Sheriff Lee Baca fancied himself a visionary. His number two, Paul Tanaka, considered himself a force to be reckoned with. Together they allowed one of the nation’s most powerful law enforcement agencies to drift into a morass of scandal that compelled both to retire. How did things get so bad?
At approximately 10 A.M., on Tuesday, January 7, Sheriff Lee Baca stepped up to a temporary podium in the front courtyard of the Monterey Park headquarters of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. After a short, emotional preface, he glanced at his notes and, running his fingers along the words as he said them, announced that he was leaving his position as the head of the nation’s largest sheriff’s department—effective almost immediately. “I am not going to seek reelection to a fifth term as sheriff, and I will retire at the end of this month,” he said to the crowd of reporters, each of whom had scrambled to be there after getting word of Baca’s impending arrival. “I was elected to four terms, and I will go out on my terms.”
Several of the LASD executives who flanked Baca wore suits, but the sheriff was in uniform, stars glistening on the collar of his always perfectly tailored tan shirt as he bent into the microphone. “I’ve been proud and honored to serve the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the people of this greatest of counties…for the past 48 years,” he said, beginning to tear up.
Baca is a tall, 71-year-old man with a distance runner’s build, broad shoulders, and low body fat ratio. Under the dome of his egg-shaped head he wore the squint that had recently become habitual as he explained that he’d made the decision to leave the department only three days before. Most of those close to Baca had no inkling of his departure until midday Monday. Up until late Monday night, it was unclear whether Baca would hold a press conference at all. “He was going to put out a press release,” said Steve Whitmore, Baca’s hyperloyal spokesperson. “But I told him, ‘Boss, you can’t do that. You have to appear. People want to see you.’ ”
"I was caught up in this thing of not having a good opinion of myself," Baca said. "but I didn't want to be viewed as a mediocre performer."
For most of his 15 years in office, Baca had been an uncommonly popular public official. He was one of the most powerful law enforcement officers in the country. Only the police departments of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles have more officers than the LASD’s 9,700 badge-wearing men and women. Yet no other agency has as many square miles to police (4,057) or as complex an array of responsibilities. In addition to patrolling the unincorporated portions of L.A. County and the 42 cities that contract with the LASD in place of running their own police departments, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department polices local parks, marinas, and government buildings. Its deputies patrol both the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Metrolink. It provides bailiffs and inmate transport to the county’s superior courts. Its Emergency Services Detail is an essential part of L.A.’s search-and-rescue system. And most notoriously, the LASD operates the county’s huge jail system, the largest in the nation.
From the day he was sworn into office in December 1998, Baca dealt frequently with controversy. In 1999, a flurry of negative media stories forced him to shut down an ill-considered program that provided sheriff’s badges and guns to celebrities and wealthy benefactors. He was criticized for his close relationships with other moneyed campaign supporters who had alleged associations with Asian organized crime figures, and for the pardon request sent to President Bill Clinton concerning Carlos Vi-gnali, a cocaine smuggler whose father was another campaign contributor. That same year he bought a $750,000 home in San Marino with an unusual no-money-down deal, simultaneously promoting a program marketing home loans to cops. The business behind the program was owned by the mortgage broker who’d arranged Baca’s sweetheart loan. Additional bad press resulted when Baca was thought to have gone easy on Mel Gibson and Paris Hilton in 2006 and 2007.
Repeated cases of inmates being brutalized by deputies led to the FBI investigation that likely motivated Baca’s early retirement. Former undersheriff Paul Tanaka (above), a candidate for sheriff, was accused of encouraging violence by deputies but blames Baca for being negligent.
For a dozen years none of the embarrassments managed to tarnish the sheriff’s appeal at the ballot box. Beginning in the spring of 2011, however, scandals began to break across the department’s bow with increasing frequency, becoming a storm surge as 2013 rushed to a close. A deputy was caught smuggling drugs into jail inside a burrito. Video surfaced of the sheriff hawking vitamin drinks for a possibly shady health supplement company. Local news channel ABC7 aired a story about how the head of Baca’s civilian “executive clergy council,” Bishop Edward Turner, pulled in a six-figure salary of county money and allowed an illegal pot dispensary on his commercial property. What’s more, Turner had been investigated by LASD’s own narcotics detectives when a mysterious box addressed to his church turned out to be crammed with $84,020 in shrink-wrapped cash. Most recently news had materialized that the department had knowingly hired dozens of deputies with records of misconduct. Among them was an applicant who shot at her husband as he ran a zigzag pattern across the front lawn during a marital squabble; another admitted that, at 28, he’d had an amorous relationship with a 14-year-old.
The worst scandals centered on reports of brutality and racial discrimination by deputies toward jail inmates and other county residents—and in one bizarre instance, the Austrian consul general was manhandled when she attempted to visit an incarcerated Austrian national. The allegations generated three federal investigations, two of them ongoing, and transformed the department into a veritable lawsuit factory, with high-ticket payouts rising yearly. In 2012, the county paid $37 million for LASD lawsuits; in 2013, the figure jumped to $43 million, with still-larger totals expected this year. (A federal jury even held Baca personally liable for $100,000 in a case in which deputies fractured an inmate’s leg in two places during a jail beating.)
Finally, on December 9, 2013, the LASD made international news when United States Attorney André Birotte unsealed federal indictments against 18 members of Baca’s department and hinted that there would be many more to come. “These incidents did not take place in a vacuum,” he said. “In fact, they demonstrated behavior that had become institutionalized. The pattern of activity alleged…shows how some members of the sheriff’s department considered themselves to be above the law.”
In the weeks before Birotte’s announcement, Baca had assured everyone that he was in it for the long haul, despite evidence that FBI investigators were looking deeply into the actions of those at the very top of the LASD. “The sheriff steps up in the face of challenges! He doesn’t step down!” spokesperson Whitmore kept telling journalists who, after each new revelation, asked if the sheriff might bow out of the election. Nobody expected the turnabout.
At his press conference Baca hunched toward the microphone in the morning sun and told reporters his decision had nothing to do with the FBI investigations. He was leaving, he said, due to the negative perception that his presence in the campaign for sheriff had brought to the good, hardworking men and women of the department, an explanation that those gathered appeared to find vague and unconvincing. Baca’s longtime campaign consultant, Parke Skelton, told me afterward that some of Baca’s biggest worries concerned his once-trusted second-in-command, Paul Tanaka, who was running against him for sheriff: “Lee Baca felt that the kind of campaign a runoff with Tanaka might produce would have been destructive to the department.” And to the sheriff directly.
When the screaming began, the handful of employees sitting at the five or so desks within earshot of Tanaka’s office on the fourth floor of the Sheriff’s Headquarters Building busied themselves, looking anywhere but at one another.
“Motherfuckers! Motherfuckers! ”
Tanaka is a small, intelligent man with close-cropped black hair and uptilted eyebrows that alternately suggest skepticism or bemusement. He can be dazzlingly personable when he desires. Yet he is infamous for these outsize eruptions of fury, which sent workers nearest to his office door into poses of studied disinterest, lest the beam of his anger turn in their direction. “Mr. Tanaka yelled at almost everyone,” said a witness to this particular tantrum, “except, of course, the sheriff.” This time Tanaka was bellowing at whoever had called him on the phone. “It was the worst I’d ever heard,” said the witness. “He kept slamming his hand on the desk as he talked.”
