For a long time, justice advocates have complained that the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office has repeatedly failed to prosecute members of law enforcement who have broken the law or engaged in corrupt behavior.
In the case of wrongdoing inside the LA County Sheriff’s Department, it took a lengthy and wide-ranging investigation by the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office before charges were filed having to do with notoriously brutal behavior by deputies toward inmates in the county’s jail system, along with elaborate efforts by department higher-ups to obstruct the undercover investigation by the feds into the problems at those same jails.
But, beginning on August 18, 2011, the LASD’s Internal Criminal Investigative Bureau (ICIB), followed by the Justice System Integrity Division of the Los Angeles DA’s office, pursued a case against two sheriff’s deputies with perplexing intensity.
It was a case that the lead prosecutor assigned to it reportedly believed was too weak to file.
Yet, his supervisors pushed him to file the case anyway. According to a recently settled high ticket lawsuit, the LA District Attorney’s Office did so at the insistence of certain highly placed members of the sheriff’s department, led by one department leader who was said to have his own longtime agenda when it came to one of the two deputies’ father.
Whatever the reason, for the next six years, the earnings and the lives of Deputies Robert “Rob” Lindsey and Charles Rodriquez were all but destroyed.
When their case went to trial in June of 2015, however, the twelve men and women of their jury took less than three hours to acquit Lindsey and Rodriguez of all charges.
Still, the deputies would not be allowed to go back to work for another two years and, even when they did become fully reinstated, the two were only reimbursed for part of the back salary they were reportedly owed.
Yet, on March 31, of this year, just as the nation was plunging into the new stay-at-home world of COVID-19, the scales were rebalanced, at least in part, when LA County Board of Supervisors approved a settlement of $2,250,000 for Deputies Robert Lindsey and Charles Rodriguez.
The cash to pay the high-ticket settlement, which was negotiated by civil rights attorney Ron Kaye, was ordered by the board to be drawn from the budgets of the Sheriff’s Department and that of the District Attorney’s office.
Yet the question of why the case was pursued in the first place still remains.
“You just have to look at the deputies who have been caught red-handed hiding exculpatory evidence…and yet it never led to a prosecution,” said attorney Ron Kaye when we talked recently about the case.
“So, it’s a little suspect,” he said, that the DA’s office “went to the mat for this investigation.”
The story begins
The long and winding story of the Lindsey/Rodriguez case began on June 2, 2011, when the two deputies made a drug-related arrest outside the Durango Club Bar in Huntington Park. The chain of events began earlier in the evening when the partners had reportedly gotten a tip from a confidential informant that a man named “Abraham” was dealing cocaine out of a white Lexus that was parked in the club’s parking lot.
When the deputies rolled up to Durango’s they indeed spotted a white Lexus SUV. Two men were standing outside the vehicle, which had the driver’s door open. One of the two men matched the description the deputies had been given of “Abraham,” the possible dealer.
Lindsey reportedly exited the patrol car and called out to the man in question who identified himself as Abraham Rueda.
(Much later, everyone would learn that Rueda’s real name was Uriel Salgado, and the name he gave on the night of his arrest, was only one among a string of aliases.)
But that night, according to the report that Lindsey’ would write later, as he walked around the Lexus shining his bright regulation flashlight through the car’s window, he spotted a small plastic “bindle” of what appeared to be cocaine protruding from an air-conditioning vent in the interior of the Lexus. Whether or not Lindsey could see the “bindle,” was a critical point, because spotting something that looked like it contained cocaine in the car of a suspected drug dealer gave the deputies the right to search the Lexis.
(A “bindle” is the term for an origami-like method of creating hand-folded envelopes of paper or plastic to contain cocaine.)
First, according to both of the deputies’ reports, Lindsey and Rodriguez searched “Rueda” and his companion, then placed the twosome inside the patrol car, and proceeded to search the Lexus. Inside the vehicle, they found that the protruding bag did indeed contain a quarter gram of coke. Although they continued to search further, the deputies found no additional drugs in the vehicle.
Believing there might be more cocaine that they had been unable to locate, the deputies called the Lynwood sheriff’s station and requested a drug-sniffing dog from their boss, a supervising sergeant named Brandon Dean.
Sergeant Dean told his deputies that no K-9s were available, so Lindsey and Rodriguez should bring the Lexus to the station where it could be further searched in a contained environment. Rodriquez and Lindsey reportedly did what Dean told them to do, with Lindsey driving the Lexus, Rodriguez the patrol car, which contained Rueda/Salgado and his pal.
After the second search, which produced no additional drugs, Lindsey wrote up the report, which he later admitted was briefer than usual. He’d reportedly worked overtime every day the previous week and was unusually fatigued.
