Former Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, the first woman to head the department, died Monday after a lengthy battle with breast cancer. She was 66.
Hutchens was appointed sheriff in June 2008 following the resignation five months earlier of Mike Carona, who was later convicted of witness tampering. Hutchens was elected to her first term in June of 2010 and served two terms.
Hutchens was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2012. When she announced her retirement in June 2017, she denied it was for health reasons and said she was in remission.
“I have heard rumors out there that the sheriff is stepping down because of illness,” Hutchens said after she announced her retirement, saying it was time after more than four decades in law enforcement. “I don’t have an illness. I’m fine. Everything is coming back (OK), everything is OK, so it’s not for a health reason. I work out in the morning. I feel good.”
Hutchens took over a department rocked by Carona’s corrupt political favors for his friends. She had retired the previous year from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Hutchens won praise for getting the Orange County department back on track following Carona’s scandals and steering it through significant budget cuts triggered by the Great Recession. One of the ways Hutchens bridged those budget gaps was with a “beds for feds” program that rented out space for immigration detainees.
Later, however, her administration came under fire in the case of Scott Dekraai, the worst mass killer in the county’s history. Allegations surfaced that her deputies operated a confidential informant program in the jails that led to the violations of some inmates’ constitutional rights.
Dekraai, who pleaded guilty to the 2011 killings of his ex-wife and seven others at the Salon Meritage in Seal Beach, was later sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole when an Orange County Superior Court judge removed the death penalty as an option for prosecutors as punishment for the confidential informant program abuses.
Hutchens was also at the helm during the daring escape of three Orange County Jail inmates in January 2016.
Her successor, Sheriff Don Barnes, said the news of her death left him with a “heavy heart.”
Barnes said Hutchens “courageously fought (breast cancer) while still leading this department. Her fight was successful for eight years. Unfortunately, the cancer recently returned and Sheriff Hutchens passed this morning with her loved ones by her side.”
Hutchens, the 12th sheriff in the county’s history, “took office at a difficult time,” Barnes said.
“The public’s trust had been broken by the previous sheriff,” Barnes said, referring to Carona. “Upon taking office, she immediately took action to put one of the nation’s largest law enforcement agencies back on track. She was a leader whose ethics matched the culture of the men and women of this department. She restored our pride, gave us back our dignity and rebuilt trust with the people we serve. She kept her oath, kept her promises, and ended her time in office leaving this agency better than when she started.”
Barnes said Hutchens “lived her life and led this agency with courage, grace and dignity. She bravely closed her life in the same manner. When I last spoke to her she was strong, maintained her sense of humor and continued to have a deep love and appreciation for the people of Orange County.”
Hutchens was a “mentor and a friend,” he said, adding that he will “continue to be inspired by her commitment to always do the right thing, regardless of the consequences, and serve with the department and community’s interest first without need for self recognition.”
Former Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach, who is running for another term on the board after serving as state senator, said he had texted with the former sheriff in recent days.
“I at least had the chance to tell her I was praying for her and her husband, but I also thanked her for partnering with the board on the creation of the Office of Independent Review,” Moorlach said of the watchdog agency the board started under her tenure.
“She really appreciated the Office of Independent Review model,” Moorlach said. “I pulled her in, in 2008, when I was chairman of the board to help us interview candidates for OIR.”
Moorlach said he took pride in being a “gender bender,” as he was referred to in an editorial regarding the selection of the first woman sheriff in the county.
“I … thanked her for making me the gender bender because I was one of the three votes” who put Hutchens in office, Moorlach said. “She was a professional and had an open-door policy. She built a great command staff, which included Donald Barnes.”
Sen. Patricia Bates, R-Laguna Niguel, who was one of the three supervisors, along with Assemblywoman Janet Nguyen, R-Huntington Beach, who voted to make Hutchens the sheriff, also expressed her “deep sadness” at the death of “an incredible public servant of the highest ethical standard.”
“She was a trailblazer who worked hard to restore trust to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department during a tough period in its history,” Bates said. “She faced challenges and controversy with a fortitude and grace that left a lasting legacy.”
Bates noted that the sheriff was “always respectful when there was an area of disagreement. I deeply appreciated her love for Orange County. My condolences are with her loved ones during this difficult time.”
Tom Dominguez, the former head of the union that represents sheriff’s deputies, said Hutchens faced even greater scrutiny because of her gender.
“It often does get lost that she was Orange County’s first female sheriff, which makes her in our county a pioneer,” Dominguez said. “And it’s a very difficult job to begin with, and when you factor in she’s a female, females always have more difficulties, especially in the law enforcement arena, but I think she really rose to the challenge and did her absolute best.”
Dominguez acknowledged that his union had his conflicts with Hutchens over the years, but he praised her for never taking it personally.
“It was a very love-hate relationship I had with her,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I had a tremendous amount of respect for her and I acknowledge and recognize she had an extremely difficult job.”
Dominguez said the two had a “mutual respect” for each other.
“We agreed early on in our relationship to not take anything personal,” he said. “It was just business. It made it easier for her to do what she had to do and it made it easier for me to do what I had to do … Maybe there were one or two incidents where we got close to those lines and had contentious phone calls, but we didn’t really hold any grudges.”
Dominguez said Hutchens and Carona “were night and day. Her focus was more on the department and running the department and addressing some of the issues. Her predecessor? Not so much.”
Domignuez said his “fonder memories” of the sheriff were the “private lunches we had from time to time in her office. I really looked forward to those. They were fun. I look back and think that was really nice of her. We wouldn’t talk about business. Just family and life. To me, she had some humanity in her.”