Crime & Justice

Baca Trial: Tale of tense showdown concludes prosecution's case

Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca
Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca

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Language turned vulgar and threats flew in September 2011, as former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca confronted the region’s top federal law enforcement officials about their investigation of brutality inside county jails, U.S. District Judge Andre Birotte testified Thursday.

Back then, Birotte was the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles. He supported the F.B.I.’s efforts to recruit a jail inmate as a secret informant, and to bribe a deputy to smuggle a cellular phone into the jails so that inmate could document deputies abusing prisoners.

At the time, allegations of beatings – documented in letters from inmates and declarations gathered by the American Civil Liberties Union – were growing.

But Baca was outraged the FBI was secretly investigating the jails, which were run by his department.

“I’m the G** d*** sheriff and these are my G** d*** jails,” Birotte quoted Baca as saying during one particularly heated meeting. The meeting was called after Baca sent two detectives to the home of the FBI’s lead investigator, Leah Tanner.

Baca was accusing federal agents of committing a crime and undermining jail security by smuggling the cellphone into Men’s Central Jail in downtown L.A.

Birotte said Baca admitted he had sent the detectives – though there was no mention that he ordered them to threaten Tanner with arrest, which they did.  When that happened, the FBI ordered Tanner to go to the agency’s headquarters building in Westwood.

Birotte testified he reached Baca on his cellphone and Baca assured him nobody would be arrested.

But Baca wasn’t finished.  

The next day, he delivered a scathing letter to Birotte as he began a meeting with him and the FBI’s Steven Martinez, who was in charge of the agency’s L.A. office at the time.

The letter called the FBI unqualified to conduct an investigation into brutality at the jails and said the inquiry was a “fishing expedition.”

It wasn’t long before Baca and Martinez began arguing, according to Birotte. Martinez said his agents broke no law – that in the course of an undercover investigation, they may engage in otherwise illegal acts such as smuggling a phone into the jails.

Baca issued the ultimate threat, even if it was a metaphorical one. “You want to gun up in here,” Birotte quoted Baca asking Martinez.

The sheriff demanded to know the locations of any other cell phones smuggled into the jails by federal agents (there were none) and insisted the FBI cede the investigation of the sheriff’s department to the sheriff’s department.

Baca also threatened to end his agency’s participation on joint crime fighting efforts with the FBI and U.S. Attorney if they didn’t hand over the investigation.

“He was saying basically ‘back off, we are going to do it ourselves,'” Birotte testified.

“It got heated,” he said. “Mr. Baca was upset – more than I had ever seen him.”

Prosecutors said this is evidence Baca tried to obstruct justice. He stands accused of conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Nine others, including his former undersheriff Paul Tanaka, have been convicted as part of the FBI’s investigation.

Baca’s defense attorney Nathan Hochman suggested Baca was justly concerned about an ill-conceived FBI investigation. He asked Birotte if Baca was “very open, direct and transparent at the meeting.” Birotte said yes, and that the meeting ended with everybody shaking hands.

Hochman sought to ask Birotte if Baca “was sincere” in his concerns. But the prosecution objected to the question and U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson sustained the objection.

With that, the prosecution concluded its case.

The defense called as its first witness former Assistant Sheriff Cecil Rhambo, who began to testify about chain of command at the department in 2011.

After jurors left the courtroom, Hochman gave a preview of defense witnesses. The list included five character witnesses.

Former District Attorneys Ira Reiner and Steve Cooley are expected to talk about Baca’s career as a law enforcement leader – to counter federal prosecutors’ portrayal of the ex-sheriff as a man who tried to block an FBI investigation into county jails.

Other character witnesses for Baca include longtime Watts activist Sweet Alice Harris, the man who led Baca’s signature education-based incarceration program in the jails, and a one-time inmate who is now a drug counselor.

The biggest outstanding question remains whether Baca will take the stand in his own defense. Hochman said he would provide an answer Friday morning. But he also issued the caveat that Baca has a right to testify at his own trial even if he decides to do so just before the defense rests – which it’s expected to do Monday.