Badge of mystery
Charismatic candidate or embattled lawman—who is the real Sheriff Scott Jones?
Tyler Gunn watches a bleak light fade in the business park on a mid-October evening. There’s no sign of Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones yet, and Gunn, a college intern working on Jones’ campaign, can only shift his eyes toward a cawing noise that echoes across the parking lot’s oil-stained cement and plum trees. It’s emanating from a platoon of Democrats in baggy Ami Bera shirts, waving signs and holding bullhorns as they gather for what looks like a small, pre-debate tailgate party.
There is no assembly for Jones, but there doesn’t need to be when he’s within a razor-thin margin of defeating the two-time U.S. representative.
With just an hour to go before the only debate in the race for the 7th Congressional District, Gunn notices the Bera crowd is mustering in a part of KVIE Public Television’s parking lot that’s generally not visible from any roads or freeways, aiming their demonstration at a small studio audience.
He’s completely unimpressed. For Gunn, the spectacle is more evidence he’s spent the last months working for the right politician. He’s written a college paper about Jones. He’s spread the campaign’s message. And now he’s here to watch a man who, in the eyes of supporters, presents an image Bera struggles to match: forcefully articulate, personally charming and unabashedly confident.
Tonight, Jones’ backers hope everything about his presence comes through on the stage, counterbalancing the long string of headlines the sheriff’s department has endured over allegations of deputy misconduct, sexual harassment and managerial nepotism. They want California to see the candidate they see, the man who promises to speak common sense to what they see as an out-of-touch power structure, the surgical problem solver who approaches political maneuvers like well-planned SWAT operations, the cutting-edge law enforcement commander whose anti-immigration YouTube message to the president went viral in the wake of a deputy’s murder.
Sheriff Scott Jones. The man who’s here to make you feel safe.
But some Sacramentans walking into the studio’s debate hall see a very different man. Critics see a onetime deputy sheriff who moonlighted as a private attorney, sharing an office with Donald Malone, a bail bondsman later sent to prison for trying to steal millions from the Treasury Department. They see an administrator who entered into a contract with the federal government to operate a jail facility for undocumented immigrants and then allegedly abandoned those detainees in crowded, filthy conditions where they lacked medical care and were forced to bathe themselves in toilet water. They see a law enforcement official who ran data-mining technology throughout Sacramento’s community—a practice that affected citizens, without local judges and defense attorneys even knowing.
Such perceptions about Jones’ strengths and weaknesses have all played out in the media. Now, with the hours winding down to Election Day, this debate may be the last chance for voters to answer a question: Who is Scott Jones? Is he the charismatic, law-savvy politician with the experience and fortitude to stop narcoterrorists in California and jihadi fighters abroad? Or is he the face of a dysfunctional agency rife with scandal and civil liability?
Perhaps he’s both.Support your local sheriff
As the chanting from Bera’s supporters dwindles, Gunn strikes up a friendly conversation with an intern working on the congressman’s campaign. And then, out of nowhere, Jones appears next to the college students. He’s dressed to the nines in a dark suit and solid red power tie.
“There’s the best candidate,” Gunn pipes up.
“Well, I’m at least in the top two,” the sheriff says with an easy laugh. Jones is all smiles as he shakes hands with Bera’s intern and an SN&R reporter that his campaign has been dodging interview requests from for a month.
“Can I get a picture with you?” Gunn asks. Jones happily poses with the young Republican and then it’s off to stand in front of a television crew for a preview of tonight’s showdown. This is where some political observers think Jones shines. There’s a calm certitude in his posture. There’s a razor-sharp focus in his eye contact when interviewed. Jones’ supporters read much into that poise, including a powerful sense of self they believe explains why the sheriff hasn’t responded to Bera’s constant attack ads with equal turns in the gutter. For fans like Gunn, Jones’ efforts to run a positive campaign are a point of pride. Walking into the auditorium, someone mutters over Gunn’s shoulder, “I haven’t seen Bera yet, I wonder if he’s here?”
“He’s probably in a corner somewhere scribbling out a last-minute hit piece to pass out,” Gunn fires back.
Jones is the first candidate to appear. He stands alone in the spotlight, his eyes occasionally drifting back to the empty podium where Bera is supposed to be preparing. When the congressman finally appears, Jones quickly walks over to extend his hand. The sound engineers release both men for a moment and Jones strolls over to his wife Christy and their kids.