“You stupid fucking idiots! ” Bam, bam! “I’m surrounded by fucking idiots!! ” Bam, bam, bam!
No one listening knew then that the call pertained to a jail inmate named Anthony Brown. On or about August 8, 2011, a deputy helping to transport Brown for a visit to L.A. County USC Medical Center in order to regulate his heart medication happened to find a cell phone hidden in the neon green knapsack inmates use to protect their possessions whenever they leave their cells. Since phones are forbidden in any of the nine L.A. County lockups, the deputy turned the contraband item over to the department’s Jails Investigative Unit.
Brown, a 44-year-old convicted bank robber awaiting transfer to the California State Prison at Lancaster, had paid a deputy named Gilbert Michel $1,500 to smuggle in the phone for him, promising a total of $20,000 to be paid in the future. But at the moment the JIU investigators were focused on their suspicion that Brown might have acquired the device to make contact with criminal confederates on the outside. When investigators ran the phone numbers the inmate punched most frequently, the information that came back was not what the JIU guys expected. The main numbers in Brown’s log were registered to a suite on the 17th floor of a building at 11000 Wilshire Boulevard—the L.A. headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Anthony Brown was a confidential informant for the FBI.
The feds had recruited Brown as part of an expanding investigation. They were probing accusations of excessive force by deputies against inmates, along with reports that department members like Michel were taking cash to do favors for prisoners.
Before Brown’s connection with the FBI came to light, the presence of federal agents poking around in the LASD’s business had been making department executives crazy. “They were sure that the phones and the offices in Men’s Central Jail were bugged,” an officer who worked in the custody division at the time told me. “It got so nuts that they started having any sensitive meetings in this barbecue area outside the jail called Hero’s Park, where they figured they wouldn’t be heard.”
No law enforcement department likes being investigated by another, bigger-footed agency, and the FBI has the biggest foot in the nation. Nevertheless, if the feds show up at one’s door to investigate one’s professional house, one is wise to grit one’s teeth and put out the welcome mat. That is not what occurred. Once Brown’s informant status was revealed, the edict came down from the fourth floor that if federal agents showed up to see the inmate, Tanaka was to be called immediately on his personal cell phone.
“We were told that no one should use department phones or e-mail to contact him,” said jails lieutenant Katherine Voyer. “They were worried that all that stuff was being tapped by the feds.” Jail personnel were instructed not to accommodate any FBI agents who came to see Brown, an order that was extremely irregular, Voyer told me. “But you think, ‘Well, those above me obviously know things that I don’t and that they don’t feel any need to tell someone of my rank.’ ”
Department executives dispatched two LASD sergeants, Scott Craig and Maricella Long, both investigators, to begin round-the-clock surveillance of Special Agent Leah Marx, Brown’s main FBI handler, and a second special agent identified only by the initials “D.H.” After a spell of unproductive shadowing, the sergeants were ordered to visit Marx’s home unannounced and to push her to disclose what information she and her colleagues had acquired from Brown. Craig and Long reportedly were uneasy about the idea of picking a fight with a federal agent and argued with Lieutenant Stephen Leavins, who had given them the assignment. Leavins ordered them to go anyway. So at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, September 26, the two loitered on Marx’s front walk until they saw the agent approach her house on foot. They intercepted her and commenced to bully her with bogus threats of arrest and criminal charges. Using the video camera in their patrol car, the sergeants recorded their attempts to coerce Marx, who declined to tell them anything. Later the recording was reportedly played for Baca.
Weeks before the visit to Marx, though, LASD management set into motion its most elaborate strategy: They would hide Brown from his FBI contacts, members of the U.S. Attorney’s office, and any other federal personnel who might try to find him until the inmate revealed to the LASD what he’d been telling the feds. Brown would be bounced into and out of various locations within the county jail system as LASD deputies used a byzantine stratagem of rebooking him every 48 hours under a new name, inmate number, and physical descriptors to game the system’s computer database so as to leave no digital bread crumbs. Finally, as part of their effort to get the inmate to disclose everything he knew, Leavins’s team told Brown that he would not hear from the FBI again, that his handlers had abandoned him.
In Late August 2011, Deputy Mike Rathbun was halfway through an eight-hour shift on the 8000 floor of Men’s Central Jail when he received a telephone call that unnerved him. Rathbun, then 27, and his partner, James Sexton, 26, were required to work the jails before graduating to street patrol. But both men were bright, well-educated, reasonably fearless, and the sons of cops, so instead of being funneled through the grind of regular custody duty—something typically asked of all deputies after academy graduation—they were recruited to an elite unit of investigators whose job it was to cultivate informants in the jails.
The previous week, however, the partners had been yanked out of their usual assignments to work on the 13-man secret team assigned to hide Brown. At first the two thought it flattering to be picked for the black ops-esque project, which was presented as being of great importance to the department’s brass. Then a week into the thing Rathbun got a weird call from Deputy Gerard Smith—a team member positioned one step above him in the unit’s hierarchy.
“Look,” said Smith. “Some U.S. marshals, some FBIs, and probably somebody from the U.S. Attorney’s office are headed your way with a removal order for your prisoner. Do not let them take the inmate. Repeat, do not let them take him!”
“Roger that,” said Rathbun. After he hung up, he wondered how exactly he was supposed to stop armed federal marshals from retrieving a prisoner whom they had every legal right to take. He pictured an unpleasant shoving match between himself and several feds and was not fond of the image. The deputy secretly resolved that if anyone came, he would hand Brown over, team orders be damned. As it turned out, the federal agents did not show up. The marshals, who are generally the ones tasked with transporting federal prisoners, were unable to verify the inmate’s location, or that he was in the county system whatsoever. Sexton, Rathbun, and their team had hidden the man well. Yet the incident gave weight to an uneasiness that Rathbun had been trying to suppress.
It was perhaps a measure of their personal discomfort that Sexton, Rathbun, and some of the others started to jokingly call their clandestine project “Operation Pandora’s Box,” after the mythical container bequeathed by the gods that, once opened, loosed ills upon the world that could never again be recaptured.
“This is fucked up,” Rathbun would later say to his partner.
“I know it,” replied Sexton.
For one thing, their boss, Lieutenant Greg Thompson, issued orders for the mission verbally, rarely by text or e-mail, which were the unit’s usual forms of interaction. Thompson emphasized to his team members that with this operation they should avoid anything that would leave a record. The lieutenant was a personable supervisor with what his underlings regarded as a glamorously murky past rumored to involve shootouts. He also made it plain that he was close to then-assistant sheriff Tanaka, who was seen as the man who could make or break your career in the department. “The sheriff and Mr. Tanaka know who you are, and they’re satisfied with the way you’re handling this,” Thompson assured them.
