When Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates was called as a witness during pretrial motions for a convicted killer three years ago, a defense attorney asked him about Lt. Wyatt Hart, who handled media inquiries for the sheriff. Exactly what does Hart do? the sheriff was asked.
“He does whatever I tell him to do,” Gates answered.
The sheriff meant it as a compliment. He meant that he knew he could count on Hart, whom he considered loyal, trustworthy and a team player.
Last week, Gates proved how important Hart is to him.
He plucked Hart out of more than 20 lieutenants to make him commander of the overcrowded and politically controversial Orange County Jail and also promoted him to captain.
Admiration of Sheriff No Secret
In his new job, Hart will be responsible for the main men’s and women’s jails in downtown Santa Ana, but not the two branch jails, in Orange and El Toro, which have their own captains.
The jail commander--who most recently headed up security at John Wayne Airport--makes no secret of his admiration for Gates. While the two are not social friends, Hart said that they became close three years ago, when Hart’s older son, Todd, was critically injured in a college football game. Hart, 48, credits Gates’ support for getting him through the ordeal.
Hart’s promotion is not likely to endear Gates to the American Civil Liberties Union, which has spearheaded much of the legal action against jail overcrowding. Hart bluntly says jails are not meant to be comfortable. His standard line on the issue has been:
“If you don’t like our accommodations, don’t check in.”
In an interview at his new office Thursday, Hart said his main objective will be to assure good communications between all parties. Jail officials need to understand law enforcement problems as seen by police, the courts, prosecutors, defense attorneys and the media, Hart said.
But those parties need to understand jail officials’ problems, too, he said, and the same goes for inmates.
‘I’ll Listen to Complaints’
“I’ll listen to any inmate complaints,” Hart said. “But inmates are going to have to understand our situation, too.”
Hart explained that the jail staff has to handle a variety of chores for 1,500 inmates every day. It must feed them, get them ready for court, oversee visitations, provide for recreation time, see to it they get clean clothes and access to showers, and maintain a daily count of the prison population.
“In doing all that, we might have to inconvenience an inmate once in a while,” Hart said. “Well, jails are not meant to be popular. About 99% of the population has somehow found a way to stay out of them. We’ll do the best we can for the other 1%, but they have to be aware what we’re up against.”
Hart, who said most inmate complaints are exaggerated, believes prisoners were treated fairly by his predecessor, George King.
(In the administrative reshuffling, King was promoted to handle jail expansion plans. Meanwhile, Jerry Krans left that post and was promoted to assistant sheriff.)
The new jail commander said he will follow King’s rule that any jail deputy caught abusing an inmate--either physically or mentally--will be dealt with severely.
Nevertheless, some defense attorneys with clients at the jail are not impressed with Hart’s appointment.
“Wyatt Hart will always do what the sheriff wants,” one well-known Orange County lawyer said. “The jail needs someone who can be responsible and handle matters on his own.”
Some defense attorneys, who asked not to be identified, suggested that Hart was given his new position so that Gates can defuse the jail as a campaign issue when he runs for reelection next year.
Indeed, jail overcrowding has been Gates’ biggest headache in recent years. He was criticized three years ago because of the high number of deaths in the jail. And in March, he and the Board of Supervisors were found in criminal contempt for not doing enough to relieve chronic overcrowding at the jail.
While the jail population is now at a manageable level--about 1,500 inmates, contrasted with more than 2,000 prisoners in March--some political observers believe that it will still be a major campaign issue next year.
A Team Player
Gates was on vacation Thursday and unavailable for comment. Hart denied that his public relations abilities were responsible for his promotion.
The new jail commander, however, said that he is proud to be a team player. He doesn’t downplay his strong feelings for Gates--which grew out of the time his son was seriously injured three years ago..
Todd Hart, a free safety with Cal State Long Beach’s football team, was injured in a game against UCLA at the Rose Bowl on Sept. 11, 1982. Doctors told Hart and his wife, Susan, that their 19-year-old son might not live. Later, they were told he would live but was likely to be permanently paralyzed below his neck.
Today, Todd Hart is back in school. He is able to walk with the aid of a walker and his father proudly boasts how well he can drive himself to school in his own pickup truck.
Hart also remembers what Gates said to him at the hospital the day after the accident.
“He talked to me alone and said he understood what I was going through and how bad he knew I wanted to cry,” Hart said.
Defender of Lawmen
“But he told me if I cried, to do it alone away from my family because they needed me to be their strength. That one talk by Brad set the mood and tone I’ve taken since. It got me through.
“So don’t be telling me what Brad Gates’ critics say about him. I know the real Brad Gates.”
Hart is also an ardent defender of lawmen who are accused of being callous by inmates and defense attorneys. He said it’s difficult for police officers not to become hardened.
“We see the victims of the people who are in this jail,” Hart said. “We pull the people from the cars who get hit by the drunk driver. We’re there when the guy arrested talks about a young kid whimpering just before he kills him. It takes a hell of an adjustment for police officers to live with that day after day.”
For all his staunch beliefs, Hart almost didn’t become a lawman.
He grew up in the small town of Duncan, Okla. In that part of Oklahoma, he said, people either went to work on farms or in the oil fields. Hart chose the oil fields, and that led to a job later on with a California oil company.
While he was working in Santa Maria, Hart met a friend who worked for the Probation Department. The friend talked him into becoming a police officer there.
A Natural Candidate
Hart was at Lompoc for three years before moving to a job in the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. He has been a bailiff, worked on patrol, served two stints in the Orange County Jail and worked in the juvenile bureau.
The job with the juvenile bureau involved speaking at high schools, and when Gates move to set up a press information office in 1979, Hart’s speaking abilities made him a natural candidate.
Hart acknowledged that he left the press relations job last year to advance his career. While the post was important within the department, it was not a position of command. So he accepted a transfer last year to head security at John Wayne Airport and oversee other special forces for the Sheriff’s Department.
Hart rankled some county officials two months ago when a PSA jetliner with 99 passengers had to be evacuated for a bomb threat that turned out to be a hoax. One county official said that Hart’s officers treated the passengers as potential suspects, which upset some of them.
Complaint After Incident
After the incident, one woman passenger complained that Hart’s officers made her and other passengers stand dangerously close to the airplane while officials checked for the bomb.
Hart insisted his officers kept passengers a safe distance away. But he was also quoted as saying: “If she didn’t feel like she was a safe distance, there wasn’t anything keeping her there.”
Despite such controversy, Gates was impressed with Hart’s performance in that job. The sheriff also got a letter of high praise about Hart’s performance from airport manager Murry Cable, who had been known to have disagreements with Hart.
“Wyatt has shown a capacity to handle difficult assignments,” including the assignment of dealing with the news media, said Assistant Sheriff Jerry Krans.
“I think the sheriff wanted him because he knows he can do a good job.”