“Looks like we’re going to have a full house,” Jones says with a glance at the audience filing in. “Well, this hour should be exciting.”
“Three minutes!” a cameraman calls out. Jones smiles and high-fives his teenage daughter for luck. A boom camera soars overhead as the studio goes live, and the sheriff readies for a debate his campaign keeps insisting Bera tried to avoid.
But the first question of the night comes from the Sacramento Bee’s Capitol bureau chief, Dan Smith, and it has nothing to do with Jones’ favored topics of border security, national security, citizen safety and small-business growth. Instead, Smith looks eye to eye with the sheriff and asks about a May jury decision to award four female deputies from Jones’ department $3.5 million in damages for sexual harassment and retaliation at the hands of members of his command staff—a case in which a sworn legal deposition from a different female deputy alleged Jones touched her inappropriately on 30 occasions when he was a sergeant.
Referring to that female deputy, Smith asks pointedly, “Is she lying?”
“Well, yeah, she is lying,” Jones answers. He reaches his hand out at Smith with a look of thoughtful concentration, adding, “And I’m glad you asked that question.”
Jokes are already being formulated by reporters about how “being glad” merits the first fact check of the evening; but as Jones emphasizes his deep commitment from the podium there are a number of Sacramento families who find the assertion no laughing matter.
One man not watching tonight’s event is Ted Rose. In the minutes ahead the only question Jones will get about lawsuits is the initial one involving sexual harassment. But Rose knows better than anyone the legal problems for Jones’ agency go much deeper and include a number of wrongful death actions. Rose filed one of those very lawsuits, and Rose is not a man easily dismissed. The winner of several citations for humanitarian work, Rose is the pastor of prayer at New Season Christian Worship Center, one of the Sacramento’s largest churches, as well as the chairman of the United States National Prayer Council.
Before January 17, 2012, Rose had attended funerals for Sacramento-area fallen police officers and had personal experience ministering to law enforcement families in times of grief.
Yet on that night in January, Rose says he watched as a Sacramento sheriff’s deputy shot to death his completely unarmed, mentally ill son—in his son’s own room.
Rose recalls that his family’s nightmare worsened when Jones personally told him—and then publicly announced to reporters—that his son’s killing was justified.A painful record
The story started with a 911 call Rose and his wife made one evening when their son Johnathan, 24, began to act strangely. Johnathan suffered from schizophrenia, and when the family lived in Roseville they’d learned that calling that city’s police officers was an effective way of helping deescalate Johnathan’s agitation.
“We’d been sent officers in the past who did their jobs well, who were friendly, professional and who helped us,” Rose said.
After the family moved to North Highlands, they tried the same approach.
“We’d called the Sacramento sheriff’s department a couple of times and had good results with them, too,” Rose said. “But on that one night we got a solo deputy, and he was absolutely a problem deputy.”
The deputy who showed up at their home was David McEntire, a peace officer who’d already generated two lawsuits against the sheriff’s department for alleged brutality. (One was reportedly settled for $50,000, and the other is still pending). Rose says Johnathan was asleep in his bedroom as McEntire barked at the family and swept them aside to enter the house, even as they tried to tell him there was no longer a concern about Johnathan’s mental state.
Rose recounts that he followed behind McEntire as the deputy barged into Johnathan’s room and began shouting at him to get out of bed. Rose says that he watched his son stand up, put his hands behind his back and ask to be arrested—though he’d committed no crime—in an effort to get McEntire to stop screaming at him. When McEntire reportedly demanded Johnathan lay down on the carpet, Rose watched as his son began to comply before freezing, midmotion, stopped by his obsessive-compulsive fear of dirty floors.
At that point, according to Rose as well as information documented in a lawsuit Rose filed, McEntire allegedly threw Johnathan against the wall so hard he broke through the sheet rock. McEntire then cracked Johnathan’s skull open with his department flashlight. Rose says that, shocked and bewildered, Johnathan began to push McEntire away from him.
Panicked, Rose grabbed his son to calm him. That’s when McEntire allegedly drew his gun and killed Johnathan while the young man was in his father’s arms.
Rose says he started asking the deputy, “Why did you shoot him?” to which he claims McEntire repeatedly responded, “I don’t know—I don’t know.”
Sacramento County’s legal team has maintained that Johnathan Rose was physically assaulting McEntire, who feared for his life when he used his firearm.
