Jeff Baylos was living with his parents and dead broke when, in July 1987, a month after quitting his supermarket job with nothing on the horizon, he did what any other responsible 25-year-old would do:
Go to Vegas and gamble.
“Things happen for a reason,” said Baylos, 54, who this month is retiring from the La Habra PD after a career spanning nearly 30 years.
“When you’re young and dumb, you take chances.”
That summer trip to Vegas with his cousin proved to be fortuitous.
Baylos used his credit card to get $1,000 in cash and try his luck. Playing the $5 slots at the Golden Nugget, he and his cousin scored a $9,500 jackpot and split the windfall.
Continuing his hot streak, Baylos returned to O.C. with $6,000 in winnings.
And he used that money to live off of and put himself through the Criminal Justice Training Center at Golden West College.
Baylos was down to $131 in savings when, during week 12 of what was then an 18-week academy (it’s now 24 weeks), the La Habra PD hired him on a provisional basis at $10 an hour — about $5 less than he was making as a supermarket night manager, but enough for him to get by.
Baylos graduated from the academy in December 1987 and became an official LHPD hire.
Later this month, Baylos will leave the LHPD as a highly respected officer who, at 19 years, is the LHPD’s longest-tenured sergeant.
“I honestly stayed here for the people,” Baylos said. “When you’re happy to go to work, you can’t put a price tag on that.”
On a recent weekday, Baylos was scarfing down carne asada and chicken tacos with colleagues at LHPD headquarters at a special lunch during National Police Week.
“This is your retirement party,” one colleague joked.
Sitting with Baylos was Lt. Mel Ruiz, one of his longtime close friends.
Baylos, Ruiz, retired Sgt. Vernon Mangels, and retired Capt. Jeff Swaim all came up through the La Habra PD around the same time and shared some assignments, including working on the gang unit together during the Wild West days of the late 1980s and 1990s, when La Habra had a big gang problem.
“One of the four of us was always the top (arrest) producer of the year,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz turned to his old friend.
“I joke around with him a lot, but honestly, he’s like my brother,” Ruiz said. “He’s probably the most reliable sergeant we have. He gets his work done and doesn’t take shortcuts. And as our most tenured sergeant, he’s very respected throughout the department.”
Another colleague, a member of the professional staff who handles payroll, said she’s going to cry on June 23 — Baylos’ last day at the LHPD.
“I love him to death,” she said. “I don’t want him to go. He’s easygoing and doesn’t give anyone any problems, and he pays attention to detail. I think he’s absolutely fabulous. He should train everyone to be exactly like him.”
“I’m task oriented,” he said. “I get things done.”
Law enforcement never was on Baylos’ radar until 1987, when a colleague at the grocery store where Baylos started working while still in high school suggested he look into becoming a police officer.
That colleague, Rhonda Miller, was married to then-LHPD Sgt. Perry Miller (they still are married; Miller since has retired). Rhonda Miller made the suggestion to Baylos a few months before his fateful trip to Vegas.
Baylos called up Perry Miller, went on a ridealong, and was hooked.
Soon after that, he quit Alpha Beta, knowing he wanted to pursue a career in law enforcement but not quite sure how.
Until he hit that big jackpot.
Baylos said the academy was tough, but he was determined to succeed.
Actually, he didn’t really have an option.
His father, Seymour “Sy” Baylos, who drove a cab and served as reserve officer in New York City before moving his family out to California in 1956, told Jeff seeing him graduate from the academy was the proudest day of his life.
Sadly, Sy Baylos died of a heart attack a year after Jeff Baylos graduated from the academy. He was 59.
“Those were tough times for me and my family,” said Baylos, referring to his mother and three older sisters.
Back then, Baylos was a lean, 6-foot-2 running machine.
His fellow officers called him “Hips” or “High Pockets” because of his height and long legs. They also called him “Fetch” because he could run down all the bad guys.
Baylos recalled a couple of memorable arrests when he was a patrol officer.
In 1989, he responded to a call about a suspicious motorist in the parking lot of La Habra High School.
The man, acting bizarre and possibly on PCP, ran away from Baylos after he got out of his car.
Baylos was able to chase him down and take the suspect back to his car.
Baylos had him pop open the trunk. It was full of rolled coins from Las Vegas casinos. It turned out the man was wanted for allegedly committing more than 40 bank burglaries in Sin City, and the coins in the truck totaled several thousand dollars.
While booking the suspect at the station — back then, officers pretty much handled all aspects of an arrest — the drug-addled, suspected bank robber, all of 5 feet 8 inches, picked up the 200-pound Baylos and pinned him to a wall.
“My feet were dangling,” Baylos recalled. “It took five guys to subdue him.”
Another memorable arrest occurred in October 1992.
A CHP officer had pulled over a suspected drunk driver on State College Boulevard. During his field sobriety tests, the suspect managed to punch the officer in the face and handcuff the officer to the CHP motorcycle.
He took the officer’s gun and fired at the officer, thankfully missing the officer and hitting the motorcycle instead.
The man then took off in his car and managed to rob a couple of gas stations before Baylos engaged him in a high-speed pursuit that ended with the suspect crashing his car into a telephone pole.
The suspect attempted to flee on foot, but was no match for Baylos, who caught up to him.
The CHP officer’s gun later was found in a jacket the suspect had tossed down while running away.
Baylos received a Medal of Courage for that arrest.
Over his career, he has been named the American Legion’s “Officer of the Year,” has been awarded the La Habra Police Department’s Distinguished Service medal and Career Service medal, and has been named the La Habra Police Association’s “Supervisor of the Year” four times — an agency record.
“I’m happy,” Baylos said about his decision to retire. “It’s been a good career. Law enforcement is, honestly, a young person’s game. You’ve got to know, like an athlete, when it’s time to hang it up.”
Baylos looks forward to spending more time with his wife, Loretta, a cervical cancer survivor (read her story here). Between them they have six children, ages 14 to 30.
He said he’s loved all his assignments at the LHPD — from patrol to his gang assignment and running, for six years, the Special Investigations Unit — and all that he and his colleagues have accomplished.
“If you look at the city today compared to 30 years ago,” Baylos said, “we’ve made a huge difference in this community. And I’m very proud of that.”
Baylos, who has been a patrol sergeant since 2006, loves how the LHPD’s relatively small size — there currently are 65 sworn officers at the agency, which is allocated for 72 — translates into a friendly, family-like atmosphere.
“I love how everyone here knows everyone,” Baylos said. “One day you’re their boss, and the next day they’re your boss. But there are no egos here, because we’re all friends. We all pull for each other. There are no hard feelings. Whoever gets promoted, we’re happy for them.”
Baylos said he loves mentoring the younger officers.
“I have socks older than them,” he joked. “I enjoy the mentoring and teaching — that’s why I love being a sergeant. It’s a perfect job for me. It’s where I’m happiest. I think being a sergeant is the greatest job in the department.”
Added Baylos: “And one of the greatest attributes of this department is the supervision here. We do stuff by the book, and we do it right. I’ve always been proud of how this department operates. There’s a right way to do policing, and that includes showing respect for people and working with the community. We have a great relationship with the community, and that’s something we take great pride in.”
In addition to spending more time with his wife, children, and four grandchildren, Baylos said retirement will allow him to more frequently engage in another passion:
Playing poker (yes, that Vegas thing again).
Since 2009, Baylos has been a regular player in the World Series of Poker, entering the $1,000 or $1,500 buy-in events. One year, he placed 210 out of 3,200 entrants, which netted him a few thousand bucks.
“I like to take the chips into custody,” Baylos said with a laugh.
He looks forward to doing that more often.