Crime & Justice

Fate of former LA County Sheriff Lee Baca now in the jury's hands

Former L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, center, leaves the federal courthouse on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016. His attorney, Nathan Hochman, is on his left.
Former L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, center, leaves the federal courthouse on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016. His attorney, Nathan Hochman, is on his left.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC

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At the end of the federal corruption trial against former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca on Monday, a federal prosecutor told the jury it was ultimately them who must “police the police.”

“See what is obvious,” prosecutor Brandon Fox said, looking at the 12 men and women before they headed into deliberations Monday afternoon. “Mr. Baca is guilty.”

Baca is charged with conspiracy and obstruction of justice stemming from a federal investigation into abuse of inmates in the L.A. County jails in 2011. Prosecutors claim Baca was the heartbeat of a conspiracy to hide an inmate informant from the FBI and intimidate an FBI agent by threatening her with arrest.

Baca’s defense attorney Nathan Hochman said those actions were masterminded by then undersheriff Paul Tanaka and carried out in secret from the sheriff.

After more than a week of testimony and discussion of phone records and emails, there is “no evidence connecting Sheriff Baca,” Hochman said. He told the jury they must find him not guilty on both charges.

Hochman said the federal prosecutors are distorting Baca’s intentions when he learned that undercover FBI agents paid a deputy to smuggle a cell phone into the jail for their informant, Anthony Brown. A cell phone could be used as “a weapon,” because it can be used to organize crimes, and its appearance in the jails worried the sheriff. Baca raised questions to the FBI and U.S. attorney’s offices, but could only get answers from Brown himself.

“You don’t break the law to enforce the law,” Hochman said. “The FBI has run a dangerous, reckless and careless investigation.”

The prosecutors offered a different picture of Baca, who ran the nation’s largest sheriff’s department for 15 years. Baca’s story, Fox said, is one of “an abuse of power to obstruct justice” and keep “dirty deputies” in the jails.

Prosecutors brought in a string of witnesses who said Baca was aware of inmate beatings and did little to stop it. Fox held up the inmate’s silver flip phone for jurors to see.

“This phone… caused all the evils of the Men’s Central Jail to be aired for the first time,” he said. “This wasn’t about safety. This was about hiding [Brown].”

Fox said Baca led the conspiracy to thwart the investigation by shifting Brown around, though Baca may not have known of every single cell move or which fake names deputies shrouded the inmate under.

“Mr. Baca decides that’s our investigation,” Fox said, turning the focus of the probe to the FBI. Deputies went so far as to approach a federal agent and threaten her arrest even after an assistant sheriff warned Baca not to “F with the feds,” Fox said.

Fox agreed Tanaka, who was previously convicted for his role in the scandal, organized much of the day-to-day actions of the conspiracy, but said that too was under orders from the top.

“Who put him in charge?” Fox said. “That was Mr. Baca."

This story has been updated.