The Rose family says it was shaken to its core by the violence in Johnathan’s death and the sheriff department’s failure to treat it as a homicide.
Shortly after that night, Rose’s friendship with some of Sacramento’s leading religious figures led to an in-person meeting with Jones. It was an encounter Rose says he quickly came to wish had never happened.
“He was trying to sound nice and caring on one hand, and then on the other he was calling it ’a good shoot,’” Rose said. “He was just going with whatever the deputy had said, even though he knew this deputy has numerous brutality complaints against him. Scott was sitting there trying to convince me that this was a great guy.”
Rose contends Jones caused his family further heartbreak by weighing in on the shooting with local television reporters, portraying their son as a dangerous man who’d forced McEntire to kill him.
“After he told reporters that, from his mantle as the sheriff, you would not believe the kinds of things people started writing about my family in the comments section of the online stories,” Rose added.
It’s not the first time Jones has been accused of such callous behavior.
Jones appeared to be equally untroubled, at least publicly, about the 2012 death of Mark Anthony Scott inside the jail he oversees. According to allegations in a federal lawsuit, Scott was left coughing to death on his own blood for hours as his cellmate pleaded for help. Last year, Scott’s family won a $515,000 wrongful death settlement against Jones’ administration. After settling the case, Jones’ main comment to the Sacramento Bee about what happened in that cell spattered in vomit and hemoglobin was that it was “unfortunate.”
Attorney Stewart Katz sees it as something much worse than just one inmate’s misfortune. Katz represented Scott’s family in court and also represented John Reyes, a Carmichael man who was one of three people to sue the sheriff’s department for allegations of being viciously pummeled with a flashlight by Deputy Paul Pfeifer. (The county has now reportedly paid nearly $400,000 to settle lawsuits between the three individuals Pfeifer’s accused of beating)
Katz, who’s been a neighborhood acquaintance of Jones since the latter was in high school, told SN&R that whether it involves deputies shooting mentally ill people, beating residents with flashlights or leaving inmates to die in their cells, Jones and his commanders haven’t shown a willingness to acknowledge issues, let alone fix them.
“There’s been problems in the sheriff’s office for a long time—and there were problems under the last two sheriffs—but a lot of people had expectations that Jones would be better than he is,” Katz said.
“No one who works around the courts can recall them ever investigating any of their officer-involved shootings, at least from the vantage point of looking at something other than what the deputy says they did,” Katz added. “They claim they do those investigations, but they don’t. I’ve gotten testimony on this.”
As for Rose, his lawsuit against the sheriff’s department will languish in the federal court system for at least another 12 months. And that matters because Rose, who is the key witness to his son’s killing, is terminally ill.
“The county’s legal team has kept filing one continuance after another over the years to drag this out,” Rose said. “I think they’re waiting for me to die so I can’t testify in front of a jury about what I saw happen to my son.”
And the longtime pastor’s conviction about that reality, and the role Jones’ leadership has played in it, is his main explanation for why he’s not watching this debate.
“I honestly can’t stand to look at Scott,” he said.A candidate divided
After a night of ideological sparring, sharp barbs and a few laughs, Jones is looking to end the debate strong with his closing remarks. He stresses that he runs one of the largest sheriff’s departments in the country, has always operated that agency on budget and has never been afraid to make the tough decisions.
“I have a demonstrated record of success and leadership in the sheriff’s department that I will take with me to Washington,” he assures the crowd.
For Republicans like Gunn, the debate has a clear winner. It’s in the tale of the tape: After quickly getting through the sexual harassment question, Jones unleashes a withering line of rhetorical fire on Bera’s support of the Iran nuclear deal and giving cash payments to the rogue state for hostages.
The exchange leaves a head-scratching Bera acknowledging, “The deal wasn’t perfect, but it was the deal we had in front of us.”
When the question of cybersecurity is raised, Jones answers with a serious urgency that comes from running an agency that’s the regional host for the Sacramento Valley Hi-Tech Crimes Task Force. After Bera confronts the sheriff with a potent indictment of his yearlong support for Donald Trump, rescinded just two weeks before the debate, Jones bounces back by answering an economic question with a punchy yet personal speech about growing up with parents who were small-business owners.
Now, as Jones exits the stage, Republican political consultant Wayne Johnson stands up in the third row in the audience, convinced he’s seen an impressive performance from his party’s candidate.
“Jones needed to address the character attacks tonight, and I think he did that,” Johnson says. “Overall he was really polished. He was sharp up there.”
