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The Downfall of Sheriff Baca
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?
The word from prosecutors is that former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca is set to plead guilty today in a courthouse downtown. The charge: Making a false statement during the federal investigation into the sheriff’s department. In her lauded March 2014 feature “Downfall,” Celeste Fremon tells the backstory of the circumstances that led to the indictment and how the department was plagued by misconduct and corruption during Baca’s 15-year tenure. Matters reached a crescendo during an FBI investigation into claims that deputies, who oversee county jail system, were abusing inmates. When officials learned of the investigation, they attempted to hide an FBI informant from the bureau. They called their scheme “Operation Pandora’s Box.” Several officers have since been convicted for their role in it, while Baca’s undersheriff at the time, Paul Tanaka, was considered by many to be conducting much of the day-to-day operations in the department and was indicted by a grand jury on charges that he obstructed the federal investigation into inmate abuse. Fremon’s story offers a deep look into how the powerful law enforcement agency went off the rails:
- [ Chapter 1 ]
- [ Chapter 2 ]
- [ Chapter 3 ]
KISSING THE RING
- [ Chapter 4 ]
BACA VS. TANAKA
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.