The Downfall of Paul Tanaka

At Appeal Hearing 9th Circuit Judges Ask About Paul Tanaka’s Viking Tattoo

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

It’s All About the Vikings

During the Monday appeals hearing for Paul Tanaka, the former powerful number two man of Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, his attorney, Charles Sevilla, talked mostly about the Lynwood Vikings and why the prosecution’s insistence on trying to paint Tanaka as a member of the notorious deputy clique meant his client could not get a fair trial.

“In the Paul Tanaka trial,” said Sevilla to the panel of three judges selected to hear the case for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the government made a tremendous point of claiming that Mr. Tanaka was a “member of a gang of lawless Lynnwood deputies engaged in civil liberties violations.”

Lead government prosecutor, Brandon Fox, Sevilla said, “kept at it for ten pages, about this lawless gang engaged in civil liberty misconduct. And about whether or not Mr. Tanaka still had a Vikings tattoo on his ankle,” never mind that the Vikings insignia was simply “the Lynwood substation mascot,” according to Sevilla.

Echoing his client’s statements during the trial that took place in late March and early April, 2016, Sevilla said that the Vikings basically engaged “intramural sports competition,” and that anyone could join.

unwavering sense of right and wrong

Paul Tanaka, if you’ll remember, was convicted of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice. During his trial, the government alleged, among other things, that he helped hide a inmate/federal informant Anthony Brown from his FBI handlers in an effort to obstruct a federal grand jury investigation into corruption and brutality in the county’s troubled jail system.

At Tanaka’s trial, government prosecutors presented their case in two parts that they labeled “the crime” and “the context.” The context, according to the government, was Tanaka’s style of supervising, which—they suggested—favored a cowboy brand of law enforcement where toughness was allowed for— even required—and deputies were encouraged to step over the legal line, as needed, and subsequently protected from any consequences of their actions. This, according to the prosecution, was the larger context surrounding Mr. Tanaka’s actions during the summer of 2011 when the hiding of Anthony Brown and other events took place.

At trial, Tanaka himself took the stand, where he countered the prosecution’s portrait by presenting himself as someone with an “unwavering sense of right or wrong,” who attempted to impart that ethic to those working under him.

When it came time for cross-examination, prosecutor Brandon Fox worked to challenge Mr. Tanaka’s portrayal of himself as an outstanding supervisor who was above reproach. It was in this context that Fox brought up the Vikings, a deputy clique that the former undersheriff purportedly joined when he was a sergeant at the department’s Lynwood station from 1987 to 1991.

In the 62-page brief for Tanaka’s appeal to the 9th Circuit, Sevilla (who is highly regarded in the appeals world), focused on three issues.

The first was the prosecution’s use of the Vikings, and the fact that U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson allowed the subject to be brought into the trial at all.

The second issue was the contention that Anderson should have forced the prosecution to offer immunity to former LA County Sheriff Lee Baca and compel Baca to testify in Tanaka’s defense.

The third and final point of contention in the brief had to do with some disputed jury instructions.

Yet, at Monday’s hearing, Sevilla pretty much focused solely on the Lynwood Vikings, and why the introduction of the topic was wrongfully and disastrously harmful to his client.

[NOTE: The 9th Circuit has now posted the video of the hearing, which you can watch here. An audible version is also available.]


The Panel of Judges

An appeal of this kind is, with rare exceptions, heard in front of a randomly selected panel of three judges. Tanaka’s panel was an intriguing mix of jurists, which could have been either good news or bad news for the appellant. It was made up of circuit judges Stephen Reinhardt, Morgan Christen, and Alex Kozinski.

one of the most liberal judges on the circuit

Carter appointee Reinhardt is considered to be one of the most liberal judges on the circuit, a perception that is likely furthered by the fact that he is married to Romona Ripston, the former director of the ACLU of Southern California.

Christen is an Obama selection who, in 2011, became the first female judge ever appointed to the circuit from the state of Alaska. She appears to be more progressive-leaning than not, although it was former governor Sarah Palin who appointed her in 2009 to the Alaska Supreme Court, which paved her way to the appellate court.