Still, Sergeant Dean would later testify in the criminal trial, which took place in mid-June 2015, that the report was appropriate, and matched what the sergeant personally knew of the night’s events, based on the telephone call and his own observation.
After everyone had turned in their respective reports in the wee hours of that same night in early June 2011, Dean and his two deputies, Lindsey and Rodriguez, reportedly assumed that the charges against Salgado would be filed, and that would be that.
Yet something very different happened instead.
On August 18, 2011, the day of Salgado’s preliminary hearing on his drug charge, the Salgado gave a video to his public defender, which turned out to be a partial recording he’d made with his cell phone of the club’s surveillance video for the night of June 2, 2011. The video showed his arrest at the Durango Bar, along with the search of the Lexus — which, as it turned out, belonged to Salgado’s sister.
Based on some inconsistencies between what Salgado’s cell phone video showed about where Deputy Lindsey was standing when the deputy said he saw the bindle inside the Lexus, as compared to Lindsey’s own over-brief description in his arrest report, the DA’s office dismissed Salgado’s case — although no one disputed that deputies found the small bindle of coke in the car Salgado was driving that night.
On that same day, August 18, 2011, the LASD’s Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau (ICIB) opened a criminal investigation of the two deputies’ actions on the night of the arrest.
The Tanaka factor
August of 2011 was a fateful time for the Lindsey/Rodriguez investigation to be opened for two reasons.
One reason had to do with a seemingly innocuous change in the sheriff’s department’s command structure that had occurred three months before.
As WitnessLA reported back then, on May 15, 2011, the Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB), which investigates violations of departmental policy, and the Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau (ICIB), which looks into criminal acts committed by department personnel, were taken out from under the oversight of the LASD’s Leadership and Training Division, where the twin bureaus had been for nearly two decades. They were then instead placed under the control of the then-Assistant Sheriff, soon-to-be-Undersheriff, Paul Tanaka.
The second reason was due to the fact that Tanaka was nursing a long-term, and notorious hatred of Deputy Rob Lindsey’s father, retired commander Bob Lindsey
It was in this context that the investigation of Deputy Rob Lindsey and his partner, Deputy Charles Rodriguez was launched, with Tanaka allegedly seeing in the younger Lindsey a way to get back at Linsey Sr.
As for Deputy Charles Rodriguez, there is nothing to suggest that Tanaka had anything against Lindsey’s partner.
If the charges against the two deputies were, as the lawsuit claimed, the result of a vendetta, Rodriguez was just collateral damage.
So why did Paul Tanaka hate Bob Lindsey Sr?
In past years, WitnessLA has written a great deal about Paul Tanaka and his pay-to-play promotional system in which those who were unquestionably loyal to the former undersheriff, which included donating to his various political campaigns, moved up through the ranks faster, statistically speaking, than non-loyalists.
As one source put it, if one failed to do what he wished, “he would ruin your career for sport.”
According to the lawsuit and WitnessLA’s own sources, in 2002, then-Captain Robert Lindsey, challenged then-Chief Paul Tanaka’s authority on multiple occasions, culminating in Lindsey Sr.’s refusal to fraudulently change answers of applicants on the LASD’s promotional Lieutenant’s Exam.”
Essentially, Robert Lindsey declined to cooperate with Tanaka’s efforts to move his personally selected candidates for promotion to the head of the line, although, according to Lindsey Sr. they “did not merit this advancement based on their test scores.” Among other changes Tanaka required, according to Bob Lindsey was to give certain applicants credit for incorrect test answers that Tanaka allegedly claimed were “close enough.”
As a result of this refusal to change scores and credit wrong answers, Tanaka reportedly screamed at Lindsey Sr., telling him, “using expletives and threatening language,” that he would “live to regret” his refusal, and that his career “was over” in the Sheriff’s Department.
Deputy Robert Lindsey also reported that, after his graduation from the department’s training academy in 2005, he was repeatedly approached by Paul Tanaka, whom he had never met until then. According to Lindsey, Tanaka would move into the deputy’s personal space and say, “How’s your father doing? Say ‘hello’ for me,” and other things of that ilk.
When allegedly delivering these B-movie-dialogue messages, Tanaka reportedly used tones Lindsey believed were meant to convey menace.
According to the lawsuit and other LASD sources, the unexpectedly aggressive investigation into the actions of Deputies Lindsey and Rodriguez on the night of June 2, 2011, had everything to do with Paul Tanaka making good on his 2002 threat to Lindsey Sr.
It helped that Tanaka had just inserted one of his loyalists, Captain William (Bill) Carey, as the head of ICIB. Working under Carey, was ICIB Lieutenant Stephen Leavins, another Tanaka loyalist, who immediately instructed ICIB Sergeants Maricela Long and Scott Craig, to begin to investigate the Lindsey/Rodriquez matter.
