The Retrial of Lee Baca The Trial of Lee Baca

THE RETRIAL OF LEE BACA: During Opening Statements the Prosecution & the Defense Drag a Ghost Into Court

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

THE GHOST IN THE COURTROOM

On Friday afternoon in the courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson, lead government prosecutor Brandon Fox and lead defense attorney Nathan Hochman presented their respective opening statements in the retrial of former longtime Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy Baca. During their presentations, each of which lasted around 90 minutes, both Fox and Hochman spent a lot of time invoking the name of someone not present.

Before the openings began, the big question among trial watchers was how the government might retool its strategy to better convince the just-sworn-in jury that the tall, nicely-dressed 74-year-old in the defendant’s chair was guilty of ordering those under him to illegally derail a federal probe into brutality and corruption in the Los Angeles County jail system.

Then the prosecution had to further prove to the jury that Baca had lied to federal officials about his alleged part in ordering actions that had thus far resulted in eight former members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department being sentenced to federal prison.

In December of last year, when Baca was tried the first time for obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice, the prosecution put on a smart case, which arguably was quite convincing. Most of those in the jury panel, however, were not at all persuaded. The outcome was a hung jury, with eleven panelists voting to acquit the former sheriff. Only one jury member held out for conviction, reportedly to the great frustration of the other eleven. According to the two jurors who talked to the press afterward, the eleven who voted to acquit were furious at the hold out whom they felt “just didn’t get it.”

Obviously, if the government wished to avoid racking up two defeats in a row, that 11/1 deadlock strongly suggested that some reanalysis was required.

This meant that the defense too would have to do its own retooling in anticipation of any new moves that the feds might make.

Indeed, when Friday afternoon’s opening statements were finished, much reshaping and sharpening of strategies was in evidence. Yet, perhaps the biggest new element in both presentations was each side’s liberal use of a ghost at the proceedings.

The ghost was, of course, the once powerful, now infamous former undersheriff of the LA County Sheriff’s Department, the former crown prince who, at one time, seemed irrevocably destined to be the next head of the department after the four-time elected Lee Baca decided to step down.

In other words, the ghost was Paul Tanaka.

Tanaka, as most readers know, did not become Lee Baca’s successor (although he made it into the election runoff). Instead, in April 2016, he was convicted of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice, and began serving his five-year sentence in federal prison in January.

Yet, interestingly, despite his spectral presence in the dueling narratives of the case that each side presented on Friday, neither the prosecution nor the defense seems to have any interest whatsoever in calling the corporeal Tanaka to the witness stand.


BACA “RAN THE CONSPIRACY”

Another thing the two vocal jurors from the last trial made plain was the fact that, although they believed some bad stuff had probably gone on in the jails, and possibly some department members might have tried to obstruct the federal investigation, the former sheriff hadn’t been involved with it. Baca was way too busy running a huge law enforcement agency to trifle with such things, they said, or words to that effect.

It was this issue that prosecutor Fox addressed at the top of his opening.

“Mr. Baca ran the conspiracy,” said Fox. And “he put one man in day-to-day charge of the conspiracy. For that job “he picked Paul Tanaka.”

Fox described a bond between the two men that was personal as well as professional, which Baca himself had described as a “father and son relationship.” To make the point, Fox played a recording of Baca saying just that. On the recording, the former sheriff told how he had “raised Tanaka through the ranks.” Paul Tanaka, said Baca “had a unique talent of doing exactly what I wanted done.”

In the first trial, the defense portrayed the former sheriff as a paragon of transparency and honesty who pulled no punches as he acted in the best interest of the department to which he had given his life for 48 years.

To preview how he intended to preemptively counter that defense theme, Fox also played another section of the Baca recording in which the former sheriff talked about viewing his interaction with the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office during the period in question as “a chess match.”

Only two people in the sheriff’s department were permitted authorize the actions of the teams of deputies who hid a federal informant from his FBI handlers, tampered with potential federal witness, and spent days surveilling two working FBI agents, Fox said. Those two people were “Lee Baca and Paul Tanaka.”