Alex Kozinski, the third on the panel, was appointed by Ronald Reagan, and is the most conservative of the three. He is also easily the most outspoken, and the hardest to predict. Furthermore, in the last four years, Kozinski has been on a very public mission to call attention to prosecutorial misconduct, which could be good for the defense. Or not.


About That “Neo-Nazi, White Supremacist” Gang…

Among defense attorney Sevilla’s main points on the Vikings issue was that prosecutor Brandon Fox asked Tanaka on the stand if he was “aware of a finding in a 1991 lawsuit” which had determined the Vikings to be a deputy gang?”

(Tanaka was not named in the lawsuit.)

Fox then asked if Tanaka was aware that the judge found the Vikings to have engaged in widespread civil rights violations and “other acts of lawlessness?”

…regularly disregard the civil rights of individuals they have sworn to protect.

According to Sevilla, this mention of the civil lawsuit was extremely misleading and prejudicial because “the jury never heard that the findings” of the lower court “were reversed.”

The part about the reversal was only partly true. In the case of Thomas v. the County of Los Angeles, District Court Judge Terry J. Hatter, Jr. famously depicted the Vikings as a “neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang” of deputies, writing that the Vikings “…regularly disregard the civil rights of individuals they have sworn to protect.”

Hatter then issued a preliminary injunction that forced a list of the reforms on the sheriff’s department as whole, not just on the Lynwood station. The LASD appealed the preliminary injunction to the 9th Circuit, which struck down the injunction as overbroad. The 9th did not, however, weigh in on the lower court’s findings about the Vikings. Furthermore, the county subsequently settled with the dozens of plaintiffs in the Thomas for $6 million and several guaranteed departmental reforms.

As it happens, one of the three judges on the panel at the 9th Circuit that reviewed the lower court’s ruling about the Lynwood Vikings, was Judge Kozinski.


“He Said He Was a Boy Scout”

During Sevilla’s presentation, all three of the judges had plenty of comments and questions.

“Your client took the stand,” said Judge Christen. “He talked about the department’s core values. So what’s unfair about the prosecution” going through such issues as the Vikings on cross-examination?

At some point, when Sevilla again raised the point of Tanaka being tarnished by the unfair characterization of being a member of a “gang of lawless Lynwood deputies…” Kozinski, who had spoken less than the other judges, interrupted.

…he’s got the tattoo, for crying out loud!

The Vikings, he said, were accused “specifically of conduct that consisted of trying to protect other officers who engaged in misconduct.” This was a topic that spoke directly to the supposed motive for Tanaka’s obstruction of justice.

“He said basically, he was a boy scout, and the prosecution was cross examining him.

Kozinski also wanted to know about Tanaka’s Viking tattoo, and why the defense believed the prosecution wasn’t “entitled” to ask about it.

“How can it be irrelevant?,” asked Kozinski,. “He put his character at issue. And he’s got the tattoo, for crying out loud!”

In one of the next go-rounds, Judge Reinhardt brought up Tanaka’s 2012 testimony before the Citizen’s Commission for Jail Violence, in which the former undersheriff conceded that he was aware of the Vikings’ infamous reputation.

“Of course, some people in high authority encourage the police to violate civil rights,” Reinhardt added wryly, evidently referring to recent national news.


When it was the government’s turn, Assistant United States Attorney Bram Alden, argued—as he had in the government’s brief—that since Tanaka had chosen to take the stand, the prosecution was permitted to delve into “intent,” as it showed “that he had a reason to obstruct justice.”

The defense won a point when it came up that lead prosecutor Fox had begun his closing arguments by referring to Tanaka as a member of a deputy gang.

I’m here to argue my client didn’t get a fair trial

“It’s discouraging to hear the prosecution engaging in” such tactics, said Reinhardt. Then to Alden, “I know your office tries to hold itself to a high standard. It certainly didn’t in this case.”

Appearing buoyed by Reinhardt’s criticism of the prosecution, when it was Sevilla’s turn again, he reiterated his point to the judges one final time. “I’m here to argue that my client didn’t get a fair trial,” he said.

At this point Kozinski waded in again.

“I agree with Judge Reinhardt that [gang] is a strong term,” he said. “But,” Kozinski added, “there was evidence that he was a member of this organization.”

Sevilla again recited that, according to Tanaka, the Vikings wasn’t a membership organization, and the tattoo harmlessly depicted the mascot for the Lynwood station.

