Randall Benton | Sacramento Bee
Lake County Sheriff Frank Rivero walks along Main Street in Lakeport, Calif. Rivero has been a lightning rod for controversy since he was elected in 2010.
LAKEPORT, Calif. — Brawny and mustachioed, Francisco “Frank” Rivero strides down Main Street in this resort town, wearing his badge, gun and pine green uniform, headed for radio station KPFZ.
It’s time for another hour of “Straight Talk With the Sheriff,” when Rivero takes on his critics. At any given time, they include the chairman of the Lake County Board of Supervisors, the district attorney, motorcycle gangs, an army of marijuana growers and both local newspapers.
He’s been called a thug, a liar, a bully, a cowboy and the Cuban John Wayne for his swaggering brand of justice.
“I am one controversial character; I speak my mind,” said Rivero. “I’m a rough character to deal with when you’re screwing around. Aggressive law enforcement’s taking place. We’re going out, kicking down doors and taking people to jail in volume, which creates controversy.”
Rivero, who started his career as a beat cop in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, shocked the Lake County establishment when he ran for sheriff in 2010 and beat 16-year incumbent Rod Mitchell. Rivero promised to clean up Lake County, which has earned a reputation as a pot-growers paradise. “If you find a more corrupt place in California I’ll eat my hat,” he declared.
Now the Cuban immigrant is the law in this largely white county of 64,500 residents.
“I’m a rare bird,” Rivero said. “I’m probably the only immigrant elected sheriff in California.”
“I don’t know about that, but he may be the first convicted felon to be elected sheriff,” retorted Rob Brown, the Stetson-wearing chairman of the Board of Supervisors and Rivero’s chief antagonist.
Rivero, 53, acknowledges he tangled with the law as a young refugee in Miami but said he wasn’t convicted of any felonies.
A maverick who walks tall and shoots from the lip, Rivero is locked in a nasty public feud over how to police this wide-open county of mountains, vineyards and hot springs that has attracted outlaws and outliers — as well as thousands of tourists from Sacramento and the Bay Area.
Rivero says he has cut more than $1 million in waste from the Sheriff’s Department budget and put an end to cops who abused their power under the “good ol’ boys” network he swept out of office.
“They’re trying their best to get rid of me, because I’m taking it on,” he said while patrolling the county on a recent weekday. “There’s rednecks and Klansmen up here pissed at me. I’ve had death threats, and never leave the house without a gun.”
His antagonists say his cavalier style has driven good cops away and needlessly put his deputies at risk.
“He’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to Lake County law enforcement,” said Brown, 52, the bounty hunter and rancher who chairs the Board of Supervisors. “Not a single member of the deputies association supported him.”
Rivero campaigned alongside District Attorney Don Anderson, who also promised to root out the old guard. But since they were elected, Anderson has conducted three investigations into Rivero’s tactics. The two have clashed over a range of incidents, including Rivero’s arrest of low-level pot dealers and the civil rights of motorcycle gangs.
“We’ve been butting heads on a lot of issues,” Anderson said.
One such issue is the county’s growing pot problem and whether Rivero has gone overboard with what some call heavy-handed tactics.
“The fact that I’ve taken a hard line on marijuana has generated controversy, because I’ve cut into the profits of people who were making a very handsome living,” Rivero said.
Lake County is in some ways a throwback to California’s frontier, when Black Bart, the stage-robbing poet, twice hijacked the Wells Fargo stage on the Kelseyville-Cloverdale line.
“It’s the Wild West,” said Brown.
He claims he tracks down about 600 bail jumpers a year: “About 99 percent of the time they came here because it’s easy to hide, or their parents wanted to get them out of their hair so they bought cheap property and moved them up here from the Bay Area, L.A. and Sacramento.”
Adventurers from New York, New Jersey and Mexico have come to the county to grow and sell mountains of pot under the guise of California’s medical marijuana law, Rivero said.
“These are opportunistic profiteers hiding behind the veil of legality and making a fortune,” Rivero said. “With cheap property and good water sources, it’s the perfect storm for bootleggers.”
