Crime & Justice

Former LA County Sheriff Baca called 'heartbeat' of conspiracy in trial opening statements

File: Leroy Baca, the former sheriff of Los Angeles County, is standing trial on corruption and obstruction of justice charges.
File: Leroy Baca, the former sheriff of Los Angeles County, is standing trial on corruption and obstruction of justice charges.
Grant Slater/KPCC

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The federal case against former L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca got underway Wednesday with prosecutors alleging Baca blocked the FBI's efforts to investigate the county jails for inmate abuse. 

In opening statements, prosecutor Brandon Fox told the jury Baca knew deputies were beating inmates in the jails, but had a "nothing to see here" attitude, and at one point, Baca asked the U.S. Attorney to back down and withdrawal subpoenas from "my goddamn jails." 

Baca is charged with conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Prosecutors allege that he was behind a move by sheriff's deputies to intimidate an FBI agent who was investigating the jails and hide an inmate who was serving as an FBI informant.

In opening statements, Baca's defense attorney Nathan Hochman countered that Baca was "open, transparent and direct" with federal officials and offered to partner with the U.S. Attorney in the investigation. 

Much of the opening statements focused on the role Baca played in the handling of Anthony Brown, who, while serving time for armed robbery, worked covertly with the FBI to help them uncover corruption in the jails.

The FBI arranged a sting, bribing a deputy to smuggle in a cell phone to Brown. In August 2011, other deputies discovered the cell phone in a potato chip bag in Brown's cell. After news traveled to Baca, Brown was then moved to another part of the jail that was monitored with cameras. He was moved again and guarded by two deputies. 

Prosecutors allege that Brown was moved intentionally to make it harder for the FBI to investigate corruption. The defense counters that Baca was shocked that the FBI smuggled in a cell phone and worried for Brown's safety, which could compromised if he became known as a snitch.

The defense claims former L.A. County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka was responsible for thwarting the FBI by "operating his own agenda," and Baca was kept in the dark.

Hochman also detailed Baca's long career with the sheriff's department, noting that he served for 15 years, working 12-14 hour days, 6-7 days a week. They said this case focuses on just six weeks of his 2500-week career, and that the evidence accounts for only three hours of his time on the job. 

In a second trial, Baca will be tried for lying to federal agents during an interview. His defense attorneys intend to bring up his early onset Alzheimer's disease and argue his cognitive ability may have been in decline years earlier, affecting his statements.

Prosecutors offered Baca a plea deal for six months in jail.  He took it earlier this year. But, the deal was thrown out by U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson, who said the sentence was too lenient.