THE “CONSPIRATORS” SPEAK
After five days of testimony in the retrial of former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, the stand-out witnesses for the prosecution were four former sheriff’s department members, three of whom were convicted of the same obstruction of justice charges that the sheriff faces. (The fourth, former LASD captain William “Tom” Carey, was initially charged with conspiracy, but he made a plea deal, which dropped his charges down to a perjury conviction. He will be sentenced next month.)
The defense made energetic efforts to cast doubt on the testimony of the four, portraying them as having made “sweetheart deals” with prosecutors, in return for saying what the prosecution wanted. Yet, each of these ex-LASD witnesses described Lee Baca as the man at the top of the department hierarchy who was giving the orders that resulted in an elaborate scheme intended to disrupt a federal investigation into brutality and corruption in the county’s jails.
According to the four, while former undersheriff Paul Tanaka was the guy who carried out the details of the orders, Baca was the boss to whom everyone ultimately answered, including Tanaka.
Two Fridays ago, when the prosecution and the defense delivered opening statements in the courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson, each side portrayed Tanaka as the person who carried out Baca’s orders. Yet, according to lead defense attorney Nathan Hochman, Tanaka had “an agenda of his own” which drove him to pervert the former sheriff’s orders, taking them for his own purposes outside the boundaries of legality, and then controlling the flow of information to his boss, keeping Baca largely in the dark.
Last week, however, the cumulative testimony of former department members Mickey Manzo, Greg Thompson, James Sexton, and Tom Carey, painted a very different picture.
HIDING ANTHONY BROWN
Former deputy Mickey Manzo, now 37, took the stand on Monday of last week, the first day of witness testimony for the prosecution. After his career at the sheriff’s department ended following his indictment, Manzo told the jury he’d been working at Home Depot. Currently, however, he was unemployed, presumably because, once this trial is finished, he is expected to begin his sentence of 24 months in federal prison.
Manzo testified in the first trial of the former sheriff, which ended in December 2016, in a mistrial. He also took the stand in the trial of Paul Tanaka, in the spring of 2016. Tanaka surrendered in early January to begin his own five year prison term.
Manzo’s testimony this past Monday seemed designed to set the tone for the witnesses to come.
Manzo told the jury how, on August 18, 2011, together with his colleague, deputy Gerard Smith, he’d interviewed federal informant Anthony Brown on the orders of his direct boss, lieutenant Greg Thompson, in advance of a meeting with Lee Baca and Paul Tanaka.
At the meeting with the two executives, Manzo was present as Thompson briefed the sheriff and the undersheriff. “He told them that the cell phone” found in Brown’s possession “was a phone from the FBI’s civil rights division,” and that the feds were investigating “charges of excessive force” in “our jails.”
Thompson, said Manzo, had intended to get Brown out of their hair by sending him to the CDCR—the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. In other words, state prison. “But Baca said not to,” according to Manzo.
The former deputy described a second, far larger meeting, on August 20, that was organized by the sheriff. This was the meeting where Thompson played a recording of the payphone calls between Brown and Special Agent Leah Marx for those gathered. It was also the meeting during which Paul Tanaka infamously yelled “Fuck the FBI!” and variations on that theme, while he slapped his hand against a desk, and his boss, Lee Baca, looked on.
According to Manzo, Baca then gave the order that Anthony Brown was to remain in Men’s Central Jail and be isolated from any other members law enforcement, while the whole matter of the phone and the FBI probe, was thoroughly investigated by his people.
Then Tanaka and Baca left the room and, after ten minutes or so, Tanaka came back alone. “I’ve known that man for many years, and I’ve never seen him so angry” Tanaka said to the group, according to Manzo. “We know what he wants us to do, and we’re going to do it.”
Tanaka made it clear, Manzo said, that “nobody could talk to inmate/informant Anthony Brown, “and if anyone requested, he would deal with it personally.”
Later in his testimony, Manzo described going with his boss, Greg Thompson, to another set of meetings first with Tanaka, then waiting outside as Thompson went to see the sheriff. These were the meetings that occurred on August 23, the day the FBI managed to get in to see Anthony Brown, despite various precautions that were supposed to have stopped them. After tempers calmed, the eventual result was the elaborate system of hiding Brown under various new identities, in a far flung area of the jail system, where he was guarded 24 hours a day by rotating shifts of two deputies—organized at Thompson’s direction by Manzo and his partner, Gerard Smith—-with orders from the sheriff to let the FBI no where near the inmate, while a different team of LASD investigators tried to learn what Brown had told the feds.