The former sheriff “authorized, monitored and condoned” the conspiracy, Fox continued. And Tanaka carried it out.

Proving a charge of obstruction of justice, is complicated. Presumably with this challenge in mind, Fox was extremely methodical as he outlined step-by-step how the FBI’s investigation of brutality and corruption inside the county’s jails came about, how prevalent the abuse of inmates by deputies appeared to be, and how difficult the allegations of abuse and corruption were to prove when, in most cases, it was just the word of an inmate—or inmates—against some nice clean cut person with a badge and a gun.

Yet the accounts of horrific abuse kept piling up, Fox told the jury. Thus the FBI decided to launch a grand jury investigation into the matter, along with an undercover operation that included an inmate/informant named Anthony Brown.

Brown, a convicted band robber but a willing and prolific informant, agreed to participate in a sting in which he persuaded a corrupt sheriff’s deputy named Gilbert Michel to bring him a contraband cell phone in return for cash bribe.

Fox told how, on August 8, 2011, the initially successful cell phone sting came to an abrupt end after another sheriff’s deputy discovered Brown’s contraband phone when Brown was out of his cell on a medical visit.

Eventually, the head of the FBI’s Los Angeles Bureau, Steve Martinez, called Baca and told him about the inmate, and the phone, said Fox. Martinez also told the former sheriff that the FBI would like its phone back. In a subsequent call, Martinez mentioned something about the feds needing access to their informant soon too.

Two days after the first call from Martinez, according to the prosecution, Baca called a meeting and publicly put Paul Tanaka in charge of what would become a six week operation, ordering those assembled to “isolate” the inmate, and “criminally investigate” the FBI’s undercover operation. This led to such actions as hiding federal informant Brown from his FBI handlers, tampering with potential federal witnesses, and falsely threatening FBI Special Agent Leah Marx Tanner with arrest, and more—in other words, all the actions that are at the heart of the government’s obstruction charges.


GUNS & SMOKE

One of the jurors from the previous trial talked about the lack of “a smoking gun,” tying Baca to the conspiracy.

Thus, on Friday, halfway through his presentation, Fox brought up the word EVIDENCE printed in large block letters on the PowerPoint screen he’d been using, just in case anybody got missed the point. Then the prosecutor listed some of the metaphorical guns that he and the rest of the government’s team intended to present, hopefully accompanied by visible “smoke.” These included such witnesses from the last trial as former assistant sheriff Cecil Rhambo, who testified previously about how he’d warned Baca not to “Fuck with the FBI,” that the feds had done nothing illegal with their undercover investigation, or their sting that involved Deputy Michel taking a bribe to bring in a contraband cell phone to the FBI’s inmate/informant. “We’re the suspects,” Rhambo said he told the former sheriff. “Give them back their phone.” If the sheriff tried to get in their way, “that’s obstruction of justice.” But that Baca hadn’t listened, Rhambo said.

There were also references to new witnesses, and new pieces of physical evidence. For example, while Fox didn’t say as much explicitly, it appears that former LASD Lt. Greg Thompson, who was a central player in the hiding of FBI informant Anthony Brown, will be called to testify this time. (Thompson has already been convicted and sentenced for being part of the conspiracy.) It appears that the prosecution also intends to call former LASD Captain Tom Carey, who was in on many of the crucial meetings and email exchanges during the six week operation. (Carey, who was indicted as well, has already taken a reduced plea deal but has yet to be sentenced.)


COMPETING NARRATIVES

After the prosecution finished, lead defense attorney Nathan Hochman stood and began with his team’s version of events:

On August 18, 2011, at about 5 p.m. in the afternoon, Sheriff Baca received a call from the head of the Los Angeles office of the FBI, Steve Martinez, said Hochman.

“It was not unusual for the two to talk,” he told the jury. The sheriff’s department and the feds worked together on a regular basis.

But this call was “unprecedented.”