“That’s not the only inference one can draw from the tattoo,” Kozinski observed dryly.

And with that, the time was up, and the hearing ended.


Post Game Wrap-Up

Outside the Pasadena courthouse, Savilla talked briefly about how he thought the hearing had gone.

He said although the appeal covered a number of issues, that the defense “focused exclusively on the first issue, which had to do with prosecution’s attempt to categorize Mr. Tanaka as a member of a lawless gang of deputies that operated out of the Lynwood station. As we pointed out,” Savilla said, “there was no evidence of that, and those questions never should have been asked.”

he wasn’t a member of any lawless gang, [so] it was pretty unfair

Savilla pointed again to the prosecution’s mention of Tanaka’s Viking tattoo at the beginning of the government’s closing argument.

“Given the fact that he wasn’t a member of any lawless gang, it was pretty unfair.”

When asked how Tanaka was doing in prison, Savilla said he was “enduring it.” But “I’m sure it’s not where he would prefer to be.”

As for his guess about outcome of the appeal, Savilla said he was “cautiously optimistic.”

Outside the court, former Assistant U.S. Attorney Miriam Aroni Krinsky was far less upbeat about the defense’s chances.

“You have a panel where one of the judges isn’t a stranger to the Vikings issue,” she said, referring to Kozinski, whom she said “had an opportunity to pour through” the 1991 court record. “So he’s already versed in some of the concerns that were raised.”

While this prior knowledge may not play into the legal analysis, Krinksy said, she thought it “adds a bit to the atmospherics.”

Krinsky—who is executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, a national network of elected prosecutors committed to reform—noted that both Reinhardt and Kozinski were critical of prosecutor Fox for bringing up the Vikings at the start of his closing argument. Both of them, she said, “tend to hold the government to a high standard, and they should be held to a high standard.”

…a huge volume of evidence

But whether their criticism could lead to a reversal of Tanaka’s conviction, she said was “doubtful.” It’s a pretty high wall to climb, said Krinsky, before an appeals court is willing to reverse a district court’s ruling on evidentiary issues. “

And the fact that the mention of the Vikings in the closing argument was not objected to by the defense at the time did not help Tanaka’s case, according to Krinsky. In addition, she said, there was lots of evidence that related, “not just to Paul Tanaka’s involvement in the obstruction,” but also to “a series of acts” by Tanaka over the years “that all three of the judges pointed to.”

This meant, she said, the court was aware of “a huge volume of evidence that set the back drop for the questioning of Paul Tanaka.”

The 9th Circuit panel is expected to rule on Paul Tanaka’s appeal in approximately two months.


For a more detailed description of the drama of the prosecution’s cross examination of Paul Tanaka on the topic of the Lynwood Vikings, you can find it here and here. You’ll find it intriguing reading, we promise.

39 Comments

  • Plantiff attorneys in Viking case were coached to insure they got at least $1 for plaintiff so that they could claim their attorney fees. That was their entire motivation. They gave a crap about their clients and were only interested in lining their pockets with taxpayer money. The BS FBI investigation into the so-called obstruction of justice case leaves two questions yet unanswered. 1) When is it not a felony to smuggle or conspire to smuggle a cellphone to a felon in a custody environment? This was done at the direction of the FBI. The rule is you don’t break the law to enforce it. 2) When an investigation using a single informant is compromised by the identity of that informant being exposed, isn’t that investigation finished? There are many more questions but why has the FBI been charged with a felony?

    • Face and embrace the fact that it’s over. LASD is the last one to bring up “the rules” with their history of abuse and corruption.

  • I wonder how the boys are doing in jail ? Do you think the Vikings tattoo is fearsome and scaring people in prison ? Give some thanks to people like Anthony Brown who had the courage to come forth and put themselves at risk to stop LASD shenanigans

  • This story points out some pretty significant prosecutorial misconduct . whatta say witness la, you going to continue to cheerlead the Feds on this or are you going to take them to task as you did local prosecutors in your earlier story? Perhaps when it comes to prosecuting cops witness la ,like most social justice types, feel “the ends justify the means.”