Five years later, Tanaka, and a cadre of those who worked under him, including Carey, Leavins, Long, and Craig, would be convicted of federal crimes and headed to federal prison — with the exception of Tom Carey, who took a deal in return for his testimony
The prosecutor and the U-Visa
When the sheriff’s department finished investigating Lindsey and Rodriguez, ICIB sent the case to the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office with a recommendation for prosecution.
On April 2, 2013 — four months after District Attorney Jackie Lacey had been sworn in for her first term as LA County’s top prosecutor — the DA’s Office filed a felony complaint against Lindsey and Rodriguez, alleging multiple counts of Filing a False Report, plus Conspiracy to Commit a Crime.
At the DA’s office, the case landed with its Justice System Integrity Division (JSID) where a well-liked prosecutor named Kevin Stennis, actually filed the charges. Yet, he reportedly did so under circumstances that would later turn out to be very peculiar.
(We’ll get back to that part of the story in a minute.)
But first, let’s look at the preliminary hearing, which was set for February 14, 2014. At the prelim, prosecutor Stennis ran into a bump in the road when his case’s primary witness, Uriel Salgado — the guy whom Lindsey and Rodriguez arrested — failed to show up in court despite the fact that Stennis had subpoenaed him.
The no-show caused the Superior Court to toss the charges against Lindsey and Rodriguez.
Stennis would eventually refile, but before he did, he was faced with another sizable problem when it came to the witness on whom the case rested. In addition to not showing up in court and having multiple aliases and a string of prior drug convictions, Salgado, was also undocumented and on the verge of being deported.
So, with the non-appearance and the threat of deportation in mind, Stennis embarked on a new strategy. He entered into an unofficial side deal with Salgado’s sister, Veronica Flores, which is memorialized in a string of emails (that WLA has obtained).
In the course of the emails, Stennis appeared to promise Flores that he would assist Salgado in applying for a “U Visa,” which would stop Salgado’s deportation in exchange for his cooperative testimony. In the meantime, however, Stennis had Salgado arrested and put in custody for several months, which automatically solved the not-showing-up-for-court problem, at least in the short term.
A U Visa, for those unfamiliar, is a special legal arrangement set aside for immigrants who are victims of certain crimes, which carry with them allegations of mental or physical abuse. In order to qualify for such a visa, the immigrant victims must be helpful to law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity.
There was, however, a thorny issue with the U Visa strategy when it came to Salgado, namely that the alleged crime for which Salgado was a witness, did not fit into the U Visa framework.
Hoping to cure this problem, when Stennis refiled criminal charges on Lindsey and Rodriguez, he included a brand new charge of Conspiracy to Commit an Act Injurious to Public, claiming that Lindsey and Rodriguez had “conspired to pervert and obstruct justice.”
We have to “determine if the charges for this case qualify for U Visa,” Stennis wrote in a May 15, 2014, email to Veronica Flores. “I won’t know that until after [the preliminary hearing] as I added a charge of ‘obstruction of justice’ which I believe qualifies, but if that charge gets dismissed at the prelim on the 23rd, the remaining charges are not U visa eligible charges.”
There was nothing wrong with the U Visa strategy, per se — unless Stennis failed to disclose this quid-pro-quo set-up with the defense. That failure would arguably constitute a Brady violation.
(The term “Brady violation” refers to the landmark 1963 Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland, which established that the prosecution must turn over all evidence that might exonerate the defendant to the defense. To do otherwise, the court ruled, is to violate the due process clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.)
A dance of e-mails
As the case made its way through the legal process, the email exchange continued between prosecutor Stennis and Veronica Flores, regarding her brother’s testimony and the ongoing U-Visa issue.
For example on July 23, 2014, at 8:23 AM, Flores wrote the following to Stennis.
“Any news with the U visa paperwork yet? My brother has court on the 30th of this month and we really need it so he can be able to show that to the judge…”
Five days later Stennis wrote back that he still was waiting to find out if the “one charge [which] is [U Visa*] eligible” was going to be accepted by the court.
“I then have to get permission from my head deputy to submit the [U Visa*] memo,” Stennis wrote. “What I recommend you do is let his atty there know that he is a witness and victim on this case, has been fully cooperative and would greatly benefit if he was allowed to stay. You can also give them my number and I can explain how cooperative Uriel has been. . .”
Over the following weeks, Veronica Flores continued to ask Stennis for a letter rather than just the unofficial verbal assurances he continued to offer.
Could he write something, she asked, that showed her brother was “an important witness and that you guys kept him in custody for 4 months for him to testify?”
