Former LA County Sheriff Lee Baca is going to federal prison.
According to the order signed by U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson on Wednesday, Baca—who is 77-years-old and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease—is to report on or before February 5 to the U.S. Marshalls in order to begin his prison term of 36 months.
In his terse surrender order, Judge Anderson noted that Baca was “originally charged in February 2016–nearly four years ago”–and was convicted by a jury “nearly three years ago.”
To be specific, the once-powerful and popular sheriff Leroy Baca was convicted in March 2017 of charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice, obstruction of justice, and of making false statements to federal investigators—all charges that came about when Baca got in the way of a federal investigation into brutality and corruption in LA County’s scandal-plagued jail system.
It took two lengthy trials to convict Baca, who was elected to his fourth term as the head of the nation’s largest sheriff’s agency in 2010. The first trial, which took place in December 2016, ended with a jury that declared itself hopelessly deadlocked—with eleven jurors voting to acquit, and a single juror holding out for a conviction.
In trial number two, things played out very differently when the jury deliberated for fourteen hours before delivering their unanimous verdict on the afternoon of March 15, 2017.
After the verdict had been read, the foreperson of the anonymous jury—whom trial watchers knew only as juror No. 8—came out to speak to those gathered. He said that on the first day of deliberation, when the group took an unofficial vote, eight of the jurors were already in the guilty column, but four were not at all certain.
The next day, according to the foreman, the remaining four each took the floor and presented their reservations to the rest of the jurors. “And we very methodically went through their questions, and listened.”
Asked what persuaded the not-guilty four to move to the guilty column, the foreman said there was no one fact that turned the tide, but that everyone seemed to have his or her own “aha moment.”
Yet, No. 8 wanted to emphasize that, although he and his fellow jurors became convinced that Baca had committed crimes, they didn’t find the former sheriff unsympathetic personally.
“We felt he was trying to protect his empire,” the foreman said of Baca’s motives, “the one he worked so hard to attain.”
The long and winding road to conviction
Yet, the journey to the 2017 guilty verdict was a long and winding one.
It began in July 2010 when the FBI started looking into a slew of complaints of abuse and corruption by sheriff’s deputies working in the Los Angeles County jail system. By the summer of 2011, the FBI’s civil rights team had interviewed a lot of inmates who told them disturbing stories, but the feds had become frustrated with the difficulty of finding ways to actually prove the reported incidents.
For years, various civil rights attorneys, justice advocates, and the ACLU of Southern California had pointed urgently to abuses in the jails but, aside from a few one-day stories in the local media, none of the accounts of alleged wrongdoing really stuck in the consciousness of the public. Then Sheriff Lee Baca was an enormously well-liked public official, with strong progressive credentials, and he told reporters and critics that, yes, there might be occasional incidents, but the county’s jails were filled with a lot of dangerous characters and sometimes force was necessary.
Yet the reports of wrongdoing didn’t stop, and increasingly there were reports made by civilians who were in the jails, teaching classes, ministering to inmates, or performing some other service, when they witnessed incidents that horrified them.
Finally, in the summer of 2011, the FBI investigative team came up with a strategy. They would launch an undercover operation in Men’s Central Jail, where the worst of the accounts of abuse seemed to be centered. To do so, they would use a jail informant whom they believed could help them with a sting. And so it was that 44-year-old bank robber Anthony Brown officially became a confidential informant for the FBI.
Brown claimed that he’d witnessed multiple instances of deputy-on-inmate brutality. He also said he had talked to at least two-jail deputies who indicated their willingness to bring in contraband for inmates, in return for money.
The sting was launched. Deputy Gilbert Michel agreed to bring inmate/informant Anthony Brown a contraband phone, in return for cash he received from an undercover agent posing as Brown’s friend on the outside.
In early August, however, jail deputies found Brown’s phone in a random search. A few days after that, jail investigators learned that the main number Brown was calling and texting belonged to the civil rights division of the LA office of the FBI. By August 18, 2011, news of the FBI phone and inmate/informant Brown reach department executives who reacted by hiding Brown from his FBI handlers, threatening FBI Special Agent Leah Marx Tanner with arrest, and forbidding bribe-taker Gilbert Michel and other potential deputy-witnesses to talk to federal investigators.
Nevertheless, the civil rights team continued to investigate.
On December 9, 2013, then U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte announced the first set of indictments that resulted from the investigation—18 in all. Seven of those 18 were department members who were charged with obstruction of justice for their part in the whole hiding-Anthony-Brown-FBI-agent-threatening matter.
In early February of 2014, Birotte announced two more sheriff’s department members had been indicted, bringing the total to 20. Yet, aside from two lieutenants, and two or three sergeants, most of those who were charged were deputies.