In February 2012, Rathbun and Sexton discovered evidence that another jail deputy had been paid to do favors for an inmate high up in local white power gangs. The two gave a written report to Thompson, who shut down their investigation. When they took the matter to Internal Affairs, they received death threats from department members. Rathbun and Sexton would end up speaking to the FBI. The feds asked them about Brown, and they were immediately forthcoming. To their knowledge, they said, the plan to hide the inmate was approved by Baca and orchestrated by Tanaka. That summer the partners were subpoenaed to testify about the Brown operation before a federal grand jury. Several other officers appeared with them, including deputies Mickey Manzo and Gerard Smith. It was Manzo who could not resist privately regaling teammates with highlights of how at one point, during a briefing about Brown, the sheriff held his head unhappily in his hands.
This feature originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine.
Leroy David Baca was born in East Los Angeles to an undocumented seamstress who as a baby was brought north by her parents from the state of Michoacán in Mexico. His father was, as Baca described him, a ladies’ man who wore beautiful suits. The couple divorced before Baca’s first birthday, leaving his mother to raise Baca and his older sister alone. The young mother coped until she had a third child with another man who failed to stick around. Fearing an emotional capsize, she decided to give one of her children to the county foster care system. She chose seven-year-old Lee.
Horrified, Baca’s paternal grandmother stepped in to rescue the boy. She was a stoic woman with a kind but alcoholic husband. When she agreed to raise her grandson, she was already caring for a severely mentally disabled adult son, with whom Baca would share a bedroom for the next seven years. The long hours spent with his invalid uncle were formative for Baca. “It teaches you about the value of loving your own life,” he said to an audience of USC students in 2012, “because someone that should be able to love his own life was denied that opportunity. So that kind of became the cornerstone of how I manage things.”
At 14 Baca moved in with his father, who had remarried and was living in a one-bedroom apartment. His son was relegated to an area in a windowless cellar. At Benjamin Franklin High School in Highland Park, Baca got Cs and Ds, but he was popular enough to be elected senior class president. After school, he avoided going home by volunteering for every service club that would accept him. During an adolescence that was short on familial warmth, Baca dreamed of a life in law enforcement, which he thought a “powerful” profession. “I wanted to help people,” he said later when asked why the job attracted him. He applied for the LAPD’s cadet program after graduation but flunked the entrance exam. “I didn’t think you’d pass it anyway,” his father told him.
Baca has pointed to the moment as the lowest in his life. He realized he’d “better wake up,” he said. “When you start to lose the dream, you can get in real trouble fast, but I didn’t. Because I’m not disposed for self-destruction.” For the next five years Baca worked a variety of jobs as he trudged toward an associates degree at East Los Angeles College. In 1965, he tried again to become a cop, this time with the Los Angeles sheriff’s department. Though he barely passed the entrance exam, the LASD’s paramilitary structure seemed to give Baca the emotional ballast to begin to retool his psyche. “I was caught up in this thing of not having a good opinion of myself,” he said. “But I didn’t want to be viewed as a mediocre performer.”
The LASD encourages its deputies to seek higher education, so Baca went back to school, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1971 and a master’s in 1973. Two decades later he got a Ph.D. in public administration from USC. In his first round of graduate school, Baca gained the mental discipline he’d lacked. His discipline turned physical when he became a “fitness nut” at 36 and began his regimen of running 40 miles a week. Baca developed a mantralike credo to guide his actions: High standards, best effort, noble thoughts. “Noble thoughts keep you in check,” he said. “There is a purpose in your excellence. It’s not just to serve your needs. It’s to serve other people’s needs…. I serve people. That’s my mission. It’s to help people climb out from the things that are getting in the way of their goodness.”
In the 1970s, Baca was deeply influenced by social anthropologist Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death. Becker believed, as Baca put it, “that every human being has heroic instincts.” Armed with Becker’s ideas, Baca began to develop his own theories about law enforcement and leadership, which he tried out in small ways as a staff instructor at the Sheriff’s Academy. When in 1981 he was promoted to the rank of captain and assigned to run the department’s Norwalk station, Baca was able to put his theories into practice. “He had this idea of a new kind of deputy accountability,” said John Stites, a retired LASD sergeant and the former president of the Los Angeles County Professional Peace Officers Association, one of the LASD’s two powerful labor unions. “He believed that when deputies got caught doing something wrong, rather than beat them to death with punishment, you should see this as an opportunity for education, and to promote leadership.”
Sherman Block was sheriff when Baca levitated through the ranks during the 1980s. Chicago born, with a pleasantly extravagant personality and a hair-trigger temper, Block didn’t altogether agree with his captain’s touchy-feely notions. He was, however, interested in Baca’s potential. “Block was old school,” Stites told me. “But he saw Baca as talented, as someone he could use.” In January 1992, Block elevated Baca to the rank of chief, assigning him to special projects, such as going to Sacramento to push for the passage of the latest public safety funding bill. By then a father of two nearing the end of his marriage (he would marry his present wife, Carol Chiang, in 1999), Baca was a natural lobbyist, enchanting lawmakers with his impassioned and un-cop-sounding progressive ideas about the future of law enforcement. The political relationships he was forming would soon prove useful.
Baca had intended to run for sheriff only after his boss announced his retirement—which, Block told him, would be at the end of his fourth term in 1998. The longtime sheriff was 74 years old, with daunting health issues: He had survived two bouts of cancer, was suffering from kidney failure, sometimes fainted in meetings, and experienced occasional episodes of confusion. “Block was losing it,” Stites told me. “His time was finished. Lee saw it. We all saw it.”
Nevertheless, the aging warhorse went back on his promise and ran again. As a powerful member of L.A.’s political old guard, Block had an unwavering hold on Westside and Valley voters as well as organized labor. Dismissing his physical frailties as irrelevant, Block assumed he was guaranteed the election.
Baca ran anyway, fashioning a dark horse candidacy from a patchwork coalition of Latinos, blacks, Asians, Armenians, and other constituencies that had felt locked out of the political center. In the June primary the tactic got Baca into a runoff with the sheriff. His surprising success against his mentor so undid Baca that for 48 hours he considered quitting the race, until his campaign staff talked him out of it. Then, on October 24, 1998, Block collapsed in his bathroom. The next day a plum-size blood clot was removed from between the two hemispheres of his brain, but a bleed persisted. Block died five days before the election.
His supporters were furious at Baca, whom they saw as a disloyal lightweight. They continued to campaign, hoping their dead sheriff would still beat the live challenger and force the selection into the hands of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, who would likely choose someone more to their liking. The scheme failed. Baca won by 61.3 percent to Block’s 38.7.
The new sheriff had ambitious plans. “He wanted to really reinvent the department. Everything was fair game,” said Joaquin Herran, a retired commander who was the leader of one of Baca’s five transition teams. “In general, cops don’t like change,” he said. “But in the first year or two after he was elected, his ideas rejuvenated a lot of people. We felt like we were going to bring law enforcement into the next century.