  • It never ceases to amaze me how people today still spew the script that the FBI violated criminal law in the course of their criminal investigation by providing Brown, via a corrupt and convicted former deputy sheriff, a phone into MCJ. And the same team of cheerleaders proclaim all of those convicted were railroaded. Yea, whatever. Stites, you are seriously misinformed, but what’s new.

    Anyone have any info on how Tanaka and his crew are doing? Are they trustees or have some kind of job to help pass the time? Serious question, not being facetious.

  • EDITOR’S NOTE:

    Dear Maj Kong,

    The video from the 9th Circuit hearing is now online and I’ve linked to it in the story. You can watch it and draw your own conclusions.

    However, with regard to your question, no one at the hearing—including the defense— accused the prosecution of misconduct. Yet, the judges expressed disapproval of prosecutor Fox’s “judgement” for his use of the word “gang” in his closing argument, because that was not a fact established during the trial. They also noted that the defense did not object during the closing to the government’s use of the word, which the defense attorneys certainly could have done.

    The defense’s three primary issues, with which they hope to get a reversal, are all aimed at decisions that the judge made, including the judge’s decision to allow the prosecution to bring the issue of the Vikings in on cross examination. With regard to the latter, the panel appeared to agree with the prosecution that the defense had opened the door on such a topic when Mr. Tanaka took the stand and testified at length about his personal and professional ethics.

    But watch the video and see what you think.

    I hope that answers your questions.

    C.

    • Had Tanaka not taken the stand he would have a chance. But, his ego overtook him. There’s a reason why you have the right to remain silent.

  • I just thought the prosecutor had to have known his statement about the 1991 “Viking” lawsuit was delebertly misleading ( fancy law term for lie) . Even the usual right-side of the approved narrative legal experts had problems with Fox’s “judgement” . I’ll put witness la down for the “ends justify the means” vote.

  • Thank you for the legal commentary Mr. Kong. I’m sure you are as qualified on that topic as you were on being a police officer. Prosecute a cop and its persecution. Prosecute anyone else and its law and order. Get over it, Johnny. It’s over. I’m sure a lot of dirty cops got away, so be grateful.

  • Its strange, but amusing that the Deputy who smuggled the telephone into the jail to start it all received a 6 month jail sentence. Of course he cooperated and testified truthfully.

    What would have happened if the convicted detectives and so forth had done the same thing ? Admit their participation and done the right thing ? I could only imagine Judge Anderson would have taken that into consideration and have sentenced them to a more lenient prison term.

    and CF, I agree, many a Deputy skated on this one….many more should have been thrown in prison.

  • Since the topic is a Viking Tattoo (specifically) on Paul Tanaka, let’s merge with information on the Century Station clique of deputies who call themselves “Regulators”. They picked up where the Vikings left off. Same game (and location) with a different name & players.

  • I’m not taking sides, and I realize this was a federal trial, however, referring to someone as a gang member when there was no evidence his alleged crime was to benefit the “gang”, no predicate crimes on record other than a broad civil judgement from 26 years ago, and giving the jury the impression that he is affiliated with a “gang” because of a tattoo he got almost 30 years ago, seems pretty volatile. Again, I’m sure this guy pulled the same type of stuff in admin cases to screw deputies over, but if you’re case is strong, stick with facts. This gang stuff is a stretch in my opinion. If this was a real gang member or former gang member on trial, they would have never let that in without way more proof the guy was actively involved in gangs.

    • To second paying attention’s opinion, if the case was so great, such a slam dunk, then why did the Federal prosecutor resort to lying and lapses of “judgement “to win? Of course the fact that witness la thinks it’s a-ok to railroad the “wrong kind”of defendants is another issue.

  • @ Major Kong. Read and familiarize the meaning of karma. The ruined lives and careers of many deputies are too numerous to list. I wouldn’t call it hatred. Let’s just say the feeling is mutual concerning those who Tanaka screwed over and how the Feds are dealing with Tanaka. Even the LASD personnel who post here (with few exceptions) agree.

  • Be careful while evoking karma. You assume she is on your side, she has a way of biting hardest on those who are certain they’re right.

