Off-Ramp

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PHOTOS: LA County Sheriffs through the years

by John Rabe, Marc Haefele, and Frank Stoltze | Off-Ramp

The way we picture them. In an undated photo, two sheriff's deputies ride down a dirt road on horseback through the natural scrub landscape that surrounds the El Monte hog farm after the flood. LAPL/Herman J. Schultheis Collection

Off-Ramp commentator Marc Haefele calls LA County Sheriff Lee Baca's sudden exit a "puzzlement."

Related: Update: LA County Sheriff Lee Baca to retire at end of January

"All he would have had to do," Haefele says, "was pull a Lyndon Johnson and say, 'I'm not running anymore.'" Perhaps, Haefele speculates, he wants to give an underling the advantage of incumbency in the election. When asked about the suddenness of his decision, Baca said he'd simply decided he was part of the past of the department, not the future.

Haefele recalls that Baca entered office in a colorful fashion ... when Sheriff Sherman Block died in office just before the election. Haefele says Block himself had a famous exchange with feisty new LA County Supervisor Gloria Molina. Block had refused to answer Molina's public grilling, prompting Molina to call him "insubordinate." Block replied that for him to be insubordinate, he would have to be Molina's subordinate in the first place. Of course, the sheriff answers to the voters.

Check out the audio to hear Haefele and KPCC's Frank Stoltze talk about Baca's legacy, his weaknesses, and his strong points. Meanwhile, here's a random collection of LA County sheriff trivia, to accompany our slideshow:

  • LA County has had 30 sheriffs, 2 of whom served non-consecutive terms, John C. Cline and William Hammel. 2 were killed in office: James Barton in 1856 (a shootout with bandits) and William Getman in 1858 (during a pawnshop robbery).
  • In the 1800s, the sheriffs tended to hold office for a few years, but the 1900s saw 2 who exceeded 20 years in office: Eugene Biscailuz, who served from 1932–1958, and Peter J. Pitchess, 1959–1982.
  • Biscailuz ascended to the post when Sheriff William Traeger, who had been USC football coach in 1908, won a seat in Congress after being appointed to three terms as sheriff. 
  • For his part, Biscailuz (he was of Basque descent) joined the department in 1907 and helped organize the CHP. 
  • You probably know Sheriff Pitchess name from the Peter J. Pitchess Detention Center.
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