Don Haidl, a self-made millionaire and former assistant sheriff in Orange County who became a central figure in the corruption case against the sheriff who was once his boss, died Tuesday at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach. He was 61.
Haidl died of natural causes, said Jim Amormino, a spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. He died “unexpectedly,” his sister, Peggy Haidl, said in a statement.
An auctioneer who made a fortune selling used police cruisers and other vehicles, Haidl became part of a power trio atop the Sheriff’s Department after Michael Carona was elected sheriff in the late 1990s. All of the so-called “Three Amigos” were eventually convicted of crimes, Haidl the only one who escaped time behind bars.
Haidl was born on Jan. 12, 1951, in Chicago and grew up in Southern California, where his father built swimming pools. He had had a penchant for cars since childhood and taught himself mechanics and bodywork.
He restored and sold his first car — a 1952 Pontiac — as a teenager, and then dropped out of high school to wash cars for a rental company and operate a drill press.
In 1981, he opened a car auctioning firm and sold the company in 1999, about the same time he was appointed assistant sheriff by Carona. Although he took the non-paying job as a volunteer, Haidl later testified that, before getting the job — which required a vote by county supervisors — he had made at least $30,000 in illegal contributions to Carona’s campaign, showered him with personal gifts and provided the sheriff’s mistress with cash.
His relationship with Carona began to sour after Haidl’s son, Gregory, was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison for a 2002 sexual assault in which an unconscious 16-year-old girl was attacked in the elder Haidl’s Corona del Mar home. Gregory Haidl was released in 2008.
Friends said Don Haidl was devastated by his son’s arrest. When he resigned from the department in 2004, he cited the “heartbreaking and burdensome” spotlight due to the charges against his son.
The former assistant sheriff re-emerged as a star prosecution witness when Carona was tried in 2009 on corruption-related charges. Haidl had worn a hidden microphone in 2007 in conversations with Carona as investigators probed suspected wrongdoing in the department.
At the time, Haidl was facing charges for allegedly filing a false income tax return in a scheme to help pay his son’s legal bills. He agreed to testify against Carona in exchange for a recommendation of leniency in his own case.
During a sentencing hearing on Haidl’s tax fraud charges in 2010, U.S. District Judge Andrew Guilford told Haidl that if he had not cooperated “so fully and thoroughly” he would be serving time in jail.
“I accept full responsibility for everything I’ve done,” he said at the time.
Friends described Haidl as generous and down to earth. They said his wealth was not noticeable and that he raised money for charities such as Make-A-Wish Foundation.
His sister, Peggy, said in a statement Wednesday that he had tried to help as many people as he could: “Whenever I would meet someone who knew my brother, they would tell me of something kind and compassionate that Don had done for them.”
Information on survivors was not immediately available.