  • After Mr. Tanaka’s attorney explained to the appeals court that the tattoo on Tanaka’s ankle is simply a harmless depiction of the Lynwood Station mascot, i can understand why Tanaka was so upset the prosecutor tried to make it seem like something bad.
    On the other hand, its somewhat curious that a guy with no other tattoos would get a tattoo of the mascot for his place of employment.
    And it was at a time when most people didn’t wear tattoos, unless they had been in the military or a motorcycle club, or prison.
    I would assume that before Tanaka went permanent with a tattoo of the mascot, he first bought the satin jacket in the Lynwood Station colors with the embroidered mascot on the back.
    Tanaka and the other guys probably wore their mascot jackets quite often when going out for pizza or to the movies, and certainly whenever they were at the park with one of the amateur sports leagues they sponsored.
    I assume that I can find the station mascot somewhere on the LASD website or the L.A. County website.
    I haven’t been to the Lynwood Station yet.
    Will i find the mascot on the building exterior at the public entrance? Or is it part of a terrazo mosaic on the floor when you walk inside?
    I’m certain you can find the mascot on printed material at the station – for example, the monthly newsletter or flyers announcing fundraiser events.
    Speaking of fundraising – I’d like to help out by purchasing some Lynwood station items for gifts – bumper stickers, t-shirts and baseball caps with the mascot.
    What’s great is everybody is welcome to get tattooed with the mascot if they want.
    I would guess a lot of the non–sworn staff working at the station went in for the tattoo – office clerks, dispatchers, maintenance crew.
    Its simply the station mascot.
    There is no membership involved.
    There is no consecutive numbering on the tats.
    Its simply a way to show you’ve got some school spirit.
    There is certainly no chronological relationship between when Tanaka had his tattoo done and a signature event – for example, preventing a criminal suspect from getting away by shooting and killing him.

  • Tokalas, good to hear from you, Lynwood station ceased to exist a litttle over 20 years ago and I do believe they use to sell the stuff you mentioned.

  • Ask Paul if he has the initials OGCF on his Viking tattoo, as multiple dozens of Lynwood alumni have. “Original Gangster Chongo Fighter,” is what OGCF translates to. How many of those past and current LASD Lynwood alumni will openly admit they have that racist OGCF tag on their ankle? Do you Mr. Kong? How many sergeants, lieutenants, captains and above have that OGCF ink?

    Celeste, if I may translate that tag, “Original Gangster NiggXX Fighter.” And I find that absolutely disgusting. It speaks to the core of an individual’s soul to proclaim that obscene and racist ink. So let’s see all of those still working with the OGCF Viking ink, skin it back and show the Sheriff, the Undersheriff, EPC and all of the Department what you have on your ankle. If you are a captain with OGCF still on your ankle, bring in every African American employee under your command into your office with your socks down and you pant leg pulled up and show them who you really are. “Hey, it was just a social club. You know, softball, bowling, neighborhood clean-ups, it was harmless, all a misunderstanding.” Keep talking Mr. Kong, this is all in court transcripts. I’m about ready to retire and many people I have met and still work with have a Viking tattoo and do NOT have the OGCF and they denounce what it stands for.

  • “Plantiff attorneys in Viking case were coached to insure they got at least $1 for plaintiff so that they could claim their attorney fees. That was their entire motivation.” This comment by John States is false. I served as an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund in the historic Thomas v County of Los Angeles lawsuit exposing and reforming systemic misconduct by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department in the 1990s. Judge Terry Hatter found the Lynwood Vikings deputy gang to be a “neo-nazi, white supremacist gang” whose members violated the civil rights of the people they were sworn to protect. The suit led to the Kolts Commission documenting excessive force, racial harassment, and lax discipline in the Department. Judge Kolts and Sheriff Sherman Block issued a Joint Statement in which they agreed to implement many of the recommendations of the Kolts Report.

    A federal jury found the County of Los Angeles, Sheriff Sherman Block and two of his top assistants liable for civil rights violations by their deputies and awarded $611,000 in damages to plaintiffs Darren Thomas, Michael Sterling and Kevin Marshall. The verdict ended the first of 24 cases pending against the Sheriff’s Department as part of the Thomas litigation. In 1995, the Sheriff’s Department and the plaintiffs settled the litigation for $7,500,000 in payment for injuries and attorneys’ fees. The settlement also required the County to make available an additional $1.5 million for force and cultural diversity training, to have fully operating a computerized force tracking system by March 1997, and to extend the contract for a special counsel to monitor the implementation of the Kolts Report through 1999.