“Never in sheriff’s department history” had the FBI smuggled in “dangerous contraband,” namely the cell phone, and “given it to “a violent and dangerous inmate,” meaning Anthony Brown, who is, Hochman reminded the jury, a bank robber who is now sentenced to, quite literally, hundreds of years in prison.,

The sheriff needed to know how many deputies were involved in wrongdoing, and how many inmates, said Hochman.

Like Fox, Hochman made good use of the PowerPoint and block letter phrases. In this case, the phrase was: HOW BIG A PROBLEM?

When he heard what the FBI was doing, said Hochman, the sheriff needed to find out just how big a problem he had in the jails for which he was responsible. But Martinez wouldn’t give Baca the information he “needed to do his job,” Hochman told the jury

So he ordered an investigation, Hochman said. And “carrying out that agenda was not an abuse of power.”

Attorney Hochman then outlined in extensive detail the overwhelming complexity and size of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, showing a diagram of the extensive command structure with Baca’s name at the very top.


THE GHOST, PART 2

Around a third of the way through his opening, Hochman introduced his version of the ghost.

The sheriff’s “number two person” who runs the department’s “day to day operations” was Paul Tanaka, he told the jury. Hochman also confirmed that his client had put the former undersheriff in charge of his investigation of the fed’s investigation.

“But Paul Tanka did not share the same loyalty” toward the sheriff as Sheriff Baca had for him, Hochman said. Outside of Baca’s presence, Tanaka “had his own agenda.”

Tanaka also had “an old school view that inmates were the enemy.” (Hochman had already mentioned that the former sheriff saw inmates as individuals who could be helped.)

And Tanaka “was controlling the flow of information” to the sheriff.

Sheriff Baca viewed the FBI as his partner, Hochman told the jury. But undersheriff Tanaka “had another agenda.” He viewed the FBI as the enemy.

Hochman is aware that, by the time the defense presents its case, the jury will already have heard—via the prosecution—several eyewitness accounts of Tanaka screaming F-bombs in relationship to the feds.

Plus, the defense reportedly has retired LASD Commander Bob Olmsted on its witness list, and Olmsted, who in the last trial was a witness for the prosecution, can easily testify about such issues as Tanaka’s “personal agenda.”


“SWEETHEART DEALS” & “HIGHLY DANGEROUS AND VIOLENT” INFORMANTS

In his opening, Hochman suggested how the defense intends to challenge some of the prosecution’s new witnesses, whom he described as having “sweetheart plea deals” with the feds “to testify against sheriff Baca.”

Hochman also previewed how the defense plans to come after Special Agent Leah Marx Tanner. The idea is to characterize Tanner, who ran the FBI’s undercover operation, as inexperienced, and the FBI’s cellphone sting as irresponsible and extremely dangerous, thereby characterizing Baca’s insistence on investigating the feds’ undercover probe as not only legal, but the only responsible thing to do.

Another of Hochman’s themes was to paint a picture of the former sheriff as a reformer who rigorously and continuously investigated his own jails, saw the inmates with compassion, and even brought in his own outside “watchdog” in the person of “nationally recognized civil rights prosecutor” Michael Gennaco and Gennaco’s Office of Independent Review, which Baca “funded.” (Actually the Board of Supervisors brought in Gennaco and the OIR and paid the OIR’s bills. Baca had little choice in the matter. But nevermind all that for the moment.)

This particular thread was interesting since Judge Anderson had ruled before the new trial began that the defense could not use the “good works” strategy that Hochman and company had employed in the last trial, using people like Mike Gennaco to suggest to the jury that the former sheriff was such an reform-minded lawman that the idea of interfering with the feds’ investigation into problems in his jails would be completely out of character.

(After both opening statements were finished, and the jury was out of the courtroom, Judge Anderson had a few angry things to say to Hochman about the reappearance of Gennaco.)

