Meet ‘Z,’ the former Romanian beauty contestant turned Orange police officer


Ești arestat!

Pot vedea permisul de conducere.

Arata-mi mainile!

Orange PD Cpl. Lucia Zvonaru doesn’t say these phrases that often while on duty, but she sure can.

Translated, in order, they mean:

You’re under arrest!

Can I see your driver’s license?

Show me your hands!

Zvonaru is from Romania, and the path that led her to a career in law enforcement has as many twists and turns as the trails that criss-cross the Carpathian Mountains near Brasov, the city in the Transylvania region where she grew up.

It’s been an eventful journey for Zvonaru, who arrived in the U.S. at age 19 with a duffle bag and $30 and plans to stay here only for six months.

Now 41, she’s an 11–year veteran of the Orange PD, currently a patrol officer and a member of the honor guard and crisis negotiations team, aiming for a leadership role as a sergeant.

“They used to call me KGB,” says Zvonaru, whose native country was run by communists until the violent Romanian Revolution in 1989 brought an end to Communist rule.

“Now they call me Z, because it’s so hard to pronounce my last name.”


Zvonaru and her older brother faced challenges growing up.

Their father, an electrician and Romanian Army reservist, was an alcoholic and there were episodes of domestic violence, Zvonaru says. He left his wife and kids when Zvonaru was 11.

Zvonaru grew up being told by her mother and grandmother that her job was to find a husband and obey him, and to have kids.

“I never thought I would become a police officer,” says Zvonaru, adding that the concept especially was far-fetched in Romania, where young girls were trained in gymnastics and young boys in soccer, and the patriarchal society dictated well-entrenched roles for each gender.

Orange PD’s Lucia Zvonaru (then Niculescu) at the Golden West Police Academy in 2007. Photo courtesy of Lucia Zvonaru

When she was 18, Zvonaru experienced a personal tragedy.

During the bitter cold of winter, Zvonaru’s mother was fatally poisoned while home alone by a floor heater that leaked carbon monoxide. Such accidents were fairly common in Romanian homes that didn’t have good ventilation.

Zvonaru had just graduated from high school, where she studied tourism and foreign languages and played volleyball.

With her brother away in the military, Zvonaru needed to get a job to pay the bills. She replaced her mother in her clerical and receptionist position at Poiana Brasov, a ski resort.

She worked at the resort for a little more than a year before she came to the U.S. in 1996. A former live-in boyfriend of her mother invited her to stay with him in Bellflower for six months.

It was Zvonaru’s first visit to California, but not to the U.S.

In 1992, when she was 16, she stayed in New York and Florida for a month as a participant in a beauty competition run by someone who today is in the news on a fairly regular basis:

Donald Trump.

Three years later, with no firm career plans, she was in California with 30 bucks to her name.


Zvonaru stayed with her late mother’s former boyfriend for a month. He found her a job with a Romanian family in Phoenix, so she moved to Arizona.

She then served as a caregiver for an Indian man in Phoenix who had lost his wife.

Up until then, Zvonaru had learned most of her English from movies and TV shows. He helped improve her English skills during the five months she took care of him.

Zvonaru then returned to California and landed a job in a Romanian restaurant in Santa Ana. When she was 20, she and the restaurant owner got married. Two years later, they had a son.

Desiring more than restaurant work, Zvonaru — always good with math — took accounting classes and landed a job as an accountant at a retirement home.

She decided she wanted more of a people-oriented job, so she fell back on a hobby of hers that dated back to her years as a teenage beauty contestant:

Makeup and hair.

Orange PD Cpl. Lucia Zvonaru talks about growing up in Romania.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

She went to cosmetology school for a year and became a licensed hair stylist and beautician in downtown Fullerton.

“I loved it,” she said of that career, which began in 2002. “It didn’t feel like work. It felt like fun.”

Zvonaru and her husband divorced and, feeling she needed a higher-paying career as a single mother of a young son, Zvonaru decided to look into joining the military or becoming an ER nurse or police officer.

“I get bored easily,” Zvonaru says. “I was interested in anything that had to do with adrenaline or not sitting behind a desk all day.”

In 2006, she heard several police agencies advertising job openings in radio ads.

She took a couple of physical agility and related classes at local colleges to prepare for the rigors of a police academy while continuing to work as a hair stylist.

“There was no way back for me — it was that or nothing,” Zvonaru says. “I don’t like to fail.”

Zvonaru tested with the Laguna Beach PD, and while waiting to hear back from that agency, she was urged by two Orange PD officers who had come to speak at one of her classes to apply there.

She did, and the OPD hired her in 2007. After graduating from the Criminal Justice Training Center at Golden West College, she began her career at the OPD as a patrol officer.

Zvonaru was in patrol for six years. She then put in for special assignments and was assigned to DUI enforcement for 18 months before going back to patrol.

She says she took great pride in arresting impaired drivers.

“Because of my experience with my father, it made me a little more determined to take impaired drivers off the street,” Zvonaru says.

She arrested more than 250 impaired drivers during those 18 months, which landed her back-to-back MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) awards for arresting at least 100 suspected impaired drivers in two calendar years.

Ultimately, Zvonaru wants to become a detective and, after that, seek promotion to sergeant.

“I want to do a little bit of everything,” says Zvonaru, whose other duties at the OPD include field training officer. She also is a certified Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) and has worked as a Crime Scene Investigator and crisis negotiator.


Zvonaru’s father died when she was 33.

Her brother works as a truck driver in Romania.

Her first son now is 18 and in college. She has another son, 7.

As a hobby, Zvonaru cruises around on a Suzuki 600 GXSR, a sporty street bike. (She briefly tried joining the OPD’s motors team but said it wasn’t a good fit for her).

She’s had three surgeries on her back due to the wear and tear of her profession, but still loves to hike.

“I spend a lot of time with my kids,” Zvonaru says.

At home, she speaks Romanian.

And at work, Zvonaru is tapped a few times every month by her agency and other police departments for her interpreting skills when a native Romanian is being questioned by police.

“I believe everything happens for a reason,” Zvonaru says of her life journey. “Everything that has happened to me throughout the years has made me stronger. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here doing this.”