Santana: Former OC Sheriff Sandra Hutchens Dies After Cancer Battle

Jeff Antenore for Voice of OC

Sheriff Sandra Hutchens addresses county supervisors at May 9, 2017 board meeting.

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, who came into office in 2008 following the federal conviction of former Sheriff Mike Carona and retired in 2018 after a decade at the helm, has died after a lengthy battle with cancer.

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Hutchens, 66, is survived by her husband, Larry. The couple lived for many years in Dana Point, a place she thought would be her retirement home from her previous post as a senior division chief under former LA Sheriff Lee Baca, who was himself also convicted of corruption by federal authorities in 2017.

Orange County supervisors hired Hutchens to finish out Carona’s term after he resigned in the wake of his own indictment back in 2008 after conducting a lengthy search that ultimately came down to Hutchens and former Santa Ana Police Chief Paul Walters – who now heads investigations for DA Todd Spitzer.

Orange County supervisors chose to go with an outsider, hopeful that Hutchens could change the culture at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

While Hutchens’ peers credit her for stabilizing the agency during a rough time, many quietly acknowledge she could not change the culture.

Hutchens was re-elected in her own right two different times, in 2010 and 2014. In 2017, she announced her retirement and chose her successor as current Sheriff Don Barnes, who was elected in his own right in 2018.

Her most notable management changes was firing former Assistant Sheriff Jack Anderson along with a series of top captains when she took over, then bringing in a whole new command staff that featured many veterans from LA law enforcement circles. Hutchens also launched a division, known as SAFE, that centered on training and procedure and also defended the agency’s budget during lean times.

Yet during her tenure, numerous controversies called into question the integrity of the Sheriff’s Deputies she oversaw.

Sheriff’s special officers took Hutchens through a bitter court battle after she stripped them of their ability to carry concealed weapons off-duty.

Hutchens also triggered an intense debate when she tightened rules for concealed weapons permits – much along the lines of her experience in LA County – something that triggered backlash among many of the Orange County supervisors that appointed her.

Under her watch, public defenders also exposed Sheriff Deputies over their improper use of jail house informants – a practice that affected prosecution of Orange County’s most deadly mass murderer, Scott Dekraai. Hutchens also clashed with a Superior Court judge and public defenders, who accused her of improperly withholding documents about the scandal.

In addition, three dangerous criminals escaped from Orange County jail under her watch – something that triggered a statewide manhunt that eventually caught the inmates.

Just as Hutchens left, her successor – Sheriff Don Barnes – disclosed that in 2018 officials became aware of widespread evidence booking issues with deputies’ arrests.

Last week, Barnes issued a department memo that told his deputies about Hutchens’ situation.

“Sheriff Hutchens recently learned that her cancer has returned,” Barnes wrote in a Dec. 29 internal memo to deputies. “Based on the severity of the cancer, she has decided to forego further medical treatment and is now spending her remaining days at home with her husband, Larry, by her side.”

“Sheriff Hutchens lives her life and led this agency with courage, grace and dignity. She bravely closes her life in the same manner. I spoke with her today. She is strong, maintains her sense of humor, and continues to have a deep love and appreciation for all members of our department family.

I shared with her how much she means to all of us, and to me personally. Her legacy will endure for many years through all those she mentored and entrusted with helping her lead this department. I will continue to be inspired by her commitment to always do the right thing regardless of the consequences, and serving with the department and the community’s interests first without need for self-recognition. I am tremendously grateful for the opportunities she presented me, and the many lessons I learned from her over the years,” Barnes wrote.

“It was an honor to work with her,” said former County Supervisor John Moorlach, who led a 3-2 vote for Hutchens as chairman back in 2008 (the other two were former supervisors Pat Bates and Janet Nguyen).

Moorlach later had differences of opinion with Hutchens on her more restrictive policies on concealed weapons but found common ground with her as she worked with him on setting up the Office of Independent Review.

While many saw the office as a start toward more public disclosure on use of force incidents, Hutchens mainly shaped it as an internal function on reviewing policy and never steered the agency toward any kind of public role.

Yet despite the challenges she faced, many of her colleagues appreciated her civility in a field where that has largely broken down.

“She was a trailblazer who worked hard to restore trust to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department during a tough period in its history. She faced challenges and controversy with a fortitude and grace that left a lasting legacy,” said Bates, now a State Senator, in a statement.

Bates like Moorlach also had her clashes with Hutchens – on issues such as Hutchens’ tightening of requirements for concealed weapons permits – but credited her for handling differences diplomatically.

“Sheriff Hutchens and I worked closely on many public safety issues during her tenure. She was always respectful when there was an area of disagreement,” Bates said.

“Sandi, as many of us came to know her, was a strong and well-respected leader with a kind and compassionate heart,” said Supervisor Lisa Bartlett in a statement.

Labor leaders who dealt with Hutchens noted her grit.

“As an outsider and being Orange County’s first female sheriff it was no easy task to take the reigns of a department whose leadership structure was in shambles back in 2008,” said Tom Dominguez, who headed up the Association of Orange County  Deputy Sheriff’s during Hutchens term. “Although she and I often butted heads over labor-management issues, she respected my passion for defending the righteous actions of my AOCDS members and I respected her for leading our department out of a period of darkness and doing what she could to restore trust with the community.”

Nick Berardino, who represented many of the Sheriff’s special officers and professional staff at the Sheriff’s Department on behalf of the Orange County Employees Association, said he was saddened to hear of Hutchens death, saying her “battle with cancer was heroic and inspirational.”

But he said Hutchens’ management choices didn’t serve her well.

“Our respective positions naturally created many professional  disagreements. Her primary mission to change department culture was hampered by her decision to hire law enforcement executives from Los Angeles County and LAPD,” Bernardino said.

One of Orange County’s most high profile public defenders, Scott Sanders, who had to confront Hutchens directly on records about the use of jail informants, also said he was saddened to hear of her death.

But he didn’t shy away from the reality of their relationship.

“Lot of tough battles,” Sanders said. “We certainly didn’t see things similarly.”

And he said, the culture issues that were there when Hutchens arrived are still there.

“There’s nothing I saw during her tenure indicating there was a change in culture,” Sanders said.

“That’s not just on the deputies. The culture has not yet been created sufficiently where the rights of the accused are at the forefront.

Hopefully that changes.”