For a clue about her reputation at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, one needs only to glance at Margie Sheehan’s fingernails.
Well, at least that was the case on a recent weekday, days before Sheehan was to compete in a 10K in San Diego, the DC Wonder Woman Run.
Sure enough, Sheehan’s manicured fingernails were painted red, white and blue, with two of them sporting the image of Lynda Carter, who played the superhero on TV.
Sheehan actually cops to identifying more with an edgier female comic book heroine: Hit-Girl, from Marvel Comics’ “Kick-Ass” series.
“She curses a lot and is good with guns,” quips Sheehan, who is known for not only being whip smart, but also for her sharp sense of humor and straight-talking ways.
Sheehan, who joined the OCSD 24 years ago as a dispatcher and has been a sworn deputy for 22 years, was named chief of police services for Dana Point in March 2018.
Russ Chilton, a longtime mentor and 33-year OCSD veteran who was Sheehan’s predecessor, recalls suggesting to Sheehan that she put her name in the hat for the job.
He was aware of Sheehan’s reputation as a tenacious sex crimes investigator, one of her former assignments. And he recalls when he was one of three lieutenants on the oral board when Sheehan was up for promotion to sergeant in 2015.
“Margie was the first candidate on the first day of the week,” recalls Chilton, who retired as Dana Point chief in March. “She came in and just knocked it out of the park.”
Most candidates for promotion stumble some, Chilton says.
“She was extremely professional and articulate, and she maintained eye contact with everyone,” Chilton says. “Very few candidates can do that.”
So Chilton was pleased when Sheehan applied for his old job and nailed it again.
“I really wanted the city to have a chief who would give 1,000 percent and who would really engage with the community,” says Chilton.
Although still learning the ropes of her challenging job — chiefs of OCSD contract cities must master a balancing act of following agency policy while meeting the needs of their communities – Sheehan is big on community engagement.
She was a participant at a recent forum, “The Active Shooter Response & Impact of Workplace Violence Workshop,” at Capo Beach Church in Capistrano Beach.
More than 100 people attended the forum, which was hosted by the Dana Point Chamber of Commerce, Laguna Niguel Chamber of Commerce, San Juan Capistrano Chamber of Commerce, and the San Clemente Chamber of Commerce.
OCSD SWAT team leader and Investigator Shane Millhollon, and Heather Williams, PsyD, Regional Peer Support coordinator for the OCSD who led the workshop, joined Sheehan.
“Start looking at law enforcement as a partner in preventing such incidents,” Sheehan urged attendees, many of them business owners.
After the forum, while sitting in her office on Golden Lantern, Sheehan, 46, talked about her love for Dana Point and her enthusiasm in leading 33 sworn deputies and 11 professional staff members.
Jelly beans and mixed nuts were on a table.
“I like to lure people in,” Sheehan said. “No one wants to talk to the boss.”
Also on the table was a small replica of a beach scene – a Zen thing, “so I can be sure I have a moment of peace when I want to scream at things,” Sheehan said.
Her motto was displayed on a wall:
Be kind, work hard, stay humble, smile often, stay loyal, be honest, travel when possible, never stop learning, be thankful, and love always.
For herself and her deputies, Sheehan added:
The Nov. 13 forum Sheehan helped run was all about the grim reality of mass shootings, and the need for people to recognize signs, often in a loved one, of mental illness.
Fresh on Sheehan’s and others’ minds was the Nov. 7 Thousand Oaks massacre, in which a gunman killed 13.
Sheehan noted at the forum that people often are afraid to call the police about a mentally unstable relative – fearing, for example, he or she is going to lose a job and be locked up.
“In reality, when (mental health issues) are not addressed, that’s when we have horrible problems (like the Thousand Oaks shooting), and we can prevent them – we the citizens, not law enforcement,” Sheehan said.
In her office, Sheehan elaborated:
“The toughest thing for me is there are so many things that are preventable that go on in law enforcement,” said Sheehan, who backed out at the last minute to attend the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas in 2017, when a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers, killing 58.
