Crime & Justice

Former LA County Sheriff Baca sentenced to 3 years in prison

Defense attorney Nathan Hochman, right, pins a sheriff's star to the lapel of ex-Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca. Baca was sentenced to three years in prison on Friday.
Defense attorney Nathan Hochman, right, pins a sheriff's star to the lapel of ex-Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca. Baca was sentenced to three years in prison on Friday.
Annie Gilbertson/KPCC

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Ex-Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca will serve three years in federal prison following his conviction in March for obstruction of justice, conspiracy and lying, a judge ruled Friday.

Baca, 74, had faced up to 20 years in prison for his part in hiding an informant from FBI agents investigating the abuse of inmates in the county jails.

In sentencing the former sheriff to 36 months in prison plus one year supervised release, U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson told Baca: "There comes a time when you have to accept responsibility."

Anderson said Baca was more interested in "burnishing image" and getting re-elected than stopping jail inmate abuses.

The judge said the sentence sent a strong message to elected officials, law enforcement and the public: “No person no matter how powerful … is above the law.”

Anderson said he considered Baca's age and health, but also that Baca was “using his office to further his own agenda.” If not for the former sheriff's health condition and "good acts," the judge said he would have handed him a five-year prison sentence.

The judge ordered Baca to surrender on July 25. Anderson may be asked to allow Baca to remain free while he appeals his case.

Federal prosecutors had recommended two years in prison based on Baca's age and health. Prosecutors had said Baca "abused the great power the citizens of Los Angeles County had given him."

Baca, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, sought a sentence of community service and home confinement. His lawyer said his client shouldn’t be subjected to the “harsh cruelty of the prison system not designed to address his medical condition.”

Baca's defense attorney revealed during his sentencing that Baca is in the third stage of Alzheimer's. 

Baca was expected to make a final plea to judge before sentencing, but after whispering with his attorney when the time came, he did not speak.

But after the sentencing, Baca told reporters outside the courthouse that he had taken a lot of hits over the years. With his wife by his side, he thanked his deputies, attorneys and people of L.A.

“It was an honor to serve the county of L.A.," Baca said.

Acting U.S. Attorney Sandra R. Brown said in a news release that Baca "made a decision to protect what he viewed as his empire, and then he took actions in an effort to simply protect himself.” She added: “He wore the badge, but ultimately, he failed the department and the public’s trust."

Deirdre Fike, assistant director in charge of the Los Angeles Field Office, also stated in the release that Baca "should have corrected the actions of others, rather than shift blame and obstruct a federal investigation.”

Federal prosecutors had filed a slew of indictments in the case, working their way up to the top of the department. Among those convicted was Baca’s former number two, Undersheriff Paul Tanaka.

Tanaka, described by prosecutors as the "ringleader" in the plot to thwart the federal probe into inmate abuse in county jails, received a sentence of five years in June 2016. Tanaka was also ousted from his post as Gardena mayor.

Judge Anderson rejected Baca's attempt to shift blame to his undersheriff: "Mr. Baca, you knew exactly who Mr. Tanaka was ... you let other people do your dirty work."

Anderson has presided over a series of trials ending with convictions of 10 former sheriff’s department members who were involved in the obstruction case.

Baca's conviction and sentencing caps a long-running corruption probe into the county sheriff's department, the largest in the country.

His successor, L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, said in a statement that he remains confident that the justice system will hold law enforcement and its leaders accountable.

"The trials and the resulting convictions have been difficult for the men and women of the Sheriff's Department who have always worked with integrity and continue to serve the public with honor," he said.

Baca served as sheriff for 15 years. County voters reelected him multiple times.

This story has been updated.