LEE BACA, DAY THREE: “WE’RE THE SUSPECTS”
There were several big moments in the third day of testimony in the trial of former Los Angeles County sheriff Lee Baca for the charges of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice.
One of those moments came with the testimony of one of Baca’s then closest colleagues, former Assistant Sheriff Cecil Rhambo who told the court about a private conversation he had with Baca late one evening in the late summer of 2011. When Rhambo dropped into the former sheriff’s office, Baca began unloading to Rhambo how upset he was about the fact that the FBI had caused a contraband cell phone to be brought into the jail as part of an undercover investigation into corruption and brutality inside the county’s jail system. It is this investigation, of course, that Baca is accused of conspiring to obstruct with orders he gave to others that allegedly resulted in the hiding of federal informant Anthony Brown from his FBI handlers, threats made to FBI special agent Leah Marx, and attempts to tamper with potential witnesses to wrongdoing inside the county’s large, cholerically troubled jail system.
“He said, ‘They committed a crime!’” Rhambo told the jury. By they, Baca meant the FBI. According to Rhambo, Baca also expressed dismay that the U.S. Attorney’s office was doing their investigation without inviting him and the LASD to to be a partner in it.
“I told him, the feds are investigating. Don’t interfere.” Rhambo told WitnessLA outside the courthouse later. In court Rhambo, described how he explained to the sheriff that when he’d personally worked undercover, he and, in the course of an investigation, his colleagues might make large drug buys, or cause someone else to make such a buy. In certain instances, he said, “you break the law to enforce the law.’
“Don’t f— around with the feds.” Rhambo said he warned his boss. The FBI “is investigating us. They’re not going to cooperate with us. We’re the suspects.”
When Baca intimated some of his plans to investigate FBI agent, Leah Marx, Rhambo remembered being particularly firm.
“I said, ‘Don’t do that. That’s obstruction of justice.’”
THE SEXTON FACTOR
Instead of the street clothes that other witnesses wore for testimony, when former LA County sheriff’s deputy James Sexton took the stand, he was dressed in a bright white prison jumpsuit with a classic prison orange t-shirt visible underneath.
He did not walk on his own to the witness stand in the courtroom of U.S. district court judge Percy Anderson. Instead, a federal marshal escorted him as Sexton shuffled, his wrists cuffed behind him, down the court aisle. The marshal released the cuffs only when Sexton was seated.
The jumpsuit and the handcuffs caused jurors to grew instantly alert as they registered Sexton’s appearance.
Sexton, who is now 31, was a 25-year-old junior deputy during August and September of 2011 when the events took place that led to the charges against Lee Baca. He was also the lowest person on the food chain of the nine people who have thus far been convicted, or in one instance, pleaded to, the same charges of obstruction of justice that Baca is now fighting.
Former deputy Mickey Manzo, who was also convicted of obstruction of justice, testified on Thursday, finishing up on Friday. (More on Manzo in a separate story.)
Sexton is, however, the only person out of the obstruction group who has actually gone to prison. If Baca gave orders to obstruct justice as the prosecution claims, Sexton was visible evidence of the cost of following those orders.
(Mickey Manzo, who told the court he now works at the Home Depot, is to report to federal prison in January to begin his own 21 month sentence.)
Sexton testified that he worked for the LASD from February 2008 to 20014.
“When were you terminated” from the sheriff’s department? Fox asked.
“I was terminated,” said Sexton, “after I was convicted of obstruction of justice. I am here today because was lifted out of Talladega federal prison.” He is three months into a fifteen-month federal sentence, Sexton said.
Fox asked if Sexton is receiving any benefits for his testimony. Were any promises made?
“No benefits. No promises,” Sexton said grimly.
WHO IS IN CHARGE?
In the trial’s opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox described former sheriff Lee Baca as the “heartbeat,” and the “driving force” of the alleged conspiracy to “obstruct” the federal investigation into wrongdoing in the county’s jails, with actions that took place over six weeks in the summer of 2011.
Sexton’s testimony supported that thesis. According to Sexton, he was first brought on the team that was assigned to hide federal informant Anthony Brown in order to recommend ways to game the LA jails online system, so that inmate Anthony Brown would appear to have vanished from the county’s jails, but really would still be present, but stashed in an out-of-the-way facility so other members of law enforcement couldn’t find him.
Sexton’s boss was, at the time was Lt. Greg Thompson, who has been sentenced to 37 months in a federal prison, but who, like Manzo, has not yet gone into custody. Thompson was the man in charge of the operation of hiding Brown.
