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Explanation Sought for Display at Ex-Sheriff’s Dinner

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

A top Ventura County official demanded an explanation on Thursday for a display at former Sheriff John Gillespie’s retirement dinner that featured five tombstones with the initials of people viewed by Gillespie as critics.

Supervisor John K. Flynn, one of those whose initials appeared on a tombstone, shot off a two-page letter to Sheriff Larry Carpenter:

“I am afraid that this targeting of both members of the press and representatives of public organizations by a paramilitary public service organization like the Sheriff’s Department may have a chilling effect on public participation.”

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Flynn, in an interview, added that his demand for an explanation of the events at Gillespie’s retirement dinner Saturday at the Ventura County Fairgrounds was motivated by a desire “to assure the people who may have been offended that there were no sinister motives.”

Most importantly, he said, he wanted to ensure that the public, including the media, would not be intimidated in its role as a watchdog.

“That’s a serious matter,” Flynn said.

But Carpenter said the tombstones, part of a “boot hill” display that also featured a hangman’s noose, tumbleweeds and coyotes, was constructed in the spirit of good humor and was never meant to offend or threaten anyone.

“There was nothing profane, nothing off-color,” the new sheriff said. “Anyone who saw them and knew the background situation for each one would have seen the humor in it.

“Anybody who got seriously upset beyond an initial reaction is thin-skinned.”

Carpenter disclosed that he received a letter from Flynn on Thursday that asked whether any county time or resources were used for the dinner and also called on the sheriff to “clarify whose initials were on the tombstones.”

The letter also asked “whether you consider this type of activity professional behavior and whether incidents of this type can be expected in the future.”

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Gillespie’s retirement was attended by about 900 people and staged in the fairground’s Agriculture Building. Among those present were federal, state and local lawmakers from Ventura County and a number of top Southern California law enforcement officials.

The motif was Western, including bales of hay, a barbecue dinner, Western-style dancing and decorations such as buckboards--and the contentious tombstone display.

Carpenter said each tombstone had the initials of five individuals regarded as thorns in Gillespie’s side over the years.

Included were:

* Flynn, who has been critical of locating the new county jail in Santa Paula and the Sheriff’s Department’s minority relations.

* Tina Daunt, a Times staff writer who disclosed details of the large financial perks paid to top county officials, including Gillespie, and who also revealed that Gillespie received an extra six months’ pay for taking early retirement in December.

* Don Hollingsworth of Camarillo, a retired airline pilot who has alleged that the sheriff has covered up jail costs to rationalize construction of a new jail and who accused Gillespie of cronyism in his recommendation that Carpenter be his successor.

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* Jere Robings of Thousand Oaks, former executive director of the Ventura County Taxpayers Assn., who confronted Gillespie on the issue of his government perks.

* Ken Chapman, a Santa Paula area rancher who opposed the site of the new jail near his ranch.

On each tombstone was a jingle poking fun at the five individuals.

Carpenter said the tombstone display has to be understood in the framework of the good cheer and intent of the dinner for the former sheriff.

“We were honoring a man who served the community well,” he said. “We were celebrating that and it was all in good taste. People are overreacting.”

For his part, Hollingsworth said he was not surprised or bothered by what happened at the dinner.

“I’ve been threatened by better people,” he said.

“I’m not intimidated,” Chapman said. “My hide’s pretty thick. What’s in good taste is in the eye of the beholder.”

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“I just see the humor in it, I think it’s funny,” Robings said. “I wish I was there to see it, but I’m no longer on Gillespie’s invitation list.”

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