    LDF filed the suit in part to revive standing to seek injunctive relief against abusive police practices in the wake of the Supreme Court decision in Los Angeles v. Lyons, 461 U.S. 95 (1983). The Ninth Circuit held that plaintiffs have standing to seek injunctive relief against police abuse. This was a victory for law reform and for plaintiffs. The court nevertheless vacated the preliminary injunction as issued by Judge Hatter and sent the case back for trial, which plaintiffs won. See Thomas v. County of Los Angeles, 978 F.2d 504 (9th Cir. 1993), and Robert García, Riots and Rebellions: Los Angeles Police Reform Time Line 1965-2012.

    • Thanks for that “clarification”–I guess you can call it that.

      Personally, I think that the statewide standards to be Sheriff should be amended so that, at minimum, passing the Calif. BAR Exam would be a requirement.

      In many counties the Sheriff makes as much, if not more, than the D.A. or Public Defender, so I think the idea feasible.

      I think law enforcement will be better off for it.

      Again, thanks for your much-needed response.

      • I just salary checked:

        1. The Los Angeles County Counsel makes $321, 895 yearly.
        2. The Los Angeles County Sheriff makes $317, 550 yearly.

        Close enough for government work.

        I really like my idea of making the Sheriff pass the Calif. BAR Exam before becoming Sheriff.

        That would really stir the pot.

  • Bobby, John may not be 100% right in the purely legal sense, not being an attorney and all. But I think he makes a pretty good point in that the big winners in the Thomas case were , of course, the lawyers. Could you tell us ,of all the money won in that case what was the approximate amount received by the average plaintiff?

    • Mr Kong, The undisputed truth gobsmacked you throughout this thread. Attorney Garcia and “CIA Spade” pretty much summed it all up. I don’t see why you attempt to garner points for Tanaka. Perhaps you were one of his worker bees. Neither left nor right, those are my thoughts.

      • Kong, My apologies for not mentioning “YooooHoooo” who was spot on. Mr Kong, you nor anyone else can rewrite history.

  • WHat should we expect,we are hiring 19 year olds who have never been in the service. Thee first time that their mommy has not tucked them in and kissed them goodnight is their first PM shift. But they are tough guys. But I forgot ! Leroy was in the Marine reserves, his grandma every month would dress him in his Marine uniform and drop him off and pick him up. BUt then they are tough guys. LEroys claim of mental impairment is valid. When I worked with him in 1970 he was in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s.

  • I’m picking up a certain consistency among the most shrill of the Tanaka haters. A shared background perhaps? I don’t imagine you guys are big Trump supporters either. For the record, I could not care less about Paul Tanaka but whatever he was guilty of ,I figure 5 years of rotting in a federal prison ought to be enough punishment to satisfy anyone.

  • I guess we should give a break to the Two leaders who were not suited for their jobs that destroyed the credibility of a once fine department. Due their selection, training and promotions it will not be over for a long.

      • Cognistator, When was that, Sorry you had bad experiences. After Korea I joined the department in early 1956. Worked the usual custody and patrol assignments. Later hqts. 211 and 187, much later aero bureau. I always thought that the guys that I worked with tried to do the right thing. Good luck to you.

  • Dear Former Deputy, We were together yesterday., and discussed what you wrote. Having read almost all of the various opinions expressed here I can only conclude that the “Viking” tattoo by itself would be insignificant, however when it becomes a group identifier it takes on a whole other dimension. With regard to the other tattoo “OGCF” in conjunction with the”Viking” create (d) an environment hostile to the values we ascribed to when we were sworn in. I say now and have in the past that whole mess was caused by a lack of leadership at all levels. By the way how could Tanaka be a white supremacist? Just askin’
    Tall silver haired somewhat portly former Deputy

  • what happened to the department under the dynamic duo to the degree that it did, would not have happened if the Board Of Supervisors were doing their job and this includes having civil service as a totally independent agency, not one very eager to please department heads. My somewhat portly friend would not have faired well under Baca/Tanaka, I can hear him now, “We are not going to do that, it’s not right and it’s not legal”

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