“Do you know of an instance when a law enforcement agency was kept away from an inmate?” lead prosecutor Brandon Fox asked Manzo.
“No,” said Manzo, “never.”
BACA “GAVE THAT ORDER”
Former lieutenant Greg Thompson testified after Manzo and, out all of the week’s former LASD witnesses, Thompson’s testimony seemed to be the least voluntary.
He was testifying, he said, because he received a subpoena and Judge Anderson compelled him to testify He was granted immunity by Anderson, he said, which meant that he couldn’t be charged with any other crimes for something he said during his testimony—“except perjury,” Thompson said. It doesn’t cover perjury. “So I can’t lie.”
Thompson’s style of answering questions gave very little extra. He seemed, however, to be taking seriously the perjury threat, and declined to answer anything if he wasn’t dead sure of the answer. This meant he sometimes had to refresh his memory by silently reviewing portions of his grand jury testimony.
At 57, former LASD lieutenant Greg Thompson is an imposing figure. Six foot four or so, with broad shoulders, he carries himself like a man who prides himself on being physically strong. He had a reputation of being well-liked as a supervisor, a leader whom underlings wanted to please, but a man whom you were unwise to cross.
Like Manzo, he has been convicted of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice, and has not yet begun his prison sentence, which in Thompson’s case, is 37 months. But he is scheduled to report not too long after this trial is over.
Thompson told the jury that, when he learned that Anthony Brown was a federal informant, he figured the easiest and best thing was to ship Brown to state prison right away. Brown had already been tried and convicted for several bank robberies and had been sentenced to more than 400 years in state prison. Thompson had confirmed that the California Department of Corrections was ready for him.
“I figured it was the safest place he could be,” he said in answer to questions by prosecutor Lizabeth Rhodes.
But then, Thompson said, he was “ordered not to send him.”
According Thompson, the ordering took place on Saturday, August 20, 2011, at a meeting called by the sheriff, that Manzo had described earlier.
At the meeting, Thompson said, the Sheriff Baca gave the order not to ship inmate Brown to state prison, but to hold him in Men’s Central Jail.
Baca ran the meeting, Thompson said. Tanaka was there, as was a list of others. But Baca gave that order. “He said, ‘No. Don’t do that.’ He was stern.”
Furthermore, Baca ordered that no one was to have access to Mr. Brown without Paul Tanaka’s approval. Tanaka had to approve any access. But it was “the sheriff who gave the order.”
Three days later, events occurred to illustrate, according to Thompson, that while Baca delegated most major tasks to his second in command, like the job of making sure no one got to inmate/informant Brown, it was Lee Baca who was running the show.
What was to become a problematic day began in the morning of August 23, 2011, when a cluster of FBI agents went to Men’s Central Jail to visit and interview their informant, Anthony Brown, to find out how he was doing now that his cover had been blown.
Despite the no-access order from Baca, the feds managed to see Brown without any difficulty, just as they had always done in the past. Thompson told prosecutor Rhodes how he was elsewhere at the time, and learned via a phone call that the feds had gotten in and were with Brown right that minute. At the direction of then Captain Tom Carey, Thompson, who oversaw various investigative units inside the jails, made a call and put a stop to the FBI interview. (A 6’4” surly sergeant was hastily dispatched to break up the meeting, and yank Brown back to his cell.)
Then, according to Thompson he called a very unhappy Paul Tanaka. Thompson confirmed to Tanaka that, yes, despite the sheriff’s order, three FBI agents had waltzed to MCJ to see their inmate/informant in anyway. At that point, according to Thompson, there was much yelling on the part of the former undersheriff plus copious amounts of F-bombing, first on the phone, and then later when Thompson, with Manzo and Smith trailing behind him, was summoned to Tanaka’s office.
“Mr. Tanaka was upset,” Thompson said dryly. Prosecutor Rhodes asked why Tanaka was so upset. “I know he didn’t want to tell the sheriff,” said Thompson.
“How do you know that?” Rhodes asked.
“Because he told me to talk to the sheriff,” Thompson said.
When Thompson dutifully walked down the hall to Lee Baca’s office and proceeded to fall on his sword, he said he found the sheriff to be upset as well, but—unlike Tanaka—his manner wasn’t heated. “He didn’t yell at me” or “use profanity.” The sheriff was “businesslike,” Thompson said.
