THE FATE OF THE V-WORD
When the federal trial of former undersheriff Paul Tanaka continued on Monday morning at 8 a.m., at first it appeared that U.S District Court Judge Percy Anderson had nixed any discussion of The Vikings, the notorious deputy gang of which Tanaka was a member.
But then later in the morning, when the jury came back at 10:05 a.m. from its first 15-minute break of the day, everything seemed to have changed.
On Friday, as we noted in our last report, after a week and a half of testimony by the prosecution’s witnesses, Tanaka took the stand in his own defense for nearly three hours, and defense attorney Jerome Haig spent much of the time guiding his client through the process of building a portrait of himself as a man with a stellar career in law enforcement, and a deep sense of morality and ethics.
Then the defendant and his attorneys moved on to dispute the prosecution’s criminal case, claiming that, in those matters, Tanaka was a peripheral player who, at most carried directed others to carry out Lee Baca’s lawful orders having to do with such actions as causing inmate/informant Anthony Brown to vanish from the jails’ computer system and threatening FBI Special Agent Leah Marx with arrest after LASD sergeants accosted her outside her apartment and she declined to answer questions.
When Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox got up for cross on Friday, he too began with Tanaka’s career and character. But he addressed the part of Tanaka’s career that the defense left carefully out of their chronology, namely the mid-80’s and early 1990’s when the former undersheriff was a sergeant at the Lynwood station, home of the infamous deputy clique, the Vikings.
As we described earlier, however, before Fox got the word Viking fully out of his mouth, the defense objected, and Judge Anderson called a side bar. Then, after hearing verbal arguments from the defense and the prosecution, Anderson told both sides to deliver briefs to him on Sunday, for a decision Monday morning.
Yet, on Monday, after another nearly 20-minute sidebar it appeared that Anderson had decided in the negative. Thus, when Fox took-up cross-examination again, he went in another direction, not back to Lynwood station.
Then, after the break, everything changed one more time. Suddenly, the Vikings were on the table.
Tanaka, who had managed a genial, even humble demeanor in earlier questioning, began to stiffen
The Vikings were not a “clique,” he said. “There was no reference to it as a “clique,”
Fox tried other terms: “Subset of deputies,” deputy “group.”
Tanaka tersely rejected each. No, you didn’t have to be invited into the group, he said. In fact, “there was not a group.”
“Were there requirements” for membership? asked Fox.
“No,” Tanaka said.
“When were you invited into the group?”
There was no inviting, said Tanaka. “The mascot of the station was the Lynwood Vikings. The Vikings were like the mascot of an intermural sports team, he said.
Fox shifted gears. Well was Mr. Tanaka “aware of a finding in a 1991 civil lawsuit that found the Vikings to be a deputy gang?
“I’ve never looked at the lawsuit. I wasn’t part of it.”
Fox asked if Tanaka was aware that the judge found the Vikings to have engaged in widespread civil rights violations and “other acts of lawlessness?”
(It should be noted that violations are listed in vivid detail in the complaint.)
Many of those named were deputies that Tanaka supervised when he was a Sergeant at Lynwood, Fox said.
(Greg Thompson, who is one of the nine other department members who have been either already convicted of obstruction of justice, or taken a deal, was named several times in the 1991 lawsuit, although Fox didn’t point that out.)
The back and forth continued, with Tanaka denying that the Vikings were any sort of membership organization, and Fox advancing evidence that they were a membership organization with a shadow-fraught history.
And then Fox brought up the Viking tattoo.
“At the time that I received that tattoo,” said Tanaka, his voice turning brittle, “nothing in the Vikings was evil.
“I was not a Viking in the way you’re trying to infer,” he said. “There was nothing sinister about it when I got the tattoo.”
So did he have it still? “As you sit here today, you have that tattoo,” said Fox. It was a statement, not a question.
Tanaka’s expression grew dark as he seemed to struggle to control fury.
“I have the tattoo, sir.”
“IT COULD HAVE BEEN A COINCIDENCE”
Eventually, the cross examination returned to the matter of Anthony Brown and other topics related to the charges against Tanaka. The prosecutor continued to hammer Tanaka with facts that made it difficult for him to continue to claim non involvement, naming times that the former undersheriff was briefed, describing a meeting he had in a parking lot with an undercover deputy who was reportedly going to pose as an inmate in the cell next to Brown to try to get Brown to talk about his FBI relationships.
“I don’t know why I was there,” Tanaka said of the parking lot meeting. “It could have been a coincidence. I probably just told the deputy to be careful,” Tanaka said of his talk with the undercover officer.
In answer to other questions, he frequently said he didn’t recall.
Perhaps the most oddly effective series of questions during the prosecution’s cross examination came when Fox showed Tanaka page after individual page of lists of phone calls made during the main days of the Anthony Brown/alleged FBI obstruction period from August 18, 2011, to September 26, 2011.
There are many calls to and from Tanaka to the main players, people like then Captain Tom Carey, and former lieutenants Steve Leavins and Greg Thompson. On each page, Tanaka is urged to search to see if there are any calls to or from former sheriff Lee Baca.
Out of all the pages, Tanaka only finds one call. He says that Baca often made calls from the car, which sometimes meant that his driver would make the call from his own county issued cell phone, and hand the phone to the boss. It is a legitimate point, but likely not enough to counteract the pages of other calls.
Eventually Tanaka steps down from the stand, and various witnesses for the defense like Chuck Antuna, Ed Medrano, the Chief of the Gardena Police Department, a woman who is a Gardena activist, and a newish deputy sheriff who had been fired from the Gardena PD, whom Tanaka help get hired at the LASD.
All of the witnesses describe Paul Tanaka as an exceptionally honest and warm person.
Former U.S. Attorney, now federal judge Andre Birotte is called to give his version of a meeting between Baca, Tanaka, and other LASD members, and Birotte and a cluster from the U. S. Attorney’s office, where Baca complains about the way the FBI’s undercover investigation was handled.
The way he viewed the meeting said Judge Birotte, “This was [Baca’s] opportunity to express his displeasure. He was letting us know he didn’t like it.”
By the end of Birotte’s testimony he seems to have helped the prosecution more than the defense.
CLOSING ARGUMENTS AHEAD
So did Tanaka’s testimony primarily help or harm? Did he damage the prosecution’s case, or his own?
We’ll know soon enough.
On Tuesday the defense has two more witnesses: Paul Yoshinaga and Kevin Hebert.
The prosecution will call two rebuttal witnesses. Then closing arguments….and the case will go to the jury.