As for the former sheriff’s alleged lying to federal prosecutors, Hochman told the jury that, on April 12, 2013, at age 71, Baca voluntarily subjected himself to four-and-a-half hours of interviews, at which time he answered hundreds of “memory questions” about “what happened 20 months before.” (The use of the term “memory questions” suggests that maybe the defense hasn’t entirely given up on the Alzheimer’s defense when it comes to the charges of lying to the feds, despite Judge Anderson’s ruling against the appearance of their UCLA Alzheimer’s expert.)

The prosecution’s allegations, he said, were based on four questions, the answers to which lasted “45 seconds.” That was, Hochman said, “45 seconds” measured against “a 48-year career” in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.

“Paul Tanaka is the heartbeat and driving force behind this conspiracy,” Hochman said as he moved to his conclusion.

“Sheriff Baca did not abuse his power. He used his power to ensure that thousands of people in the jails” were kept safe.

The jury of four women and eight men appeared attentive as the two competing versions of events were unfurled before them in the courtroom.

Whom they will ultimately believe is, at this point, anybody’s guess.

The trial, which is expected to last approximately two weeks, will resume on Monday morning at 8 a.m.

21 Comments

  • Although freshly into retirement and relocated, I would gladly fly back to Los Angeles to see Tanaka’s scrawny ass hauled into court, shackled and in a jumpsuit, and with an abundance of gray hair (Paul has been dying his hair for years, but not in the Federal penitentiary). I find it comical that the Vice President of the Lynwood Vikings OGCF, Greg Thompson, will be testifying against Baca, that’s rich. Shaving off a little time, Greg? And finally, Tom Carey himself is going to step out of the shadows to point his crooked finger at Baca as well. Geez boys, all the years you carried the Little Man’s water, screwing people on his behalf, shining his shoes, what did it get you? Where did it get you? You and you team are all “convicted felons,” you are all disgraced, it all caught up to you. You never had a worry in the world as long as you were doing Tanaka’s dirty work because as I’m told, one of his favorite enticements was, “I always take care of my people.” For you to fall for that crap, knowing you were doing dirty work for gain, well, it got you and your families.

    Now Leroy, there is another work of art. Singlehandedly destroyed LASD. I mean Baca decimated a great organization beyond belief, all under the watchful eye of his lapdog LA Times and other media outlets. And he allowed Paul Tanaka to have his way as well. Paul was the Little Man who strutted around LASD until the day Leroy fired him, with his haram of secret girlfriends, cigar smokers, coin holders and sycophants who would do anything to anyone at the snap of his frail little fingers. All in the open, all in front of Baca. Now Leroy wants to play the game of, “I didn’t know.” How utterly disgraceful. This is all going to play out in court with a more definitive picture for the world to see. And what the world will see is how incompetent and corrupt one Leroy D. Baca is and has always been. Let the show begin and let the jury make the call. Regardless of how they rule, Leroy Baca and Paul Tanaka, the ghost, are guilty and will finally pay the piper.

    • Innmate to be (surely as death) Greg Thompson testifying in court shows how desperate the Feds are. Being a Viking, a Snake, a Coward and a Lying Rat only amounts to one thing…..a Piece of Shit. To have others vouch for that fool is just as sickening. He’ll be PC in prison.

      • Now Thompson is a expert SNITCH. Wow….. No different than the criminals that he arrested legally or illegally. He won’t have that “shit eating” grin when he checks in with the Federal Board of Prisons. Karma is King.

  • Calling it a spade

    Let me guess you worked a slow station and hold resentment that you never were able to hold a coveted position. They took care of hard workers not lames like you who never handled critical incidents.

    • XXX, lame is what comes to mind when I read posts like yours. That was the favorite excuse of Tanaka worshippers, thinking he put the “lazy” in “check” while anointing themselves God’s gift to law enforcement. Nothing could be further from the truth. Tanaka recognized the weak and willing, and simply led them to believe what they wanted as long as it served his ulterior goals.

      The real hard workers laughed at the Tanaka worshippers, and still do. Thanks for reminding us why…

  • I think we should all keep and open mind when listening and reading about the evidence and not go into the trial pre-determined with a guilty or innocent verdict.