“Block was respected but caught in the past,” Stites told me, “whereas Baca had these ideas about the future. In the beginning he went around to every station and talked to people about his vision. It got people excited.” In 2001, Baca introduced what he hoped would be a blueprint to remake policing. He called it LASD2. Among the ideas the initiative contained were proposals to improve law enforcement’s interaction with battered women, to establish a system of deputy performance evaluations that rewarded officers for community outreach—not merely arrests—and to develop a step-by-step framework for shaking loose federal funding for the LASD’s new endeavors.
I talked to Baca frequently in the course of my reporting early in his first term. I liked him and would come to know him well enough to witness the quirks of his personality. I’d watch him speak with unfeignable kindness to former gang members trying to make good and tell a room full of experts that “we can’t arrest our way out of” this or that social problem routinely handed to police. A month later I would observe him delivering the keynote at some banquet or other, drifting so loopily far afield in his speech that audience members feared he was having a breakdown. Then there were his jails. The firsthand accounts I’d heard were horrific, and like others, I had trouble squaring the disconnect.
Over time, when Baca’s ideas didn’t always translate into accomplishment (such as his proposed $9 million open-air homeless shelter), people in law enforcement began to express frustration to me. It was a theme that would continue. “Even in those early years he’d talk in 40,000-foot concepts,” said a high-ranking LAPD officer, now retired, who often worked with the LASD on joint projects. Baca was seen as a big-picture man and a dreamer; more conservative members of the rank and file secretly called him “Sheriff Moonbeam.” “[Baca had] interesting concepts in theory,” the retired LAPD executive told me, “but his staff would go crazy because his ideas would cost too much, or they’d conflict with existing programs, or would violate some kind of protocol.”
That Baca was rarely a hands-on manager further hampered his goals. “He delegates, and he delegates broadly,” Merrick Bobb, the special counsel to the supervisors, told me months before Baca’s resignation. “I think he’s had real difficulty finding people whose abilities are consistent with his vision.” As a consequence, when a high-level decision had to be made for a joint agency operation, those involved stopped asking Baca to sign off. “People would go to whoever happened to be the undersheriff at the time,” said the LAPD executive. “Eventually they would go only to Paul Tanaka.”
In certain ways Tanaka, who is 55, provided the perfect counterpoint to Baca’s guru persona. For instance, Tanaka thrived on confrontation. Raised in Gardena, where he still lives with his wife and two children, he was elected Key Club president in high school after running an aggressively critical campaign against his opponent. Baca, on the other hand, avoided conflict. “He didn’t want to criticize Block during the 1998 campaign,” said political consultant Skelton. If Baca was the empathy-driven futurist, the philosopher king, Tanaka was a detail guy who could drive a project from start to finish, micromanaging obsessively when he thought a matter important. “The sheriff was more of a broad thinker,” Tanaka told me. “My approach has always been to get the job done.”
The talent Baca would come to value most was Tanaka’s gift for numbers. He graduated with an accounting degree from Loyola Marymount University, joining the El Segundo Police Department in 1980. His interest in law enforcement was triggered by a police ride-along he took during his junior year as part of a class requirement. “That experience changed the course of my career,” he said. Tanaka switched to the LASD in 1982, earned his CPA’s license, and in his off-hours began a two-decade stint working for an accounting firm. Tanaka added a third focus to his professional life in 1999 by winning a seat on the Gardena City Council, when the city was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. He is credited with reversing the town’s economic fortunes.
In the world of law enforcement, the CPA presented himself as a badass. He embraced the hard-charging young deputies he saw as “real cops,” urging them to do whatever it took to put the lawbreakers away. If they got in trouble with superiors, he said, they could come to him for help. “Work the gray and work it hard,” he would say when speaking to deputies at some of L.A. County’s most troubled stations. “Working the gray” was Tanaka’s term for pushing the limits of legality. He said that “deputies and officers should function right on the edge of the line,” wrote Captain Stephen Roller in a 2007 memo to his commander about his concerns after watching Tanaka address the troops at Century station.
Baca was seen as a big-picture man and a dreamer; more conservative members of the rank and file secretly called him “Sheriff Moonbeam.”
Tanaka was promoted to sergeant in 1987 and transferred to Lynwood station, an especially crime-ridden outpost that tended to attract the department’s cowboys. At Lynwood, Tanaka, a Japanese American, became one of the few nonwhites to join a deputy clique called the Vikings. Members of the group sported sequentially numbered Viking warrior tattoos on their ankles and flashed gang-like signs—L for Lynwood. If sergeants or lieutenants tried to rein them in, Vikings were known to slash tires, pour transmission fluid on cars to wreck the finish, and worse, until their targets requested a transfer.
Already a supervisor when he joined, Tanaka became the Vikings’ protector and champion, believing them to be the type of deputies who could lower crime stats. Many of those same Vikings were named as defendants in a class action suit against the department that in 1996 resulted in a $9 million settlement. U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter wrote in his 1991 ruling that the Lynwood Vikings were a “neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang” of deputies whose supervisors “tacitly authorize deputies’ unconstitutional behavior.”
Tanaka wasn’t named in that lawsuit. However, a year after he received his Viking tattoo, he and four Lynwood deputies fired 15 shots, killing an unarmed Korean man named Hong Pyo Lee, who fled police in his car after running a stop sign. In a sworn deposition a Long Beach police officer who witnessed the shooting said he had “observed the sheriffs execute somebody.” The shooting was found to be “lawful,” but Lee’s family sued Los Angeles County and settled for $999,999. The incident did not prevent Tanaka from being promoted to lieutenant in 1991, but it was commonly believed to be among the factors that caused his career to stall for the next seven years under Block. “He cost the county nearly a million bucks,” a department contemporary of Tanaka’s told me. “Block hated that.”
Things changed after Baca was elected. The new sheriff had come to rely on a cluster of acolytes, Tanaka most of all. “There were people in the sheriff’s inner circle who held higher ranks,” an LASD executive said to me the day Baca announced his retirement, “but from the time he was elected, Baca always saw Paul as the heart—and, really, the brains—of that group.” In 2001, Baca’s regard for his most trusted subordinate began to morph into dependence. That was the year when the sheriff, often a profligate spender, overran his budget by $25 million, infuriating the board of supervisors. Panicked, the sheriff turned to Tanaka, who had served as an important moneyman in Baca’s 2002 race, for help. Tanaka rejiggered figures and priorities and balanced the budget, at least in the short term. In addition, he would map out a strategy making it possible for the LASD to pay back the $25 million it owed the county.
The fiscal savior quickly rose from the rank of captain to commander, then to the position of chief of the LASD’s administrative services division. The latter job put Tanaka officially in charge of the department’s $2.4 billion budget as well as giving him the ability to influence promotions and transfers. As he was swiftly upgraded again to assistant sheriff and then to undersheriff, he retained control of the department’s finances. Tanaka did not merely wrangle the budget, he took care to magically find dollars for the sheriff’s favorite progressive priorities, like his leadership training classes and, later, his inmate education programs. By 2006, Tanaka was functioning as a shadow sheriff, the man who called the shots in the department day to day as Baca acted as the LASD’s public face at meetings and other occasions around L.A. County, in Washington, D.C., and, increasingly, around the world. Baca liked the arrangement and either failed to notice or simply disregarded the fact that his loyal subordinate had very specific priorities of his own.