“It’s okay,” Baca said at some point according to Thompson. Then, referring to the conflict with the feds: “It’s only a chess game.”
Thompson thought the chess reference odd. “It was kind of bizarre,” he said.
The former lieutenant said that his meeting with Baca ended abruptly when then Tom Carey burst into the room without knocking. “It’s my fault!” Carey said, according Thompson. And with that, Thompson said, he was dismissed, “and told to close the door behind me.”
And what reaction, if any, did Thompson have to the meeting with the sheriff.
The “chess game” remark is something that former deputy Mickey Manzo also referenced in his earlier testimony, reporting that Thompson remarked on the phrase to Manzo and Smith when Thompson came out of his meeting with the sheriff.
OVERTIME APPROVED BY “THE EXECUTIVES”
After the unscheduled FBI visit, according to Thompson, he left Baca’s office with a hastily scribbled list describing what the sheriff said he wanted in the way of a tighter system to ensure that no one got in to see Anthony Brown ever again without the approval of undersheriff Tanaka.
Back at Men’s Central Jail, according to Thompson, Tom Carey and then Lt. Stephen Leavins told him they wanted Brown guarded around the clock by shifts of two deputies per shift, and they wanted to “steal” deputies from Thompson’s elite Operation Safe Jails unit, (OSJ) for the task.
Carey was at the time head of the department’s Internal Criminal Investigative Bureau (ICIB), and Leavins, who was under Carey, was the main person tasked with investigating the FBI investigation.
Thompson testified he told the two that this round-the-clock guarding business would require substantial overtime, which was expensive. Leavins replied, according to Thompson, that it had “already been approved” by “the executives.”
Asked whom Leavins meant by “the executives,” Thompson said that this meant Baca and Tanaka. In his mind, the term always meant Mr. Baca first, Thompson said. “Second, Mr. Tanaka.”
Three days later still, according to Thompson, he was called on August 26, 2011, to a meeting with Lee Baca, Paul Tanaka, Tom Carey, and others, where new plans were formalized to move federal informant Brown out of MCJ to San Dimas station, to make him even less findable by the FBI.
BREAKING UP WITH THE FEDS
Near the end of Thompson’s direct testimony, prosecutor Rhodes asked him about an email thread between Thompson and one of his deputies, Noah Kirk, and all of the captains in the sheriff’s department’s custody division.
The email to the captains read in part: “If you have personnel assigned to any FBI task forces, please ID them to me and have them contact me, ASAP.”
The reason for the email, Thompson explained, is so that Paul Tanaka could meet with the task force people and review the ways in which the sheriff’s department was involved in joint task forces with the FBI.
The reason Tanaka was doing the review? “The sheriff was thinking about pulling department personnel” out of the joint “task forces,” said Thompson.
(Baca would later threaten to pull out of any future joint task forces with the FBI in a September 26 2011, letter to then U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte.)
During cross-examination, defense attorney Nathan Hochman did his best to rattle Thompson, and to imply that the former lieutenant had received one of those “sweetheart deals” for testifying. But Thompson did not rattle and said there were no deals made with the government, other than the limited immunity he received from Judge Anderson (at the prosecution’s request), after the judge compelled him to show up and take the stand. (Without immunity Thompson’s attorney almost certainly would have advised his client to exercise his Fifth Amendment rights.)
On cross, Hochman brought out the fact that Thompson had known Tanaka since the mid- 1980s early 1990s. He did not, however, manage to establish how well they know each other. Nor were there any Vikings-related questions. Yet the defense attorney did make the connection for the jury.
THE FBI AS “ADVERSARIES”
James Sexton was 25 in the summer of 2011, when the events pertaining to this trial took place. He was the youngest and lowest on the departmental ladder of the eight people convicted of obstruction of justice for actions that included hiding a federal informant from his FBI handlers, falsely threatening an FBI agent with arrest, and tampering with potential federal witnesses.
Sexton surrendered to begin his original 18-month sentence on August 31, 2016. He was the first of the eight who have been sentenced for obstruction of justice convictions to surrender.
Sexton testified in Baca’s first trial in December. At that time, he was shackled at the ankles and wrists and wearing a prison issue jumpsuit, and was more than four months into his 18-month sentence, much of that time in the SHU of ten different federal facilities. In mid-January, however, Sexton was resentenced to six additional months of home detention, followed by another six months of formal probation. [You can find the details of the re-sentencing in our earlier story here. ] As a consequence, when he took the stand on Wednesday, he did so in a tie and a suit jacket. Last time, he was ordered to testify, Sexton said. This time he’d agree to do it.