It was not at all clear if any additional indictments would move up the departmental food chain—never mind that those hiding Brown and/or threatening Special Agent Marx had to have gotten orders from someone.
Nevertheless, for a long time, sources close to the U.S. Attorney’s office said that there was little possibility that the controversial undersheriff, Paul Tanaka, would be held to answer legally for his part in the whole mess, much less the popular four-time elected sheriff.
Sources close to the U.S. Department of Justice said the same thing. “It’ll never happen,” one well-connected person told us back then.
A changing wind
The subject came up again in the summer and early fall of 2014, after the three deputies, two sergeants, and two lieutenants accused of obstruction of justice were convicted in a series of three trials, and given various sentences in federal prison. Media outlets like WLA kept asking the question: if these seven were guilty, what about those who ordered them to do all that obstructing? Nevertheless, the government’s legal arm did not show any obvious signs of reaching higher.
A few months later, however, in December of that same year, the winds seemed to change. Word was that there were new rounds of grand jury testimony, and the once-feared Tanaka might, in fact, soon be charged. (We remember hearing that his attorney was warned that taking a vacation in the next few months was unwise.) On Thursday, March 4, 2015, the rumors turned to fact when reporters got early morning texts advising them to get themselves downtown to the offices of the U.S. Attorney, pronto. Paul Tanaka, along with former LASD captain William “Tom” Carey, had just been indicted.
(Tanaka would eventually be convicted and sentenced to five years in federal prison.)
There was no word on whether there were any plans to reach beyond Tanaka. Yet, it appeared that never had all at once turned into maybe.
On February 11, 2016, less than a year after Paul Tanaka’s indictment, reporters got another notice to rush downtown for a mystery press conference at the U.S. Attorney’s office where they learned that, later that day, the former sheriff would formally plead guilty to one count of lying to federal officials. The alleged lying occurred when the feds questioned him in April 2013 about his part in the events of August and September 2011.
Yet, five months later still, in July 2016, when all parties had gathered the courtroom of Judge Percy Anderson for Baca’s sentencing based on his plea bargain, instead of handing down a sentence, Anderson announced that he didn’t like the 0-6 month sentencing scheme agreed to by the government and Baca’s team of lawyers. And then, as those in the courtroom watched goggle-eyed, Anderson proceeded to dynamite the plea deal.
A six-month sentence “would trivialize the seriousness of [Baca’s] offenses, his lack of respect for the law, and the gross abuse of the public trust…..” Anderson said, plus lots more to that same effect.
Rather than try for a new plea deal, Baca and his attorneys elected to go to trial. Fine, said the federal prosecutors and, on August 5, a federal grand jury indicted Baca for the same single count of lying he’d pleaded to earlier, plus two additional counts of obstruction of justice, and conspiracy to obstruct justice.
The first trial of Lee Baca began in mid-December of 2016. It ended approximately ten days later with a deadlocked jury after 24 hours of deliberation, causing Judge Anderson to declare a mistrial.
The near-acquittal caused many to believe that the government would not choose to retry the former sheriff.
But on January 10, 2017, the government announced it would retry him. And the prosecution team began rigorously retooling their trial strategy. A unanimous guilty verdict was the result.
The path of appeal
Between Baca’s March 2017 conviction and now, the former sheriff and his lawyers first appealed to the 9th Circuit, which resulted in a lively hearing before a three-judge panel. Yet, despite their interest in some of the points made by Baca’s attorneys, the panel still upheld his conviction for three charges with an efficiently worded opinion, which knocked down the seven main points that Baca’s legal team made in their appeal. (You can read the ruling here.)
After the panel ruled against Baca, his attorneys requested what it called an en banc hearing, which is granted infrequently and would have meant that the court’s Chief Judge, and ten other randomly drawn judges, would again hear arguments about why Baca’s conviction should be reversed. In mid-April of last year, however, the Ninth again said no.
This meant that Baca’s last option was the Hail Mary of trying to convince the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his appeal.
In that the nation’s highest court hears only 100-150 of the more than 7,000 cases that it is asked to review each year, the request was a long shot.
And indeed SCOTUS turned Baca down this past Monday morning, January 13.
So it was that the decision made in the spring of 2017 by a jury of four women and eight men became the final word.
“I appreciate the jury system,” said a dignified-appearing Baca in front of the court after the word “guilty” was read aloud three times in succession in the federal courtroom nearly three years ago. “But I disagree with this verdict.”
“It’s just a privilege to be alive,” the former sheriff said finally. “I feel good.”
And then he escaped down the sidewalk, flanked by his wife, Carol, and his legal team.
The above photo by WLA of Lee Baca, his wife Carol, and members of his legal team headed by attorney Nathan Hochman, was taken in February 2017.