“Paul controlled all access to the sheriff inside the department,” a longtime civilian associate told me. “Which in many cases meant Lee only saw what Paul wanted him to see.”
A union board member put it another way: “For years Tanaka has been playing a long game. I don’t think that Baca ever understood the depth and breadth of it.”
This feature originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine.
On a weekday afternoon in the spring of 2005, LASD lieutenant Thomas Sirkel followed his golfing buddy, Commander Paul Yim, through the back door of the Commerce Casino, a poker palace that advertises itself as the largest cardroom in the world. The men made their way to one of the casino’s bars, cordoned off for privacy, where around 200 department members were chatting and drinking. At the room’s center Paul Tanaka held court, occasionally gesturing with his trademark Cuban cigar, the axis around whom everyone else revolved. Sirkel followed Yim in Tanaka’s direction and waited for the young officers fluttering around “Tall Paul,” as some called him behind his back, to disperse. Yim handed the man six personal checks, one from Sirkel.
The lieutenant had come to the party as an act of desperation. He had been a department member for more than 30 years and was overdue for a promotion to captain. Sirkel had a master’s degree, was a nationally recognized expert in special victims enforcement, received good scores on his civil service exams, and earned stellar performance evaluations. “But I kept getting passed over, and nobody could tell me why,” he told me.
Finally, during a weekend golf game, Yim explained what Sirkel was doing wrong. “He told me, ‘You have to kiss the ring.’ That’s what everybody called it,” Sirkel said. In other words, said Yim, Sirkel had to show Tanaka the proper respect and loyalty. At the moment, according to Yim, that meant donating to Tanaka’s newly launched political campaign to trade his city council seat for the office of mayor of Gardena. Ideally, Yim added, Sirkel would spend a night or two walking precincts to hand out campaign literature.
Sirkel was taken aback. “I knew he had a lot of influence with the sheriff, but I don’t live in Gardena, and Tanaka wasn’t my superior officer.”
Yim set him straight. “He’s the heir apparent,” he said. “That’s how it works.” He offered to bring Sirkel as his guest to the Commerce Casino, which would at least get the lieutenant an audience with the crown prince.
“You couldn’t just go,” Sirkel told me. “You had to be invited.” Even if one had an invitation, the price of admission was a check made out to the “Friends of Paul Tanaka.” “There was a whole fee structure. The rate was $250 for lieutenants, $500 for captains, $750 for commanders, $1,000 for chiefs.” Yim got extra credit for bringing people like Sirkel. Not that the donation was any kind of guarantee. It was simply a ticket to the party, literally and metaphorically. But Yim made it clear that if you were asked to participate and you declined, your career would likely suffer.
Scores of other LASD members, working and retired, have described similar experiences to me. “The requests would come in a bunch of different ways,” said a female officer. “You would be told that it would be good for your career to walk precincts for Paul. I never walked precincts, but I’ve been to three of his events and another fund-raiser he threw for [former city attorney] Carmen Trutanich. I gave money each time. There wasn’t a choice.”
"‘You have to kiss the ring.’ That’s what everybody called it,” Sirkel said. In other words, said Yim, Sirkel had to show Tanaka the proper respect and loyalty.
In one instance she gave $350, at the request of her boss. He in turn was required to collect checks from his underlings, she said, because he was prominently “in the car” with Tanaka. “In the car” was the term for those who operated in the slipstream of the undersheriff’s patronage. “If you were single, like I was at the time,” she explained, “you were told things like, ‘You don’t have any kids, so you can afford more.’ ”
The ring kissing worked in two ways, both directly and in tiers. “In other words,” she told me, “I wasn’t just writing a check to stay in Tanaka’s good graces, I was doing it to get along with my boss. It sounds crazy, but that’s how it worked. And if you said no, they’d tell you, ‘Then you have nothing coming.’ Those were the terms they’d always use—in the car and nothing coming.”
One meant you were protected. The other meant you were screwed.
“I first saw the way it worked with Paul when two of us took him out to dinner one night to get to know him,” said a civilian employee. “He was a chief at the time. We were starting to eat, and he said, ‘How’s your new lieutenant working out?’ To make conversation we told him about some very small problem we had with the man. Right there in the restaurant Tanaka got out his cell phone and made a call. ‘I want that motherfucker out of there,’ he yelled to whoever was on the other end. He was like a kid who wanted to impress some girls. And this was based on one little comment that we made. The next day the guy was packed and gone from our building.” The women assumed the lieutenant was not fired but had been transferred to some less desirable department backwater. “But we never saw him again.”
Soon after, the captain of their division pulled the women aside. “He told us, ‘Please be careful what you say to Mr. Tanaka,’ ” she said. “That dinner scared us. After that, we saw that most everybody was scared of him. And this was before he was an assistant sheriff or an undersheriff. When he was promoted to those ranks, it got a lot worse. The sheriff was usually out at some luncheon or award dinner or some trip out of the country. So Tanaka was allowed to do anything he wanted.”
Not everyone thought this arrangement problematic. “A lot of deputies loved Tanaka because they saw him as a supervisor who had their backs, who would get down with them at the drinking level, who acted like he was one of them,” said retired commander Herran. They felt Baca was off in moonbeam land. As a consequence of the sheriff’s increased inattention, many of the important positions in the department reportedly began to represent not Baca’s selections but those of Tanaka.
In time there came to be an actual club for insiders, the membership of which was composed of around 100 of those most firmly in the car with Tanaka. Like third graders with a hidden treehouse, members of the club (designated as the e-mail group “Exec Staff Mtg”) were gifted by Tanaka with specially designed, sequentially numbered metal coins. Called “challenge coins,” they would grant their bearer entry into get-togethers held at a barbecue patio inside department headquarters that, built at a cost to the taxpayers of $22,726.31 in building materials alone, was used almost solely as Tanaka’s private club, where the anointed would drink Jack Daniel’s and Johnnie Walker Black and puff on cigars.
When I asked about the club, Tanaka replied that the patio was open to “all civilian and sworn employees” and that the coins were “nothing more than a souvenir item anyone in the department could obtain.” As for rumors of pay-to-play, he said that the LASD promotion process was “uncompromising and strictly defined” and that promotions to ranks of lieutenant and above were “appointed solely by the sheriff.”
If there is a starting point for the department’s public downfall, it could likely be dated to December 10, 2010. A group of Men’s Central Jail deputies and their supervisors attended a Christmas party at a Montebello banquet hall called Quiet Cannon. A great deal of alcohol was consumed. A few minutes before midnight an argument broke out between two deputies who worked in the jail’s reception area and a second group of deputies working on the 3000 floor of the facility. The reception area deputies said that the 3000-floor group had been slower than usual in sending inmates to the visitors’ area, requiring family members or friends to wait unnecessarily to see their loved one, in some cases as long as four hours. That made things hard, said the reception deputies, when the visitors were elderly or mothers with small children.