Pot growers “have brought violence to our county from all over the U.S.,” said sheriff’s Sgt. Jim Samples, whose narcotics squad seized 200,000 plants last year.
Several people have been slain in recent years on the county’s pot plantations. “Two members of the Misfits motorcycle gang hogtied a pot grower with barbed wire and beat him to a bloody pulp over 10 plants,” Samples said.
Brown said he discovered 7,500 pot plants on his ranch, and called deputies. He believes the growers retaliated by tearing down his fences and letting his herd of 80 bison run wild on the highway.
Brown calls county law enforcement “inadequate,” but concedes Rivero’s cracked down on pot growers.
“My message was to go after the drug dealers and the gangs — no breaks — and I’ve kept my promise,” Rivero said.
Mover or shaker?
From the day he took office, Rivero has shaken things up.
Since he took over in January 2011, the average daily jail population has risen from 215 to 301, according to Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation data. The total number of security checks by Rivero and his deputies at businesses, schools and parks went from about 1,000 in 2010 to more than 7,000 in 2011, he said.
He personally rounded up and jailed four young men for selling joints to a minor. Anderson cut them loose. “It was a $3 sale,” he explained.
Last summer, Rivero ordered all officers in the county to the Napa border to keep out several Hells Angels and head off a potential showdown with the Vagos motorcycle gang, which was in town.
Anderson accused him of violating the Angels’ civil rights. “What he did was improper and very dangerous,” Anderson said, “and violated their rights to freedom of assembly, right to travel.”
Rivero’s most controversial move was to ask the FBI to reopen an investigation into the 2006 boating death of Lynn Thornton, a chief investigator with the state Department of Consumer Affairs.
Undersheriff Russell Perdock rammed his speedboat at 30 to 45 miles an hour into a sailboat, killing Thornton one pitch-black May night. Perdock was never charged. Instead, then-District Attorney Jon Hopkins prosecuted Bismark Dinius, the Sacramento man who was at the tiller of the sailboat and had a 0.12 blood-alcohol level. Dinius was acquitted.
Melinda Haag, the U.S. attorney in San Francisco, declined to reopen the case.
“There was no corruption,” said Hopkins, the former DA. “It’s a figment of their imagination they could sell to the voters.” He described Rivero as “trigger-happy with his mouth.”
But Rivero said he’s been sensitive to police abuse since his father, a human rights lawyer, was jailed by the Castro regime. “He was taken away from me when I was 4, and we were reunited when I left Cuba at age 11 in 1969,” he said.
Cop work, funerals
Rivero’s road to Lake County sheriff began as a youth in Florida, where he said he had scrapes with the law. “I felt there was a lot of abuse of authority,” he said. “They constantly harassed me for loitering, accused me of riding in a stolen car that wasn’t stolen, accused me of possession of marijuana that wasn’t mine.”
So at 21, he went west.
After a stint as a bouncer, he entered the San Francisco Police Academy, graduating in 1984. He said he worked narcotics, then left the department in 1990 to concentrate on a funeral business, Pacific Interment Mortuary and Crematory Service, that he had started four years earlier.
He made a comfortable living off the business and still has an interest in it, but ended up in Lake County nine years ago after landing one of Clear Lake’s big bass.
“I’d never even heard of Lake County,” he said, but he bought a house the same day and started spending weekends in the county. He now lives in Middletown in southern Lake County with his wife and 9-year-old son.
Rivero, who’s attending law school at night, has announced he won’t run for re-election in 2014 because it’s put too much strain on his family.
On a recent Friday, he cruised around the shimmering turquoise lake, past Indian casinos and strawberry fields. “Two years ago,” he said, “you’d have seen drug dealers and drunk people up to no good, and now it’s gone.”
His squad car features a photo of his son holding a stuffed penguin and the inscription, “Joy and Love.” He also has a picture of La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre. “She’s clearing the way on the rocky seas,” he said. “I go from one storm to another.”
“Politics sucks; it’s not good for honest people,” he said. But as he cruised around Clearlake, he reconsidered. “I’m not done fighting _ maybe I’ll run for supervisor.”