of the other allegations, jurors concluded.
At Carona’s sentencing, U.S. District Judge Andrew Guilford delivered a half-hour lecture on honesty. He echoed Carona’s prior public promises not to coddle criminals, saying, “There will not be any coddling here.”
Carona began his sentence in January 2011 at Englewood Federal Correctional Institution outside Denver — a prison that has held notable inmates, including former Enron Chief Executive Jeffrey K. Skilling and disgraced Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The low-security prison reportedly offered perks like pool tables and foosball and access to an indoor gym and outdoor recreation area.
Retired Los Angeles County Sheriff's division chief Sandra Hutchens was appointed to take over the O.C. Sheriff’s Department. She was seen as a reformer who could restore the department’s tarnished reputation. She was subsequently elected sheriff and continues to serve.
Haidl spent no time behind bars. He died in 2012 at the age of 61.
For reasons that were not disclosed, Carona was transferred from the Colorado facility to a Kentucky medical facility in November, said Edmond Ross, a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He arrived Wednesday at a residential reentry center in the South Bay, Ross said.
Carona is expected to be released from home confinement Nov. 8, according to the Bureau of Prisons.