Like the Lynwood Vikings before them, the 3000-floor deputies had fashioned themselves into a clique. For the past four years the 3000 Boys, as they called themselves, had been a problem for jail supervisors, who found the members difficult to control. Termed “affinity groups” by sociologists, such cliques have frequently been a feature of law enforcement and the military. They range from relatively harmless social groups to rogue factions that cross into criminality. With its ominous tattoos and penchant for disregarding laws, the LAPD’s Rampart Division gang enforcement unit of the 1990s brought the department multimillions in lawsuits and a 12-year federal consent decree. Whereas the LAPD stamped out its cop clique problem a dozen years ago, the LASD allowed its cliques to proliferate. After the Vikings mostly disbanded, there were the Regulators, the Jump Out Boys, and the Grim Reapers, among others, along with their jailhouse counterparts, the 3000 Boys and the 2000 Boys.
At Quiet Cannon some of the 3000 Boys took offense at the criticism from their colleagues. Voices were raised. Suddenly, between 7 and 12 of the 3000 Boys were punching and kicking the pair from inmate reception. A third deputy, a woman, tried to intervene but was punched in the face. When Montebello police arrived at the scene, they were told by Captain Dan Cruz, then the commanding officer at Men’s Central Jail, that the incident was a “Code 4”—no big deal—and that the sheriff’s department would handle the matter in-house. “He was a sheriff’s department captain,” Lieutenant Michael Bergman of the Montebello Police Department said to me. “So when the supervising officer said, ‘We’ve got a handle on this,’ we took his word for it.”
An in-the-car favorite of Tanaka’s, Cruz had a pattern of shelving accusations of deputy brutality, both on patrol and in the jails. Cruz appeared poised to try to do the same with the Quiet Cannon incident. In this case, however, those on the receiving end of the punches and kicks were not so easily silenced. A day or two after the brawl, two LASD deputies arrived at the Montebello station. “They told us, ‘We were the victims. We want to file a crime report,’ ” said Bergman.
Word of the brawl and the jailhouse cliques soon leaked to the press. The specter of tattooed deputy gang members running the jails and issuing group thumpings to anyone who crossed them stimulated a week or two of colorful news stories. As spring moved to summer, more department scandals surfaced. In February 2011, the ACLU—which had provided court-ordered monitors for the jails since 1985—reported that one of its observers witnessed deputies delivering a beating to an unresisting inmate. In April, Bernice Abram, an LASD station captain and a friend of Tanaka’s, was caught on a wiretapped phone call allegedly warning a reported drug dealer about an impending interagency raid. And there was news of an ever-widening FBI investigation.
On September 28, 2011, the ACLU released its annual report detailing incidents of violence in the jails, which typically would generate a day’s worth of media coverage before vanishing. But this time legal director Peter Eliasberg and his team chose a different tack: In addition to the dozens of accounts by former inmates, they provided declarations that described harrowing incidents of abuse witnessed by civilians, among them two jail chaplains and Scott Budnick. The Hollywood producer responsible for the Hangover franchise had for years taught writing classes in the jails and in L.A. County’s various juvenile lockups.
“…I then saw the White deputy grab the inmate’s head and smash his head into the wall, hard,” wrote Budnick of one of the five incidents he said he witnessed. “It was so hard that I could hear an audible crack when the deputy slammed his head against the wall. At no point did I see the inmate do anything to any of the other prisoners or the deputy; in fact, the inmate was very respectful to the deputy….”
Some of the accounts were released in video form. In one, Tom Parker, the former assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s L.A. field office, talked about “horrendous beatings administered to inmates by deputies, many of them for no discernible reason at all.” The ACLU’s strategy worked. The news went national with stories appearing in such outlets as The New York Times and on Rachel Maddow’s show.
Baca reacted with bluster, claiming that the allegations were exaggerated, that he had everything under control. When, by the second week of October, the bad press didn’t abate, the sheriff agreed to sit for an interview with the Los Angeles Times editorial board. Looking confused, he maintained that he was in the dark about the things that journalists and the ACLU said were occurring in his department. “I wasn’t ignoring the jails. I just didn’t know,” Baca told the board. “People can say, ‘What the hell kind of leader is that?’ The truth is, I should’ve known. So now I do know.” The sheriff blamed his underlings and the ACLU for failing to inform him properly.
Baca’s remarks unnerved many who knew him. “When you’re in the room with Lee alone, and he talks about policy issues that matter to him, you fall in love with him,” a nondepartment professional who has worked with Baca for years told me. “He’s so present—he cares so much about breaking down cultural barriers, and is progressive in ways that few law enforcement figures can equal. And so you make excuses for the rest. But there’s no getting around the fact that, by his active neglect, he left people in charge who allowed a malignant culture to flourish in the sheriff’s department.”
On October 18, two days after an account of Baca’s interview ran in the Los Angeles Times, the members of the board of supervisors passed a motion appointing a seven-member blue-ribbon Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence. The commission was to conduct an investigation and recommend corrective action, with the goal of restoring “public confidence in the constitutional operation of our jails.”
The jail commission (called the CCJV, for short) consisted of four former federal judges, a former federal prosecutor turned criminal justice advocate, a prominent church pastor, and the Long Beach chief of police. Over the course of seven months, the CCJV reviewed more than 35,000 pages of documentary evidence and interviewed in excess of 150 witnesses. Former inmates recounted being beaten, experts opined on the running of jails and prisons, and department members described an out-of-control system in which supervisors were often marginalized and certain groups of deputies used violence with impunity but were rarely held to account.
The witness who appeared to have the most impact on the commissioners was retired custody commander Bob Olmsted. Straight backed, raw boned, with a broom of a gray mustache, Olmsted told story after story of attempts at reform thwarted by those in the department’s executive offices, namely, Paul Tanaka. He described reviewing reports of obvious brutality that were approved as “appropriate” uses of force by Tanaka loyalists like Men’s Central Jail captain Dan Cruz. “There was one particular report that stood out in my mind,” Olmsted testified. “The inmate made a statement that said something to the effect of ‘I was up against the wall. I had my hands behind my back.’ I then heard one deputy say to the other deputy, ‘Are you ready to earn your ink?’ And then boom...all of a sudden they busted his orbital. And I’m thinking…‘What [does] “earn your ink” mean?’…. ‘Oh, you don’t know? The 2,000 Boys have a…2 on the back…. That’s how you earn your ink, by busting somebody’s head.’ ”
At this last, commission member Reverend Cecil Murray, the celebrated former pastor of South L.A.’s First AME Church, shook his head slightly and murmured mournfully to himself, “Mmmmm. Mmmmm. Mmmmmm.”
Baca and Tanaka testified on Friday, July 27, 2012. The undersheriff sat in the witness chair first, insisting that the people who said unflattering things about him to the commission were either out-and-out lying or deliberately misinterpreting his words for their own agendas. Otherwise, Tanaka claimed failure of memory. Baca’s answers didn’t provide the commission any more traction than those of his undersheriff, but he suffused them with a veneer of humility. When the questions grew more aggressive, he played his hole card. “I’m a steward of the public,’’ Baca said. “I trust the voters of Los Angeles County, and the voters of Los Angeles County trust me.”
