In Search of the Mysterious Orange County Sheriff’s Museum

Photo by Anthony Pignataro

It was the fingerprinting machine that gave it away. While I was looking over the Oct. 30, 2018, Orange County Board of Supervisors’ meeting agenda, I’d noticed the reference in the Consent Calendar: “Approve donation of one Live Scan machine to Sheriff’s Museum & Education Center and make related findings.”

There’s a Sheriff’s Museum & Education Center? In Orange County? A quick online search led me to OCSheriffmuseum.com.

“The Orange County Sheriff’s Museum & Education Center is established to preserve, store and display Orange County Sheriff’s Department historical artifacts and documents,” states the website. “The museum can offer narrated tours and lectures to the community’s schools and youth programs, promoting goodwill while educating young people as to the important and diverse tasks the Sheriff’s Department performs, with emphasis on alcohol-and-drug-prevention education and career opportunities within the department.”

That’s all written in the present tense, which implies the Sheriff’s Museum is an actual museum that allows members of the public to view things such as old guns and uniforms and maybe drop a dollar into a donation box or even purchase cute stuffed animals wearing little Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) shirts.

An email to OCSD spokesperson Carrie Braun for further information led me to Ray Grimes, a Sheriff’s Reserve captain who commands the department’s aero squadron. But he quickly dashed my dreams. In fact, he sounded a bit alarmed at my calling him.

Photo by Anthony Pignataro

“How’d you find out about the museum?” Grimes asked when I identified myself. I told him about the Supervisors meeting agenda and the donation of the old Live Scan machine, which seemed to set him at ease. “A lot of people haven’t heard of the museum. That’s partly by design.”

Just to be clear: The Orange County Sheriff’s Museum & Education Center doesn’t actually exist. Though it has a website and a few displays, it isn’t something you can visit. In the works for more than a decade, the museum is still nowhere near completion—and it may never be fully open to the public.

“Only if we find a rich uncle who’d like to build us a building,” Grimes explained. “We have a little money in the bank. But not only do you have to have a building, but you also have to have sustainment money.”

Still, Grimes is pushing forward. He’s been locating items and trying to catalog what has already been acquired. Much of it is still locked up in storage, though some is on display in the lobby of the Sheriff’s Department Training Academy in Tustin. Other stuff is located at the headquarters of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs (AOCDS, the union that represents OCSD deputies) in Santa Ana. But neither facility is open to the public.

Still, AOCDS officials are pleased to display at least some of the museum’s holdings. “We are extremely proud of our partnership with the Orange County Sheriff’s Museum & Education Center. Museum organizers experienced countless obstacles for 14 years trying to get this museum off the ground,” AOCDS President Tom Dominguez said in a Nov. 9 statement. “AOCDS is thrilled that we could help them bring their goal to fruition after all these years, and we are looking forward to sharing the nearly 130 years of OCSD and county law-enforcement history with the people of Orange County.”

But while talking with Grimes, I noticed his main concern seemed to be keeping members of the public from calling him and asking for tours. “We’re probably going to have a telephone number with a recording, or we’ll be overwhelmed,” he said. “We’re going carefully with this. Part of the commitment is to protect all these items [because] our culture is to throw things away. We have a ball and chain from the 1800s, which was found in the basement of an old jail. The museum doesn’t have a lot of loose cash, but it has [former Sheriff] Theo Lacy’s 1892 walking stick—we just couldn’t pass that up. The public has never seen these things.”

Money—or, more specifically, a lack of it—is the main problem. IRS tax records indicate the nonprofit museum—which, Grimes said, doesn’t take any public money—has taken in less than $50,000 in gross receipts each year since 2010; it brought in less than $25,000 in 2009.

Photo by Anthony Pignataro

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Sketches of the proposed facility on the Sheriff’s Museum website show a stunning, massive, two-story structure, complete with two large lecture halls, a variety of old patrol cars parked out front, a restaurant and a “Grand Hall” that includes a “suspended helicopter” inside.

“The men and women of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department are proud of our legacy,” Sheriff Sandra Hutchens says in a six-minute video created to raise funds for the museum. The video features clips of OCSD personnel doing all manner of tasks, as well as an appearance by former Sheriff Brad Gates, who held the office from 1975 to 1999.

“I’m very excited about the Orange County Sheriff’s Museum and Education Center,” Gates says in the video, sounding anything but excited. “Our rich history and ability to share a hands-on learning environment with the citizens of Orange County is a wonderful cause.”

Of course, there was a sheriff between Gates and Hutchens who isn’t mentioned in the video—or anywhere on the museum website. That would be Mike Carona, who took over after Gates retired and held the post until he resigned in 2008, accused of multiple corruption charges. Convicted on one count of witness tampering, Carona served four years in federal prison before being released to home confinement in 2015. That’s history that should be in a Sheriff’s Museum.

About a week or so after I spoke to Grimes, AOCDS Director of Communications and Public Affairs Lynda Halligan emailed me, offering a chance to look at the exhibits. I quickly agreed.

Photo by Anthony Pignataro

There are a couple of display cases in the AOCDS lobby, and more are set up in an adjoining room. Halligan said the goal is to start inviting school and scouting groups to view them sometime in early 2019.

“But not the general public,” I said, repeating what Grimes had told me.

“If they want to call us and make an appointment, they’re welcome to come by,” she said.

Looking through the exhibits, I saw some of the items Grimes had told me about, including Lacy’s cane and some old firearms. Placed near virtually every item and photograph are detailed information cards, giving visitors historical—and sometimes humorous—context to what they’re seeing.

For instance, near a Kawasaki police motorcycle is a cell door from the old Sycamore Street Jail. The card explaining how the museum acquired the door, which was removed during the jail’s 1968 demolition, is extraordinary.

“As the (confirmed) story goes, the jail deputies thought it would be funny to have a jail door placed atop the Jail Captain’s desk, as a ‘paper weight,’” states the card. “The Captain soon discovered the jail door on his desk but couldn’t lift it (around 250 pounds). This jail door disappeared sometime after the Sycamore Street jail was closed. The Sheriff’s Museum was contacted by a retired police narcotics officer, stating that she had this jail door at her family’s home in Santa Ana and did we want it? Of course we did. . . . Our question was ‘Where has this door been for over 30 years?’ She replied that her now-deceased father had it in his back yard in Sacramento since retiring.”

While Grimes is right that a half-dozen display cases and an old motorcycle don’t make a museum, he and his co-workers have acquired a great deal of items that hold real historical value and should be viewable by the public. Still, as I walked around the rooms, looking at the uniforms, handguns and radios from decades past, I couldn’t help but feel an absence.

“So, will there be a Mike Carona exhibit?” I asked Halligan while peering into a display case containing old shirts issued to jail inmates.

“Yeah, probably not,” she said.

Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.

One Reply to “In Search of the Mysterious Orange County Sheriff’s Museum”

  1. As a condition of and public funding, there MUST be prominent display of all Mike Corona’s crimes as well as the sheriffs deputies who got caught in the snitch scandel. I guarantee there were more who didn’t get caught who knew and allowed it to go undetected for years. And the jail has been eavesdropping on attorney client calls illegally for at least 40 years that I know of.

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