“We’re blessed in Dana Point because we have a very good relationship with our citizens, but not all communities are like that, and that’s the challenge,” Sheehan said.
Of backing out of that fateful concert, Sheehan said: “I felt terrible because I felt like if I had been there, I could have helped somebody.”
Born in Brooklyn, Sheehan lived in Flushing, Queens until she was 10. A job change sent her stepfather, mother and younger sister to the Concord-Walnut Creek area in Northern California.
Law enforcement never was on the radar for Sheehan, who enjoyed an upper middle-class upbringing.
At 16, on a fluke, she joined the Marines.
“My good friend Teresa showed up and said, ‘I joined the Marines,’” recalled Sheehan, an artsy girl who was more inclined to cheerleading.
“I thought, ‘Well, I like swimming,’ which really had nothing to do with the Marine Corps, but I didn’t know what the Marines did.
“I went down and saw the recruiter, and there were lots of handsome boys in uniforms, and I thought, ‘This is exactly where I’m supposed to be.’”
Sheehan entered the Marines on the delayed entry program after she graduated from high school at 17.
A week after she turned 18, she was in boot camp.
“It was amazing, but it was hard,” she recalled.
Sheehan spent four years in active duty and eight overall in the Marine Corps. She was a unit diary clerk for the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines infantry battalion at Camp Courtney, Okinawa, and after that El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.
Sheehan considered becoming a drill instructor for Marines, but she would have had to re-enlist for a minimum of six years.
“That seemed like a very long time to a 21 year old girl,” Sheehan said.
When her active duty ended in 1994, Sheehan told herself she would apply for one job and if she got it, she would leave the Marine Corps.
She applied for a dispatch position with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
No surprise, she nailed it.
“I never thought of law enforcement as a long-term career for myself – ever,” Sheehan said.
That mindset soon changed.
One of her bosses told her she’d be a much better fit as a deputy.
So Sheehan took him up on the challenge.
At age 24, Sheehan graduated from the police academy and started working the jails for the OCSD.
She loved that assignment, which lasted 5 ½ years.
“I had a blast,” Sheehan said. “It was a city of criminals. What more could a girl ask for?”
Sheehan then worked patrol in Mission Viejo.
“My philosophy about my career has always been to get to some place, work my butt off, and the rest will follow,” Sheehan said.
Her only goal was to be a sex crimes investigator, which happened in 2006. Sheehan spent nine years as an investigator, six in sex crimes and the remaining in economic crimes and doing background checks.
While working sex crimes, Sheehan became the first member of the OCSD’s new composite drawing team.
“It was an amazing job (sex crimes), and I think it’s one of those places where women in law enforcement can really excel, because it’s all about relationship building, both with the victim and with the accused individual,” Sheehan said.
“I worked with a lot of guys that were fantastic at it, but it was definitely a place where I felt it was a very neutral playing field.
“It’s the best job on planet earth if you can stomach it. I felt it was a very impactful job.”
Sheehan, a single mother of an 8-year-old son, said she’s still learning the ropes in Dana Point.
“Every city is exactly the same,” she said. “Whether it’s a high-crime city, a low-crime city, a huge city, or a tiny little dot on the map, we all want the same thing: to feel safe. We all want to feel as though we’re being heard, and we all want a functional and productive relationship with our police officers and city administrators.”
“And, ultimately, we all want to protect our communities for future generations.”
Chilton said Sheehan is doing great.
“People like her,” he said. “She’s upbeat and candid. She does her homework on all issues, and is very responsive to the community.”
Sheehan enjoys the diversity of Dana Point, a city of 38,000 whose main crimes are ones of opportunity: for example, bad guys preying on tourists, or burglarizing cars and homes.
“It’s super eclectic,” she said. “We have people that have been here since Dana Point wasn’t even incorporated. We have people that are moving in with new families. We have people that are actively involved in their little segments of the city.”
Sheehan, for the record, completed the DC Wonder Woman Run 10K. She’s also run two half-marathons.
“You just put one foot in front of the other,” she explained.
The same approach, one might say, she’s taken in her career.