The deputy walked up to the visitor in the empty courtroom during the noon to 1:30 p.m. lunch break and reached behind the visitor’s right ear.
He then produced a large coin.
“It’s a penny from your thoughts,” quipped Deputy Joseph Devela, who’s been practicing magic for three years.
“There’s big money in magic, see?”
Devela hasn’t quite figured out how to make bad guys disappear, but he uses magic to break the ice with people who show up for hearings in the Family Law courtroom he works in at the Lamoreaux Justice Center in Orange.
Because the hearings in Judge Lewis Clapp’s court deal with juvenile delinquency – cases range from petty theft to murder – Devela likes to lighten the mood before he launches into his spiel deal about courtroom rules. He started practicing magic when he was assigned to Commission Paul Minerich’s family law court that exclusively heard child support cases.
But there’s much more than magic up Devela’s sleeve.
At law enforcement funerals and at annual OCSD events such as the Medal of Valor ceremony and Orange County Peace Officers’ Memorial Ceremony & Candlelight Vigil in May, Devela is the go-to deputy to sing the national anthem (“The Star-Spangled Banner”).
His high baritone renditions inevitably are spot on.
“The key jumps about two octaves during the song, so if you start off too high, you’re in trouble,” Devela says. “There were a couple of times when I started the song and I was like, ‘Oh man, am I in the right key?’”
Devela also is an accomplished artist whose colorful sketches of celebrities (Cline Eastwood, Woody Allen, Einstein, Bob Dylan, etc.) and others are displayed in Minerich’s courtroom and that of Commissioner Barry Michaelson. He’s also on the OCSD’s sketch artist team.
But wait, there’s more.
Devela also has painted more than two dozen murals for the OCSD, from interiors in various substations to one in the staff gym at the Orange County Jail in Santa Ana.
And, oh yeah, Devela recently personally delivered his fourth child.
He was at work when his wife of eight years, Meryl, called him on the morning of Sept. 24, 2019, saying she had gone into labor two weeks early.
Devela rushed home and found Meryl giving birth on a patch of grass in front of their house.
Armed with a medical kit from his work call, Devela delivered their son at 10:10 a.m.
While a neighbor called paramedics, Devela wrapped the newborn, Phinehas, in a towel and used a shoestring to temporarily clamp the umbilical cord until paramedics arrived.
Mom and son were fine.
“I felt this calm and peace,” Devela said of the experience of delivering Phinehas, who joins siblings Halo, 7, a sister; and brothers Leeland, 5, and Gideon, 2.
Just another day at the office, it seems, for Devela, a modern renaissance man.
Devela has been an OCSD deputy since 2012 and has been assigned to the Lamoreaux Justice Center since 2016.
He grew up in a musical family in Imperial Beach in San Diego County, but didn’t even realize he could sing until he was a junior in college.
Hi father, Albert, who served in the U.S. Navy for 32 years, sang and played the guitar.
Although Devela was in band all four years at Southwest High School (he played the trombone and snare drum), he was considering a career as a comic book artist, or following his father by joining the military – nothing singing related.
“I’ve been drawing ever since I was in the first grade,” Devela says. “I won my first art competition making a drawing for the DARE program.”
But law enforcement, too, always had been on Devela’s radar growing up. He recalls favorite flicks such as “Lethal Weapon” and “Robocop.”
And like his father and mother, whose work involved helping people get unemployment benefits, Devela also has felt a desire to serve others (his brother, Jan, has been in the Navy for six years; a sister, Arielle, is a behavioral therapist).
Devela decided to pursue a career in law enforcement after he passed on the idea of joining the Navy.
At first, Devela’s wife was not on board with him becoming a cop. But both embraced the idea after they attended a Harvest Crusade at Angel Stadium. Devela, who was raised Catholic, made a profession of faith in 2009 and became an orthodox Christian, as did his wife.
“After I became a Christian, doors started opening,” Devela says. “I just kind of stopped doing things for myself, and trusted in the Lord.”
The Develas got married on Nov. 5, 2011. Right after their honeymoon, Devela got a letter informing him he had been accepted into the OCSD’s Regional Training Academy.
His classmates in Class 201 voted him chaplain, and Devela became a deputy on Sept. 11, 2012.
Before transferring to courts, he worked in the jails for four years.
A STAR IS BORN
Devela discovered he could sing while attending Southwestern College in Chula Vista.
“One day I was walking by a classroom and I heard these strange sounds coming out of it – voices that were going from a high pitch to a low pitch,” Devela recalls.
It was a beginning choir class, and students were doing their vocal warm-ups.
Devela, who needed a few more units, crashed the class and discovered he could sing.
The teacher gave him a spot in the spring concert, during which Devela and a woman sang “The Prayer,” originally sung by Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion.
“It felt natural to be up there singing,” Devela says.
Shortly after that, Devela met Meryl, his future wife, in a church choir.
‘WHO ARE YOU?’
Devela’s singing chops got discovered by chance at the OCSD.
Shortly after he became a deputy, he joined the honor guard team that appears at all academy graduations. He took over as drummer after the drummer retired.
About three years ago, the OCSD honor guard was practicing for an event. When the first note of the national anthem is sung, a flag-bearer slightly lowers the flag.
“So I was in the room and said, ‘Hey, if you give me a microphone, I’ll sing the first note,’” Deleva recalls.
No one knew he could sing.
But Devela had the national anthem down cold, having sang it for the first time about a decade earlier at his father’s retirement ceremony on the deck of the USS Makin Island, a U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship in Coronado. His father retired as a master chief after 32 years of service.
“Make sure you use your big boy voice,” one wag ribbed Revela during the honor guard band practice three years ago.
“I saw that comment as a challenge,” Devela says, “so I decided to sing the whole song.”
His colleagues were stunned. So was his academy staff and Marilyn McDougal, the former executive director of the sheriff’s advisory committee, who happened to be standing outside the door.
“She walks in and points to me, I’m on stage, and she asks, ‘Who are you?’” Devela recalls.
“I’m just a regular jail deputy,” he replied.
“I’m going to talk to your sergeant,” McDougal said.
“That sounds good.”
Next thing Devela knew, he was singing the national anthem at OCSD events. And this year, for the first time, he sang twice at the annual California Peace Officers’ Memorial Foundation ceremony in Sacramento, in May. He sang during a candlelight vigil and during the day for the main event.
“I’m always nervous,” he says of performing. “But I find as a performer it kind of keeps me in check. It always keeps me humble, the nerves part.”
Devela’s singing chops also got him involved in a weekly Bible study for fellow OCSD employees at the Lamoreaux Justice Center.
He leads worship at the Bible Story every Thursday. The first song he sang in the Bible Study was “Good Good Father” by Chris Tomlin.
Devela has a routine prior to every time he performs the national anthem.
“I pray,” he says.
He also wears under his honor guard uniform a lucky black T-shirt with the lyrics, “Jesus I sing for you all that you’ve done for me,” from a Phil Wickham song, “This is Amazing Grace.”
“It (T-shirt) is a reminder that really what I’m doing here is, is one, it’s a representative of what God has done for me and my career. It’s also a representation of me as a husband, as a father, and as someone who is gifted to sing on behalf of my country. It’s a huge privilege to do this for a department that I love, and for the county.”