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Sandra Hutchens, first female O.C. sheriff, dies after long battle with breast cancer

Sandra Hutchens, 65, was considered a trailblazer for women in police management.
Sandra Hutchens, 65, was considered a trailblazer for women in police management, though her tenure as sheriff was not without controversy.
(Christina House / For The Times)

Sandra Hutchens, who rose through the ranks of law enforcement when it was considered a “boys club” and served as Orange County sheriff for a decade, died Monday.

Hutchens, 65, had battled breast cancer for part of her Orange County tenure and used her health crisis to help educate the public. She squeezed in treatments between meetings, donned a wig and pledged that the disease would not affect her work.

“I have always been one to lean forward into the wind,” she once said of her health battle and career to the top of law enforcement.

Hutchens was considered a trailblazer for women in police management and a role model to many, though her tenure as sheriff was not without controversy and several high-profile scandals. Among them were serious allegations of abuse in the jails and improper handling of jailhouse informants.

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Hutchens was a top official at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department when Orange County supervisors hired her in 2008 as a “change agent.” Her predecessor, Michael S. Carona, had been indicted on federal corruption charges, and the agency was tainted by cronyism, sex scandals and allegations of rampant abuse in the county’s jails.

Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said Hutchens took office at a difficult time.

“The public’s trust had been broken by the previous sheriff. Upon taking office, she immediately took action to put one of the nation’s largest law enforcement agencies back on track,” Barnes said. “She kept her oath, kept her promises and ended her time in office leaving this agency better than when she started.”

He added: “Hemingway described courage as ‘grace under pressure.’ There is no one who embodied that description more than Sandra Hutchens. Sheriff Hutchens lived her life and led this agency with courage, grace and dignity.”

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For years, Hutchens, the first woman to lead the agency, was a popular figure in county politics. Voters reelected her in 2014, and she received credit for bringing stability despite cutbacks in the wake of the recession.

But her stock took a hit when allegations of a jailhouse informant network surfaced in the case of Scott Dekraai, who was convicted of killing eight people during a 2011 rampage at a Seal Beach salon. Dekraai’s attorney argued that an informant had been intentionally placed in proximity to his client to extract a confession.

An Orange County Superior Court judge ruled that key information about the informant was not turned over to the defense as required, and jailhouse logs revealed a scheme to place informants near suspects. The scandal caused convictions to be tossed out and led to a stream of negative publicity for the Sheriff’s Department and the district attorney’s office.

In 2017, Hutchens announced her decision to retire after the American Civil Liberties Union released a scathing report alleging inhumane treatment in the jails under her watch, and about a week before her long-awaited testimony on the use of a jailhouse informant in a convicted killer’s case.

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“I have faced storms before, and you know I don’t back down from a challenge,” Hutchens said, noting that criticism came with the job.

Long an admirer of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Lincoln, she adorned her office with images of them as a reminder to be strong and do the right thing, even amid severe criticism.

Barnes said Hutchens was his mentor and never sought the spotlight.

“I will continue to be inspired by her commitment always to do the right thing, regardless of the consequences, and serve with the department’s and community’s interests first without need for self-recognition.”

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Born in 1955 in Monterey Park and raised in Long Beach, Hutchens had a middle-class suburban childhood. Her father was a construction worker, her mother an assembly-line worker.

There were signs at an early age that Hutchens was fiercely independent. At 5 and in the first grade, she insisted on making the 10-minute walk to school by herself, her mother, Marilyn Mitchell, told The Times in 2008.

She graduated from the L.A. County Sheriff’s Academy in 1978, worked as a deputy at the Sybil Brand Institute women’s jail and transferred to work patrol in Lynwood, one of the department’s busiest and most dangerous assignments.

Carrie Braun, communications director for the Sheriff’s Department, said Hutchens once told her that when she started working patrol, one of her male partners would open the patrol car door for her. After the shift, Hutchens — in her blunt, witty style — told her colleague to, essentially, not do that anymore.

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It was in Lynwood on New Year’s Eve 1980 that Hutchens and a colleague were on patrol when they heard a gunshot and she saw a man outside a garage who appeared to have a gun in his hand. Before she could confront him, another man pointed a weapon, and she shot him three times, killing him, she said. The weapon the man had was unloaded.

Hutchens retired to a ranch in Riverside County, where she continued to advise others on counterterrorism while furthering her love of Italian cooking from her mother’s ancestry. She is survived by her husband, Larry Hutchens, a retired assistant chief with Los Angeles Unified School District Police Department.

“She was patient, calm and had a calming influence,” retired L.A. County Sheriff’s Cmdr. Mike Parker said. “She was wise ... she was a great leader.”


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