  • The dude is guilty. The fact that it is so hard to convict law enforcement, and officials, is actually pretty sad. We all need to do better and stop protecting folks that abuse their authority.

  • Calling It A Spade: I truly enjoy reading your opinions. Although I don’t necessarily always agree, your thoughts are well expressed. Can you give some examples of how Baca destroyed the Department; no need to explain what Tanaka did!

    • My Goodness, it is quite refreshing to be speaking to an adult. Thank you for your comments, when I comment, I do so from a factual perspective as well as my personal opinions. Adult disagreement or discussion is wonderful. I listen to others who have mature comments and I do look at things from different perspectives while staying true to by beliefs and with open eyes.

      During my many years on LASD, I was fortunate to be in various assignments that gave me an “inside the 4th floor” view. I have spoken to Sheriff Baca and Lee Baca many, many times over the years as well as with all of the major executives. Sheriff Baca knew exactly what Inmate Tanaka was doing, how he was doing it and to who he was doing it to. Sheriff Baca knew of the three completed IAB cases on Tanaka that were ready for adjudication for some significant discipline when he (Baca) first took office. Those cases disappeared at his direction. Several executives personally told Sheriff Baca of the horrendous conduct by Inmate Tanaka as a Captain, Commander, Chief and Assistant Sheriff. Yet Baca did nothing but make excuses. Two Division Chiefs personally went to Sheriff Baca and told him that Assistant Sheriff Tanaka was completely out of control, fostering a culture of corruption within Custody Division and other divisions. Baca’s response was, “I’ll talk to Paul.” These two Chief’s were furious with that response of denial by Sheriff Baca, the consistent denial taken when reports of Tanaka’s meltdowns, screaming, cursing outbursts on a daily basis, reached his ears. These Chiefs were so disgusted at Sheriff Baca’s response, they quit on the spot. These are just a few examples of Sheriff Baca’s refusal to control Inmate Tanaka. In fact, his only response was to continually promote Inmate Tanaka. And as you are aware by your comment, there is no need to explain what Tanaka did. Tanaka was allowed to do everything that he did, destroying LASD in the process under the watchful eye of Sheriff Baca. So to sum it up, It is not quite so much about what Baca did, it is about what Tanaka did. But Tanaka did everything while Baca watched and said nothing. Therefore, in my opinion, Sheriff Baca, Lee Baca, is absolutely responsible for the destruction of LASD. He was the ONLY person who was in a position to stop Inmate Tanaka, yet he did not. Baca continually gave Tanaka more and more power and that power was abused. Baca is directly responsible for the destruction of LASD as we know it. Those are my thoughts.

      • You got that right, Spade. A little more on Baca: he was involved in multiple shady deals buying influence with taxpayer funded positions like the field deputy program. Biship Turner anyone? Then you have the Carlos Vignali fiasco, and the interference with criminal investigations involving high profile suspects, his domestic violence allegations, pay to play schemes with reserves, the fake reserve training program, the test cheating scandals, the list goes on and on…

  • How does the prosecution get away with playing snippets from an audio recording of Baca as part of their opening argument at the trial?

    I thought the opening argument allows the prosecutor to list the evidence he intends to present, rather than actually presenting evidence.

    In this case, playing the recording is equivalent to opening the trial with defendant offering testimony to incriminate himself(and no opportunity to explain, correct, rebut or rephrase that testimony until some later phase of the trial).

    Is Fox playing an honest hand, now that the deck has been reshuffled and he is anted in for a retrial?

    Or is this a rigged demonstration game with opposing players all affiliated with the House(current or previous on payroll of D.O.J.) and making sure that any guilty verdict can be invalidated under appeal?

    • @allisonbee that is what the prosecution does best “snippets ” that’s how they convicted Sexton. Picking “snippets ” from his grand jury testimony on his second trial. If Baca is convicted and I hope he is, he will lose his appeal. The 9th circuit will never go against this prosecution or Judge Anderson.