Sexton said he heard about the Anthony Brown and the contraband cell phone when he was in Washington DC for LASD-related reasons. He got a call and was told to come straight home. That he was needed.
“I was order to go to Lt. Greg Thompson’s office,” Sexton said. Thompson was his boss and he and some other members of the Operation Safe Jails team of which Sexton was a member, wanted to know what one had to be done in order to “change Anthony Brown’s name” in the jail system’s “database. Sexton explained to the jury that he’d had experience with this sort of thing, when “high value inmates” had to be transported from one location to another, without either other inmates or deputies finding out.
At the meeting Sexton learned Brown had made calls to a female on the regular jail payphone system, which the department monitored, and that some of his OSJ team members had determined that the female was an FBI agent. Sexton also learned that the cellphone found in Brown’s possession belonged to the civil rights unit of the FBI. “It’s not out of the norm,” said Sexton, “for an inmate to reach out to the FBI.” But it was the first time he’d heard of an inmate “contacting the civil rights unit,” he said. “Since that’s usually the unit that investigates law enforcement.”
Sexton said he didn’t think it was strange that he was being asked to change an inmate’s name. He’d done it before. But it was weird to make Brown, a federal informant, vanish—fingerprints and all—- from the jail system. It was even weirder, Sexton said, because when he’d changed an inmate’s name in the past, he’d done so in the course of working with the feds. “This is the only time I can recall that it was not in coordination with the FBI,” he said.
Instead, the prevailing attitude toward the feds had suddenly become “an adversarial position,” Sexton said. And, as Thompson had suggested when he was on the stand, “we ceased all collaboration with all federal agencies.”
Moreover, they were moving Brown away from the 1750 area of MCJ that had, according to Sexton, had “the highest security setting” possible. Now Sexton and his team members were ordered to move Brown to a far less secure “off-site location in San Dimas,” after going through multiple elaborate machinations to obscure his identity.
Using photos provided by the prosecution, Sexton took the jury on a tour of San Dimas jail where Brown had been housed, including a decidedly unsecure looking courtyard where Brown took his “twice per shift” cigarette breaks, and through which, Sexton said, other unrelated jail personnel could cross at will.
We were told to, “Keep him happy,” Sexton told the jury. He and his team members guarded Brown in two-man 12-hour shifts, making sure that, in addition to cigarette breaks, he had whatever fast food he wanted at least once per shift. The idea was that a “happy” Brown would be more likely to cooperate with the team of investigators trying to get information out of him.
Brown never made an overt attempt to escape from the less-than-secure-courtyard, Sexton said. “But he thought about it.”
OPENING PANDORA’S BOX
It was Sexton who had, in an email to team members, dubbed the whole Brown episode as Operation Pandora’s Box, referring to the Greek myth in which Pandora opens a forbidden container and looses evils forever into the world.
Prosecutor Rhodes showed the jury the relevant email and asked Sexton why Pandora’s Box?
“I thought it was apropos at the time,” he said, given what was going on. The “evils” were the ills that the FBI had been trying to investigate inside the jails.
But “hope is the last thing” to come out of the box, Sexton added.
And what did “hope” signify, Rhodes asked him.
“I believed that hope was the inner machinations of this operation coming to light,” Sexton said quietly.
On cross-examination, defense attorney Hochman tried to get Sexton to agree that Paul Tanaka, not Baca, had issued certain orders, and that it was the former undersheriff who had approved things like the massive overtime. But Sexton insisted otherwise. No, he said, while Tanaka had issued certain orders and approved unlimited overtime for his team, he did so verbally in the presence of his boss, Lee Baca. Sexton admitted that he had not himself been present when orders were given from “the executives,” but others he worked with had. “They even described Baca’s “expressions” when he spoke, Sexton said.
Hochman is a skilled questioner, practiced at finding the chinks in witnesses’ testimony if chinks there be. It did not work with the former deputy, who had known Baca since he was a teenager, due to the fact that his father was a longtime friend of the former sheriff.
Hochman persisted. Lt. Greg Thompson and former undersheriff Paul Tanaka were running the investigation, he said.