“How do we hold you accountable?” the commission’s legal director, Richard Drooyan, asked the sheriff in a moment of frustration. Baca paused for a purposeful beat, then smiled. “Don’t elect me.”
This feature originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine.
In the summer of 2011, when Anthony Brown’s identity was discovered, causing Operation Pandora’s Box to be set in motion, Baca’s reelection looked like a lock. No L.A. County sheriff had been unseated by a challenger since at least 1932, and with Baca’s nearly bottomless war chest, his formidable political machine, and his years of tarnish-resistant approval, it seemed unlikely that any serious candidate would bother to oppose him. “Back when the Brown thing happened,” a retired department commander told me, “he and Tanaka believed that they were untouchable.”
It was not an irrational perspective. Over the years some layers of nominal oversight of the vast empire that is the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department have been put into place—specifically Special Counsel Merrick Bobb and the Office of Independent Review’s Michael Gennaco. Both men work for organizations that churn out regular reports on what the LASD may be doing wrong or right during any given period. But neither entity has any legal authority. As a consequence, if Baca—or any other L.A. County sheriff—didn’t agree with their suggestions, he or she was free to ignore them.
“Time and again, it has been shown that the power to control an elected sheriff is a near impossibility, to the frustration of many,” wrote Bobb in his September 2013 semiannual report. “…At the end of the day [the supervisors] lack the power to order the Sheriff or the Undersheriff to run a constitutional jail, whether directly or through a blue ribbon commission or a civilian commission or Special Counsel or OIR or an Inspector General or otherwise. It may be that the federal government needs to be added to the mix.”
In the sheriff’s department it was widely understood that Baca and Tanaka had agreed that the sheriff would run again in 2014 but that he would step aside after a year and name the undersheriff as his successor. Exactly when Baca began to rethink his agreement with Tanaka is unclear, but the CCJV complicated matters considerably when on September 28, 2012, it delivered a 194-page report that repeatedly referred to a failure of leadership.
“The fact is that the sheriff does not seem to be someone, as a manager, who wanted to hear about problems,” said commission member and former federal judge Robert Bonner as he stood before the TV cameras to read his individual statement. “Like the proverbial ostrich, he seems to have had his head in the sand, happy to deal with other issues, ones that perhaps interested him more, but not minding the store when it came to running the jail in accordance with lawful and sound use of force policy.” Bonner, who had overseen the federal Drug Enforcement Administration under President George H.W. Bush and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency under Bush 43, went on to say the sheriff claimed that “…subordinates did not inform him of problems relating to the use of excessive force, of cliques of deputies operating in the jail, of inadequate training and supervision, of a culture of aggressiveness, [yet] no one has been disciplined, no one demoted. As someone said, ‘no heads have rolled….’ ”
The commission saved its harshest criticism for Baca’s second-in-command. “The troubling role of Undersheriff Tanaka cannot be ignored,” wrote the commission in part. “Not only did he fail to identify and correct problems in the jails, he exacerbated them…. Over the course of several years, the Undersheriff encouraged deputies to push the legal boundaries of law enforcement activities and created an environment that discouraged accountability for misconduct. His repeated statements that deputies should work in an undefined ‘grey’ area contributed to a perception by some deputies that they could use excessive force in the jails and that their aggressive behavior would not result in discipline….”
In response Baca said he was “fully committed’ to implementing the commission’s 63 recommendations but that he didn’t agree with the scathingly critical findings that prompted the recommendations. “I’m going to do my own investigation,” he told reporters. In a subsequent interview with KPCC’s Larry Mantle, Baca went further. “I will go out and find out whether the facts support the findings,” he said. “I’m not convinced that the individuals being blamed for the problems are the cause of the problems….”
It was only in October—after reporter Matt Fleischer from WitnessLA, the online news site I edit, ran a story about Tanaka’s alleged pay-to-play scheme of promotions—that the sheriff began to hint his undersheriff might be a liability. By December the disenchantment had grown. “He’s never going to be sheriff,” Baca told Olmsted at a holiday benefit. “I’ve got other people in mind as my successor.”
That Tanaka had recently filed for a third term as mayor of Gardena seemed to add fuel to the pay-to-play stories. When the sheriff expressed his displeasure about the mayoral run to his second-in-command, Tanaka withdrew his candidacy. But he did so too late to have his name removed from the ballot and coyly informed the press that if perchance he were elected, he would serve. On March 5, 2013, Tanaka breezed to an easy victory.
Baca was enraged. The next day, after he directed everyone in the executive offices of the LASD headquarters to take lunch, he and Tanaka disappeared behind the closed door of the sheriff’s office. Shouting was overheard. That afternoon department spokesperson Steve Whitmore announced Tanaka would be retiring on August 1 to “spend more time” with his family. But when Baca met with the editorial board of the L.A. News Group, which includes such publications as the Daily News, he let drop that he had managed to “finesse ” the undersheriff out the door.
“For years people had warned Baca that Tanaka was siphoning off his big donors and that one day this was going to matter,” former LASD commander Joaquin Herran told me. “His wife warned him. But he wouldn’t listen. He thought Paul would never do that kind of thing to him.”
For the next few weeks Tanaka didn’t show up at LASD headquarters. On April 30, 2013, however, he surfaced in a lengthy interview with the Times. Tanaka described the sheriff’s administrative style as erratic and impulse driven—by turns disengaged and focused only on his pet projects, then aggressively micromanaging. He accused Baca of demanding that the department hire his friends, family, and whatever acquaintances had recently caught his attention, other times issuing whimsical orders only to forget that he’d ever issued them. And though he admitted that the hiding of Anthony Brown could have been questionable, he said Baca ordered the operation.
On top of everything else Tanaka announced that he would likely run for sheriff. For months he had been meeting with affluent campaign donors, many of whom had once supported the sheriff. “For years people had warned Baca that Tanaka was siphoning off his big donors and that one day this was going to matter,” former LASD commander Joaquin Herran told me. “His wife warned him. But he wouldn’t listen. He thought Paul would never do that kind of thing to him.”
Until the Times interview, Tanaka had been steadfastly press averse throughout his career with the LASD. Now he was suspected of slipping documents to reporters that led to some of the recent news stories most damaging to the sheriff. “And it was only going to get worse,” said a source close to Baca.
Nevertheless, the odds of winning the election remained in Baca’s favor. The sheriff’s highest profile threat, Jim McDonnell, had already said that he had no plans to run. Along with having served on the commission that all but censured Baca, McDonnell was the well-respected chief of the Long Beach Police Department and had twice been short-listed to run the LAPD. Tanaka, while well recognized in law enforcement and certain other circles, was still a relative unknown to the public, save for the spate of negative press following the CCJV report. The two other candidates who had declared—an LAPD detective named Lou Vince and Pat Gomez, a retired 31-year LASD veteran who had lost to Baca twice before—had far less name recognition.
