Yolo County’s longtime sheriff rides off

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Looking back Born and raised in San Fernando in Southern California, Prieto spent six years in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division before following in the footsteps of his father, Edward Prieto Sr., by becoming a CHP motorcycle officer. His father became one of the agency’s first Latino motor cops in 1955, and together they were the first Latino father-son motor partners. Another “first” joined the family when Prieto married his wife Ramona, the CHP’s first-ever female motorcycle officer and later the agency’s highest-ranking woman as a deputy commissioner. Together they’ve raised five daughters, the eldest three from Ed Prieto’s previous marriage. Two of them hold jobs with the Sheriff’s Office. The family moved to Davis in 1985, and Prieto later took command of the CHP’s Woodland office. His duties included regularly collaborating with other local law-enforcement leaders, and that’s when he said Yolo’s then-sheriff, Bob Martinez, approached him about seeking the job. “I dismissed it,” Prieto said. But upon the urging of his wife and friends, “I decided to give it a shot.” With no incumbent in the race, Prieto prevailed over two inside candidates — sheriff’s Capt. Lee Refsland and Sgt. Jeff Monroe — and ultimately advanced to a runoff election where he bested John Laugenour, a former Yolo sheriff’s deputy and Winters and West Sacramento police officer. Among his first actions was to establish an agency motto, “Service Without Limitations.” It came from a CHP colleague who once told Prieto, “we do service without limits.” Priest liked the sound of it, and he adopted it as the theme of his administration. “It didn’t apply only to the community, but also to the people working internally, that they work in an environment that’s as pleasant that can be,” he said. Milestones He cites among the major accomplishments during his tenure the revamping of outdated technology and training policies, increasing staffing and community outreach efforts, and improvements in education and job-training resources for inmates at the Yolo County Jail, which the Sheriff’s Office operates. Prieto also initiated a number of volunteer programs — comprising youth cadets, reserves, the aero squadron, search and rescue team, Sheriff’s Posse and Sheriff’s Team of Active Retired Seniors (STARS) — that proved crucial particularly during times of recession, when the department sought to maintain its service level with less funding. “We literally brought this organization into the 21st century,” Prieto said. But there were dark days, too. The darkest, perhaps, was on June 15, 2008, when Deputy Jose “Tony” Diaz was fatally shot after pursuing a suspected drunk driver in the rural community of Dunnigan. The four-year sheriff’s veteran was the first deputy to die in the line of duty since 1943. Prieto recalled the countywide law-enforcement response to Dunnigan, where he arrived to find the rural area swarming with police. As they searched for the shooter, word came back that Diaz, who had been transported to the hospital, didn’t make it. The father of three was 37 years old. His killer later received the death penalty. “It was a bad situation,” said Prieto, who had first met Diaz when he worked for the county’s information technology division. “He always had a pleasant smile on his face,” Prieto said of Diaz, who later applied for a deputy’s position and was hired, after initially being passed over for another candidate. “He understood. That showed me he had a strong character, that he cared about someone else.” Less than a year later, in April 2009, the department struggled through another fatal shooting — this one of Woodland resident Luis Gutierrez during an encounter with three plain-clothed deputies from the sheriff’s gang task force. According to the deputies, Gutierrez had run from them when they made contact with him on a freeway overpass, then brandished a knife and threatened them as they gave chase. Two of the deputies opened fire, with one of the shots proving fatal. Although there was controversy over the incident, local, state and federal investigations cleared the deputies of wrongdoing. Gutierrez’s family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in U.S. District Court, which ended with a jury siding with the officers. “That was a rough time for all of us, the idea that this was a racial killing,” Prieto said, noting that the shooting took a toll on the involved officers as well. “They’re also traumatized by it, and they go through a tremendous amount of stress and emotions.” Wild West? Also dogging Prieto over the years were a grand jury report with claims of a “wild West” management style of favoritism, nepotism and intimidation at the Sheriff’s Office; as well as lawsuits filed by two deputies who claimed sexual harassment and racial discrimination, and a correctional sergeant who alleged Prieto fostered a hostile work environment by hugging and kissing female employees. Prieto denied the allegations each time, and to this day insists the claims of discrimination, intimidation and retaliation were “BS.” “It did not happen on my watch that I was aware of, and I never felt like my integrity was in question,” he said. Two of the cases later ultimately were dismissed by a judge. The third, involving the correctional sergeant, was settled out of court in February by the county’s insurance agency for $98,000 in February to avoid further court expenses. Shortly afterward, Prieto — who had announced his intention to seek a sixth term in office — received his first-ever challenge as an incumbent, from Undersheriff Tom Lopez, who pledged to improve employee morale and community trust. “Within days, I could feel the tension in the organization. It was being fractured,” Prieto said. “The No. 1 thing for me has always been the health of the organization. When I saw what was going on, I thought, it’s not worth it.” In March, Prieto announced he would no longer campaign or fundraise. His withdrawal came too late to remove his name from the election ballot, and while he could have removed his ballot statement, he declined to do so “out of respect for the people that endorsed me.” Lopez handily won the June 5 election, receiving nearly 72 percent of the countywide vote. Prieto declined to comment further about the election, though noted that he captured a 28-percent share “without doing anything.” Six months later, Prieto says he looks forward to retirement. “It has been a privilege to have worked with the members of the department and the community,” Prieto said. “One of my greatest achievements is to know I have left the department in a far better place than I found it.” — Reach Lauren Keene at lkeene@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter at @laurenkeene.]]>

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