Johnson leaves the studio with former Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness, the man who brought Jones into, in McGinness’ words, an “inner circle” years ago, and who now agrees with Johnson’s assessment of the debate.
The next morning McGinness will tell listeners of his KFBK radio show that Jones was better spoken than Bera and had a much more commanding presence. Even some of the college newspaper reporters who have just witnessed their first live political debate, in conversation, are ready to call Jones the winner. Regardless of party lines, some here believe they’ve seen that long-arm-of-the-law certainty that so inspires Jones supporters.
But the sheriff still has one more choir to get out of the way before he can leave the building.
Jones walks into a room set up for a press conference. He answers the first few questions with the same gusto he showed back on the stage. But then one reporter homes in on the only nondirect answer Jones gave throughout his matchup with Bera. During the debate, the sheriff had been asked about climate change, to which he gave the same response he’s been giving around the community since his appearance in front of the Carmichael Tea Party in 2013: It doesn’t matter if he believes in human-caused climate change, Jones told the panelist, because as a political leader he’ll support sensible clean energy initiatives regardless.
But now, standing in front of this press corps, at this moment, that dance has to stop. The reporter all but demands to know what Jones actually believes. Does Jones think human-caused climate change is real?
“Well, there’s a body of evidence for both sides of the argument,” the sheriff says cautiously.
“But what do you believe?” the reporter presses.
“It just depends on what study I read,” Jones says as his voice shifts through several tonal gears. “I—I don’t know what to believe.”
Bera is watching behind the scenes, already preparing to walk out and raise the specter of what it would mean to have a congressman operating in Washington, D.C., from California—representing the state known around the world as a leader in environmental protection—who is actually a half-closeted climate change denier. And as this newspaper reporter points his notebook up at the sheriff, a man known for his spades of confidence suddenly appears to have none. It wasn’t the millions of dollars his agency has cost the taxpayers in lawsuits that knocked him off balance. It wasn’t the narrative of blood and tragedy that overshadows his department that nicked his demeanor. And it wasn’t Bera’s bland, overly rehearsed attempts to question his personal judgment that pushed him back.
No, tonight what hit the chink in Jones’ armor was the same thing that’s raised every question the public has about him—an old-school journalist refusing to settle for a lazy, evasive answer.
Jones has experienced these moments before. When News10’s Thom Jensen began to uncover in 2014 that the sheriff’s department was data-mining information from people’s cellphones with its secret Stingray technology, Jones’ team reportedly stymied and stonewalled the reporter’s inquiries at every turn. This led to Jensen surprising the sheriff at a law enforcement graduation ceremony, where Jones’ signature coolness and disarming smile both evaporated on camera.
“We’ve dealt with your incessant badgering of our department,” Jones vented to Jensen after asking the journalist if he was proud of himself.
But Jensen’s investigative work was a topic of conversation 14 months later when Jones held a press conference in which he acknowledged that not only did the sheriff’s department have the technology, but its detectives had been using it to collect cellphone data in Sacramento County for years without a judicial review policy. Jones barred Jensen from attending that press briefing.
Since then his concerns about reporters appear to have grown. In July, the Sacramento Bee’s editorial board quoted a memo Jones sent out about news coverage around his administration losing the sexual harassment civil trial. In the message, Jones lamented that “the media” was trying to drag down the entire sheriff’s department’s image just to paint him “as disreputable.”
If Jones believed that in July, then there are few signs his fears have lifted. In early September, SN&R requested an interview with Jones for this story. Initially, Jones’ campaign manager, Kyle McDonald, agreed to set up a meeting with his candidate.
As the weeks passed by, repeated calls and emails to McDonald failed to result in an interview date or even obtaining a basic schedule of Jones’ public appearances—the latter of which is conspicuously absent from his official website and Facebook page.
Now, Jones is walking out of the press conference without granting this paper an interview, and with a new question about climate change hanging over his head.
Despite proclamations of having a great relationship with the press, he hasn’t answered the hard questions about Johnathan Rose, immigrant detainees in his jails or the dozens of brutality claims against a handful of deputies still working.
But he walks out into the fall evening nonetheless, into the last days of a brutal election season where undecided voters now have one more dimension to consider in the ongoing enigma of deciding who he really is. The ongoing attack ads are aimed at a personality many find engaging, but the truth about the leader behind the badge is a story the public may never know.