No, Sexton said again, and repeated that Tanaka may have given some of those orders, but they they were coming from Baca. “Sir, I’m not trying to be combative,” Sexton said, “but I wore a uniform with a patch and a badge that said Sheriff’s Department. It did not say Undersheriff’s Department.”
‘SEND A MESSAGE BUT DON’T MAKE AN ARREST”
The last of the four to testify was former LASD captain Tom Carey, 58, who had headed up the department’s Internal Criminal Investigative Bureau before he was federally indicted in March of 2015, effectively ending his career after 38 years with the LASD.
Carey said that once the department began investigating the FBI’s investigation of wrongdoing by deputies in the jails, he met with Tanaka and/or Baca, both in person and on the phone, “a number of times a day.” He met more frequently with Tanaka, he said, but that was because “he was next in the chain of command.” Tanaka was “my boss,” Carey said. “And the sheriff was his boss.”
Still from August 18, through September, Carey said he met with Baca “around a dozen times” in person. “People under me did too,” Carey said.
And how much detail did he provide to the sheriff? “Pretty much everything,” Carey said.
Carey testified part of Thursday, and most of Friday, which included a lengthy cross examination by defense attorney Hochman, in which the defense attorney pointed out that Carey was now an admitted liar, who lied far more than the single count, he’d pleaded to with the feds. Carey admitted that yes, when he testified three years ago at Sexton’s two trials, he’d viewed taking the sheriff’s view of things as part of “following orders.” But things, obviously, had changed.
During his testimony, Carey validated Thompson’s account of being shouted at extravagantly by Tanaka over the incident in which FBI agents had managed to interview Anthony Brown. And how a “visibly upset” Tanaka then sent Thompson to inform Baca.
“You guaranteed this wouldn’t happen!” Tanaka screamed, according to Carey. “The sheriff’s going to be pissed, and you’re going to tell him!”
As Thompson had described before him, Carey said the sheriff was far calmer. Not happy, but calmer. Carey added that he and Thompson told the sheriff that they both took responsibility. “His order from August 20 that no one was to see Anthony Brown, was violated. And both of us were responsible.”
Carey’s testimony covered a lot of ground. For instance, he told the jury about how his investigative team used various means to try to find out what the feds had learned with their civil rights and corruption probe.
As one strategy, Carey said, his team put a GPS tracker on the car of Gilbert Michel, the deputy who’d taken a bribe for bringing a contraband cell phone to inmate Anthony Brown, “to see if he was meeting with the FBI.”
For days, they surveilled FBI special agent Leah Marx, and another FBI agent, “to find out what deputies they might be having contact with,” said Carey. His team learned from the surveillance only what time Agent Marx left for work, what time she came home, “and when she walked her dog”
Perhaps most damaging to the sheriff, was Carey’s description of meeting with Baca to inform him that two LASD sergeants, Scott Craig and Maricela Long, would be going over to Agent Marx’s house to “attempt to send her a message.”
And Baca’s reaction? asked prosecutor Fox.
“He was okay with it,” said Carey. “His advice to us was ‘don’t put handcuffs on her.’”
Meaning? asked Fox.
“Send a message, but don’t make an arrest.”
The day after Craig and Long made their approach to Marx, Carey said that either Craig or then Lt. Steve Leavins informed him that they had showed the sheriff the video of the sergeants confronting Agent Marx outside her home. “They told me that, after he saw it, he laughed and said it was the best laugh he’d had in months.”
Leavins, Craig, Long and Manzo’s partner, Gerard Smith have since been convicted of obstruction, and sentenced to 41, 33, 24, and 21 months in prison respectively.
Carey has yet to be sentenced for his plea agreement of one count of perjury.
In addition to the two charges of obstruction of justice Lee Baca is facing, the former sheriff is also charged with lying to federal officials. One of the four lies that he is alleged to have told was that he was not aware until after the fact that “LASD officials were going to approach Special Agent Leah Marx, to try to talk to her, to threaten to charge her, or to threaten to arrest her.”
Another of the alleged lies was Baca’s assertion that he didn’t know the feds were engaged in a civil rights investigation, a claim that all of the four disputed. Baca also said that he was not involved in a conversation to keep inmate Brown and the FBI away from each other, and finally, in alleged lie four he said that he did not know that an FBI interview with Anthony Brown had been terminated by the LASD.
The prosecution is expected to call new witnesses all day Monday, and likely into Tuesday. Then it will be the defense’s turn to tell their version of the story.