Jail abuse: 1st trial of sheriff's deputy turns on questions about command chain

Sheriff Lee Baca's former second-in-command, who left the department last year under heavy criticism for his handling of alleged abuse in Los Angeles County jails, is running to replace his former boss.
Sheriff Lee Baca's former second-in-command, who left the department last year under heavy criticism for his handling of alleged abuse in Los Angeles County jails, is running to replace his former boss. Corey Moore/KPCC

The big question during Friday's trial of a sheriff's deputy accused of participating in a conspiracy to obstruct a federal investigation into jail abuse was how high up the L.A. Sheriff's Department's chain of command the alleged conspiracy reached.

James Sexton, the first of seven current and former sheriff's employees accused of obstruction of justice and conspiracy, was a junior deputy, about three years out of the academy in the summer of 2011, when the alleged crimes took place. Part of Sexton's defense strategy has been to assert he was following orders from much higher ranked sheriff's officials.

Friday, one of those officials, former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, took the stand. 

RELATED: Prosecutors say sheriff employees changed jail policy to thwart investigation

At issue was the hours and days after sheriff's deputies discovered a cellular phone in an inmate's Men's Central Jail cell — and then figured out the inmate was an informant for the FBI, providing information on corrupt deputies and civil rights abuses to federal agents.

In the days that followed, deputies would allegedly doctor department records to make it look like the inmate, Anthony Brown, had been released; change his name several times; and book and rebook Brown into various jails in the county to make sure no one, including federal authorities who were looking for Brown, could find him.

Later, some of the group (not including Sexton) allegedly showed up at the home of an FBI agent and threatened to arrest her.

According to prior testimony, many of the deputies involved in the Brown incident seemed to think their actions were orders from Undersheriff Paul Tanaka.

In 2012, Sexton told a federal grand jury that deputies and supervisors at the various jails the group took Brown to would question why they were there and why the inmate was so special.

"Why we were in there, watching movies and babysitting this guy," Sexton said, according to testimony read into the court record Friday. "And this guy [Brown] was eating Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald's and smoking out in the parking lot." 

According to Sexton's testimony, he was given three names to invoke if he needed to assert his authority: "Lt. Thompson, Lt. Leavins and Paul Tanaka."

Gregory Thompson and Stephen Leavins have both been indicted in the case; Tanaka has not, but was called as a witness for the defense.

On Friday, Tanaka testified he knew much of what deputies were doing to hide Brown —receiving regular briefings on the situation — and while he didn't remember authorizing any particular actions, didn't disapprove of them when informed.

"A cell phone in the hands of anybody in the jail is very dangerous," Tanaka said, explaining that the group was investigating where the cell phone came from, whether the FBI had introduced additional cell phones into the jail, and why the phone had pictures of apparent narcotics on it.

"As the investigation grew, we were concerned about the inmate's safety. We had to put a guard on him," Tanaka said.

Tanaka's testimony

Tanaka, however, said he did not recall knowing that deputies were fudging the inmate tracking computer system to make it look like Brown had been released.

Former Sheriff Lee Baca, he said, was the one who instructed that the inmate be "secured and interviewed" — and that no one, including other law enforcement, go near Brown before the investigation was complete.

When FBI agents did manage to enter Men's Central Jail and interview Brown, they were kicked out after an hour.

"That was a security breach," Tanaka said of the episode. 

Tanaka also said he may have been the one who authorized unlimited overtime for the group tasked with guarding Brown. 

Baca is not expected to testify, though he was mentioned in others' testimony Friday.

Steven Martinez, the assistant director of the FBI's field office in Los Angeles at the time, testified he called Baca on Aug. 18, soon after learning the cell phone had been found by deputies.

At first Baca seemed confused about why Martinez was calling him about a jail cell phone, Martinez said, "but [in] the end he understood" that the cell phone belonged to the FBI and had been smuggled to an FBI informant.

Baca, he said, called him back soon after.

"He appeared agitated," Martinez said. "He was not happy the FBI had been working an operation in the jails targeting his deputies with an undercover investigation."

Baca apparently also called U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte, who met with him on Aug. 29, 2011.

After that meeting, FBI Special Agent Carlos Narro testified, the investigation into the sheriff's department cooled off for about a month.

"With respect to not pursuing documents, not interviewing any member of the sheriff's department," Narro said.

On Sept. 27, 2011, Baca met with Birotte and Martinez, and things picked back up, Narro said.

None of the witnesses were permitted to be questioned on the details of the meetings between Baca, the FBI, and US Attorney's Office. 

Tanaka is expected to retake the witness stand Monday morning for cross examination. Over the weekend, Federal District Judge Percy Anderson is expected to decide whether to grant Stephen Leavins, who's also charged in the case, immunity to testify in Sexton's trial. 

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