Illustration by Matt Mahurin
In fact, Tanaka wouldn’t even announce his candidacy until a day after Bob Olmsted, the commission’s star witness, formally declared his. “My dad always said if you name a problem, you own it until it’s solved,” he told me a few days before entering the race. The former jails commander hired the hotshot campaign consultant John Shallman, who’d recently run Mike Feuer’s successful campaign for city attorney. So when Tanaka threw in, Baca was faced with more of a serious challenge to his reelection than he expected.
The former undersheriff was actively working to prove wrong the picture painted of him by the CCJV and the press. He had “never condoned or encouraged excessive force or deputy misconduct,” he told me and other reporters, adding that he hadn’t been in charge of the jails during the worst years of the violence. According to his critics, this was precisely the problem. They said that even when Tanaka didn’t directly oversee some part of the department, he often controlled decisions anyway. But Tanaka has contended he was being blamed for Baca’s mistakes. Regarding Anthony Brown, for instance, he said that Baca gave “two direct orders” in the matter. While Tanaka did admit to implementing “some aspects” of the orders, he said his name was often invoked by subordinates without his knowledge. “At the end of the day,” he told me in an e-mail, “the buck stops at the Sheriff’s desk. He is the top public safety official in the county and there has been a severe lack of accountability for decisions he has made.”
On the morning of December 9, the first round of federal indictments against 18 members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department were unsealed by U.S. Attorney Birotte. Among those charged were seven members of the teams that hid or questioned Anthony Brown. Lieutenant Greg Thompson—Rathbun and Sexton’s boss—was indicted along with Gerard Smith and Mickey Manzo. So were Scott Craig and Maricella Long, the two sergeants who had pressured FBI agent Leah Marx, as was their boss, Lieutenant Steve Leavins.
The last indictment of the Brown group was a surprise to many: James Sexton, the deputy who with Mike Rathbun had told the FBI everything he knew about Operation Pandora’s Box. A second-generation cop whose Alabama sheriff father was Baca’s friend and a recent department hire, Sexton had known the sheriff since he was 11 years old. Now he and the other six were charged with obstruction of justice and criminal conspiracy for their parts in the Brown affair. If convicted, they could draw sentences of 10 to 15 years in federal prison.
Twenty-nine days later, after a $1,000-a-head campaign fund-raiser and after repeated assurances to friends that he was not leaving the race, Lee Baca resigned. He announced through his press guy, Whitmore, that he loved the department so much, he planned to become a reserve officer. Yet in many ways, as far as the LASD was concerned, Baca was the walking dead.
For the first time in decades, the race to become the sheriff of Los Angeles County was wide open. In the subsequent two weeks, three more candidates entered the sheriff’s race: two out of the LASD’s four assistant sheriffs, Jim Hellmold and Todd Rogers, and Long Beach police chief Jim McDonnell.
Baca seemed determined to fade from view. He declined my repeated requests for an interview, even when I saw him at a small, private retirement celebration. The most powerful sheriff in the nation left office on January 30, 2014, and John Scott, the interim sheriff chosen by the board of supervisors, was sworn in. Scott is a large man with a snow-colored mustache and a forthright demeanor who left the LASD in 2005 because he “felt it was headed in the wrong direction.” On loan from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, he said after his ceremonial oath-taking that he was “not going to be a place-holder” but planned to “restore dignity to the department.” Eight days after Scott’s swearing in, U.S. Attorney Birotte announced the indictment of two more LASD deputies.
I’m going to start a model educational program inside the jails,” Baca whispered to me on the night of April 24, 2010. “It’s going to change the way we incarcerate. I’m not kidding.” We had each gotten up from our respective dinner tables and were circulating at Homeboy Industries’ annual fund-raiser, held that year at Union Station. In a few minutes Baca would be honored as an important national law enforcement reformer by Homeboy’s famous founder, Father Greg Boyle, the Jesuit renowned for his success in helping gang members turn their lives around. Among those present at the dinner were future mayor Eric Garcetti, L.A. County supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Zev Yaroslavsky, juvenile justice advocate Carol Biondi and her former studio head husband, Frank, along with a cluster of Hollywood activists such as Martin Sheen, Anjelica Huston, and Scott Budnick. They were there to celebrate the sheriff as a unique individual who had advanced the definition of what policing could accomplish for the public good.
That night he was bursting to talk about this new passion, hence his enthusiastic aside to me. Never mind that he’d be announcing everything publicly in a few minutes. Baca said the program would offer jail inmates a traditional academic curriculum combined with instruction in life skills and decision-making. He was confident that inmates who graduated from the program would fare better when they were eventually released. “Education makes people feel good about themselves,” he said. “It helps them understand they have value.”
Baca told the audience much of the same after a starstruck homeboy introduced him and he took the stage. “Education is the ultimate form of crime fighting…” Baca said. “It should be the point of any kind of detention…. Public safety is based upon dealing with the human condition….”
The crowd clapped like crazy as the sheriff strode back to his table, his face radiant with purpose.
In the summer of 2012, Baca’s promised Education Based Incarceration Bureau—or EBI, as it became known—was launched inside Men’s Central Jail. By the end of 2013, approximately 2,000 inmates a week were reportedly receiving instruction in the academic portion of the program. “And we’re changing lives,” Captain Michael Bornman, EBI’s commanding officer told me. “I see it right in front of me every day.”
When Baca first asked Bornman to oversee EBI, he said that, out of everything, it was for this program that he wanted to be remembered. “The sheriff told me, ‘This isn’t professional to me, it’s personal,’ ” said Bornman. “He said, ‘I want this to be my legacy.’ ”
Instead it’s more likely that the sheriff will be known for overseeing a jail system that while rehabilitating some prisoners, mistreated others with merciless abandon. And there are the rest of the LASD scandals that still bloom monthly with little sign of abatement. Even to people who admired him, Baca’s best qualities cannot help but be sullied by the growing pall. He was a leader who could inspire, a man who undeniably wished to do good, but he proved to be perplexingly unable or unwilling to see the vast chasm between his goals and the ghastly dysfunction into which large parts of the department in his care had fallen.
EBI was initiated a year and a half before the first federal indictments against the LASD arrived. Which means the program that so delighted Baca was lifting off right about the time Rathbun and Sexton were talking to the FBI. Yet before they contacted the feds, each man had first gone to the sheriff to explain what he knew. Baca declined to believe them—even Sexton, whom he had known for half the deputy’s life. Instead he said, “That’s not what goes on in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.” When Rathbun tried to reach him again in subsequent months, Baca no longer took his calls. He took Sexton’s call out of deference to his father, then ordered the deputy’s superior to transfer him out of the jail unit. Sexton was causing problems, the sheriff said.
Celeste Fremon, editor of the Web site WitnessLA, is the author of G-Dog and
the Homeboys: Father Greg Boyle and the Gangs of East Los Angeles.
This feature originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine. It has been updated to reflect a correction. We reported that one of Baca's opponents in what would've been this year's election was named Pat Maxwell. His name is Pat Gomez. We also reported that Gomez was a 28-year veteran of the LASD. He is a 31-year veteran.
RELATED: Celeste Fremon on The Undoing of Sheriff Lee Baca