Thompson, said Sexton, gave a number of reasons as to why inmate Brown’s existence needed to be made to vanish from the jail database.
None of those reasons had anything to do with the safety of Anthony Brown, according to Sexton. (The defense has contended in their opening statement that the main reason for hiding Brown was to protect him when word got out that he was an FBI informant.)
“I was never briefed on that,” he said, making it clear that Brown’s safety was never discussed.
As to who was directing Thompson to hide federal informant Brown, Sexton said that Thompson, and senior deputies Mikey Manzo and Gerard Smith, repeatedly mentioned the “big bosses” asking for it. And that those big bosses were the undersheriff, Paul Tanaka and then sheriff Lee Baca
Sexton also said that both Smith and Manzo told him that they had briefed Tanaka and Baca on the whole matter of Anthony Brown, the contraband cell phone that was brought to Brown by an LASD deputy in return for a bribe, and the fact that Brown was an FBI informant.
Prosecutor Fox asked Sexton if he “volunteered” for the mission of hiding Anthony Brown?
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is a “paramilitary organization,” Sexton said. “You’re volun-told to do things in the LASD.”
Sexton told the court that the team guarding Brown worked many overtime hours at a time when “overtime was unheard of” in the department. There were only two people in the sheriff’s department that could have approved such an operation, Sexton said: “the undersheriff and the sheriff.”
Fox spent a portion of his questioning of Sexton asking the former deputy to describe the intricacies of the operation of hiding Brown, drawing out details that could best help the government build its thesis that the primary reason for the elaborate methods of hiding federal informant Brown was to keep him away from the feds, while teams of department members questioned Brown to find out what he’d been telling the FBI.
Sexton explained how he and a couple of other team members rebooked Brown under various aliases, and how they managed to keep the inmate/FBI informant from having to be fingerprinted each of the times he was “booked” under yet another phony name. Making certain that Brown dodged being Live Scanned was was necessary, Sexton explained, since had Brown been fingerprinted under the guise of any of his aliases this would instantly tell the system that “John Rodriguez,” “Kevin King,” and other manufactured inmate identities, were actually Anthony Brown.
At one point, prosecutor Fox asked Sexton about an email Sexton sent to Thompson, along with former deputies Smith, Manzo and other Brown-hiding team members. The subject head of the email was Operation Pandora’s Box referring to the Anthony Brown enterprise.
“You came up with that name?” Fox asked. What did it mean?
It was from Greek mythology, Sexton replied. Pandora opens the forbidden box releasing “evils and suffering” into the world.
“But the last thing in the box is hope,” he added softly.
ABSENCE OF BENEFITS
When it came time to cross-examine Sexton, defense attorney Tinos Diamantatos, continued to try to get Sexton to admit he had an ulterior motive for testifying..
You received no benefit from the government for your testimony? Diamantatos asked Sexton, his tone skeptical.
Sexton paused for a beat allowing the jury to once again take in his prison pallor and his oversized prison jumpsuit. “I have a hard time seeing how this could benefit me, ” he said,
The defense attorney also pushed for Sexton to say that Paul Tanaka had been the one directing the actions of the various teams. Diamantatos noted that Sexton had characterized both Tanaka and Baca as running the show, but he had never been at the meetings with the two then top guys when the various operations were discussed, had he?
No, said sexton but his boss and his two supervising deputies had, and told him about the meetings in detail.
“I was 25 years old and a junior deputy in a paramilitary organization in which you have to trust your superiors. And I trusted what they told me”
There were also only two people in the sheriff’s department who could have caused the formation of the three teams to carry out the actions that formed the basis for the obstruction charges, Sexton told the court. And those two people were the sheriff and the undersheriff.
At the very end Sexton’s testimony lead government prosecutor Fox showed the former deputy a document that he also projected on the courtroom’s various video monitors for the jury to see.
It was Sexton’s performance evaluation of his work for the department from 2010-2011. The former deputy struggled visibly for control as he stared the evidence of his once-bright future with the Los Angeles Sheriff Department.
What rating were you given? Fox asked him.
Sexton cleared his throat. “Outstanding,” he said.
When Baca, his wife Carol, and his attorneys left the courthouse on Friday, he looked more shaken than on the previous two days of testimony.
Testimony continues Tuesday, December 13, with FBI special agent, David Dahle, former LASD deputy Tara Adams, former deputy Gilbert Michel, Deputy William Courson, and security specialist, Mike Hannemann.
If time permits, former L.A. Times reporter Robert Faturechi may be called to testify late on Tuesday. Otherwise Faturechi is likely to be first up on Wednesday.