After admitting that he attempted to cover up jail abuse while obstructing a federal investigation into his deputies, retired Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca agreed to plead guilty on Wednesday to making false statements to FBI agents and federal prosecutors. Although Baca confessed to making three false statements to investigators, the prosecution has agreed to only charge the former sheriff with one count of lying to the FBI.
While investigating numerous allegations of excessive force, misconduct, and sexual assault committed by deputies at the Men’s Central Jail (MCJ) in Downtown Los Angeles, FBI agents recruited an inmate named Anthony Brown to work as an informant. After Brown bribed Deputy Gilbert Michel to smuggle a cellphone into the jail, FBI agents confronted Michel with a video of the deputy accepting the bribe. As Michel began working with the feds, Brown used the smuggled cellphone to record videos of deputies assaulting inmates without provocation.
Caught with the cellphone three weeks later, Brown eventually admitted to the deputies that he was working as an FBI informant recording any instances of police misconduct in the jail. Unable to contact Brown with the cellphone, FBI agents Leah Marx and David Lam arrived at MCJ to interview him on August 23, 2011. As the FBI agents began speaking with Brown, Lt. Gregory Thompson suddenly terminated the interview and had Brown transferred to another facility under a series of false names.
In an effort to intimidate Agent Marx, Sgt. Scott Craig of the Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau (ICIB) confronted the FBI agent at her house on September 26, 2011. Captured on surveillance video, Craig lied to Marx by telling her that she was a named suspect in a felony complaint and threatened to obtain a warrant for her arrest. According to recorded interviews, ICIB Lt. Stephen Leavins and Craig attempted to coerce Michel into refusing to cooperate with the FBI investigation. Sergeants Maricella Long and Craig also engaged in witness tampering by convincing Brown to cease working as an FBI informant.
In 2012, Michel pleaded guilty to bribery as multiple investigations conducted by the FBI led to the arrests of at least 18 Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputies. On April 12, 2013, FBI agents and federal prosecutors interviewed Sheriff Baca regarding his role and knowledge of the misconduct taking place within his department. Instead of answering honestly, Baca lied at least three times to the federal agents.
In his first false statement, Baca told investigators that he was unaware his deputies had hidden Brown from the FBI. When asked if he knew that Lt. Thompson had abruptly terminated the interview between Brown and FBI agents on August 23, 2011, Baca falsely claimed to have no knowledge of the incident. Baca also lied when he told investigators that he was unaware his deputies had threatened FBI Agent Marx at her home.
With Baca agreeing to plead guilty to one count of making a false statement to federal agents, the U.S. attorney’s office announced Wednesday that they will drop the other charges prepared against him. After Baca retired in 2014, his former undersheriff and sheriff’s captain were arrested a few months later on obstruction and conspiracy charges. Accused of corruptly influencing and impeding an FBI investigation into abuse and bribery within the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD), former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka and retired Captain William “Tom” Carey allegedly ordered deputies to secretly transfer Brown under false aliases and engage in witness tampering. In August 2015, former Capt. Carey pleaded guilty to lying under oath and is expected to testify against Tanaka.
Besides accepting bribes, smuggling contraband, beating inmates, threatening FBI agents, and obstructing federal investigations into police misconduct, Baca’s deputies were also notorious for assaulting visitors at MCJ and falsifying incident reports. In addition to viciously beating the handcuffed brother of an inmate unconscious and attempting to cover up the abuse, Baca’s men were also responsible for arresting an Austrian consul official and her husband even though she had committed no crime and would have been immune from prosecution.
On Tuesday, prosecutors agreed not to retry deputies Joey Aguiar and Mariano Ramirez on charges related to their beating of a handcuffed jail inmate. In exchange, the deputies agreed to give up their right to appeal a jury’s decision earlier this month to convict them for writing false reports about the incident.
Under the threat of indictment with his deputies and underlings receiving convictions for misconduct and abuse that occurred during his tenure, Baca finally confessed to his involvement on Wednesday. The former sheriff will also be called as a witness in the criminal trial against his undersheriff, Paul Tanaka.