  • The prosecution intends to introduce testimony from a former LASD Lt. and a former LASD Captain, both of whom already stand convicted yet have not begun serving any portion of a sentence.

    This possible appearance of Thompson and Carey on behalf of the prosecution is slightly surprising, considering the way the table has been set by the prosecutor.

    In the previous trial of Lee Baca on these charges, the prosecution called former LASD Deputy Sexton as a witness.
    Sexton entered the court room wearing leg irons and Federal B.O.P. standard issue garments, as he came to testify while in custody – less than 25% of his sentence completed.

    Mr. Fox cleared up any doubts over the arrangement at the beginning – plainly asking Sexton about any possible quid pro quo involved in giving his testimony.
    Sexton replied that there was none.

    30 days later, Deputy Sexton again appeared in Judge Anderson’s courtroom.
    Mr. Fox was also there, this time to throw his approval behind a successful motion for resentencing.
    This allowed Sexton to exchange leg irons for his own robe and slippers and return to sleep in his own bed at home that evening and from then on.

    Although this doesn’t prove any quid pro quo from Fox to Sexton for his testimony, it does raise suspicion.

    The more troublesome aspect of Sexton’s abrupt resentencing, and Fox’s involvement, is that it may be construed as a demonstration to Thompson, Carey or any other potential witness who is already convicted and pending serving their sentence when called by the prosecution to testify against Lee Baca.

    It demonstrates the sway Mr. Fox can utilize to radically alter the witness’ upcoming sentence.
    In addition, Thompson, Carey et al position as convicted former law enforcement qualify them under exactly the same argument presented to Judge Anderson as part of the motion which relieved the B.O.P. of the excessive burden to house and transport Deputy Sexton.

    Ultimately, Mr. Fox participation in truncating Sexton’s sentence may contribute significant power to any effort by Baca’s defense to raise doubt over the credibility and sincerity of important witness testimony.
    Important only in that its needed by the prosecution to persuade jurors to convict.

    Alongside their pictographs of guns and smoke to represent points of evidence which convince the jury to convict Baca, the prosecution can add a cartoon sketch of the fodder provided for Baca’s defense to fire in their cannons aimed at blowing holes through the credibility of witness testimony for the prosecution.

    The prosecution could have averted the potential damage caused to their own case by allowing Deputy Sexton to remain under the direct care of B.O.P. for only 7 or 8 additional weeks before they swooped in to spring him out.

    So how clever is Mr. Fox?

    • @allisonbee you need to research why Sexton was released. He spent 3 1/2 of his 4 months in the SHU. When you spend time in the SHU you get extra credit so Sexton earned his release and it had nothing to do with his testimony. He served his time and deserves to be home. He should have never been convicted but that’s my opinion but his release was done by the book.

      • I agree with you completely.
        My point is only will Baca’s defense be able to portray this as something else?
        Namely, will it help the defense raise the potential question of a quid pro quo for Thompson and/or Carey’s testimony – thus asking the jury to discount the authenticity of their testimony against Lee Baca.

      • I have never heard of earning extra credit towards serving a sentence in custody while housed in SHU.
        When did that start?
        I have no problem with Sexton going home and would have no problem with him having served his entire custody under house arrest,
        but the motion and hearing for resentencing of Sexton(at least, how i read it) did not pivot on having completed some benchmark portion of his sentence.
        the operative factor seemed to be the potential critical risk to Sexton’s safety due to his status as law enforcement in custody
        and the cumbersome burden upon the B.O.P. of providing security to Sexton to counter that risk.
        The timing of Sexton’s testimony and the subsequent release with the approval of the prosecutor may be purely coincidental.
        But it may look bad to some.
        can you really blame them?

  • Calling it a spade: random spats on this blog like, “he is an idiot—why— he just is,” leave me to feelings of ignorance with the author. You however, have expressed your opinion wisely and thoroughly! One could say even with the best of intentions, if you are the boss, and allow the bulls to run free, you will get run over!! Thanks for taking the time to explain…

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