In his [tk date] response, Stennis explained to Flores that he personally couldn’t write the letter, “because it will be considered ‘improper’ on the present case and I would have to disclose it to the defense attorneys and a big problem would occur…”
The next day, Stennis tried another tack. “The problem with the [U-Visa*]” he wrote, “is our office won’t consider it until the case is over because we can’t make it appear that we are doing it to gain favor for his testimony. . .”
On, August 25, 2014, the second and final preliminary hearing took place, and Lindsey and Rodriguez were bound over for trial, including for the extra, U Visa-friendly charges.
After the hearing, prosecutor Stennis updated Veronica Flores in a 10:41 AM email, telling her that the next step in the process was the arraignment, which would be held on September 8, 2014.
“OMG my brother has court on Thursday,” an upset Flores wrote back a few minutes later, at 11:36 AM. “is there any way you can at least give us a formal letter to show the judge that he is waiting on this case and that he has [cooperated*] with you guys?”
Stennis replied at 1:01 PM. He couldn’t put was they were doing in letter form, he wrote, because “it would appear I’m seeking favor with a witness,” he wrote, which could get him “in trouble.”
But if her brother could “tell the judge and if they contact me as professionals, I can answer their questions honestly.”
Roughly translated: as long as there wasn’t a paper trail, he’d be happy to tell whoever was necessary.
Pressure from the top
After the August 2014 preliminary hearing, Deputy Lindsey retained a new criminal attorney to defend him against the new charges set out in the amended felony complaint.
Now as the case was making its slow trek toward a jury trial, Lindsey’s new attorney, Kasey Sirody — who had spent a dozen years as a former senior deputy district attorney in Ventura County before going into private practice, and now is the executive director of a law enforcement union — met with prosecutor Stennis at his office “to review discovery in the upcoming criminal case.”
During her meeting, Sirody reportedly had a very startling conversation, which she would memorialize in a sworn declaration, a year later on October 14, 2015, well after Lindsey and Rodriguez went to trial, and were acquited.
The declaration reads in part:
During the time I represented Mr. Lindsey, I met with then prosecuting Deputy District Attorney Stennis at his office to review discovery.
At the above-mentioned meeting, we discussed the merits of the case and Stennis advised me that after the case was dismissed (it was dismissed and re-filed before the first preliminary hearing), his suggestion to his management was to not re-file the case based on lack of evidence. However, in Mr. Stennis’ words, “someone from the Sheriff’s Department came and had a meeting with my boss and I was told I would re-file the case.”[Note: Emphasis original to the declaration.]
After he told me that, I asked him how he could live with himself and how he would like it if someone did that to his own son. He agreed he would not like that, demonstrating to me that he understood the egregiousness of his actions.
I recall another incident where Mr. Stennis advised me that he had communicated (I believe by telephone) with Abraham Rueda’s sister one time.
I am certain that Stennis was very specific that it was only one time and he told me that he told her on that one occasion that he could not help her to help her brother stay in this country.
She was shocked to learn much later, she wrote, “that there was a multiple email exchange between the two regarding that topic as it is wholly inconsistent with his statement to me.”
In other words, if Sirody’s declaration is accurate, Stennis never wanted to bring charges against Lindsey and Rodriguez. But those above him told him he had no choice, a directive that came after a meeting with an unnamed representative from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
The secret deal comes to light
As for the fact of the email exchange between Stennis and Veronica Flores, that came to light by accident in the middle of the criminal trial of Rob Lindsey and Charles Flores, which occurred in mid-June 2015.
By that time, Stennis had left the DA’s Office to become a Superior Court Judge, and the prosecution was handed over to Gretchen Ford, another experienced and well-regarded prosecutor.
However, according to the lawsuit, Stennis did not tell Ford about his email conversations Veronica Flores. Nor did he let her know about the U Visa negotiation between Flores, Salgado, and the District Attorney’s Office although, according to the string of emails between Stennis and Flores, one or more higher-ups in the office were likely fully apprised.
We have not learned who in the sheriff’s department talked Stennis’s boss, or his boss’s boss, that resulted in the now-Judge Stennis working to prosecute a case that he reportedly never believed in.
On, June 11, 2015, the jury took less than three hours to acquit the two deputies of all charges.
Once the verdict had been announced, instead of rushing to get to their cars to avoid the press, as is usually the case, the jurors waited in the hallway outside Judge Renee Korn’s courtroom in the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center. Some of those who were present described how the jurors wanted to meet and talk with the two deputies, to tell them how convinced the panel had become of their innocence.
Seven of the jurors stayed still longer to take selfies and a group photo with Lindsey, Rodriguez, and their families.
During those minutes after the trial, when the jurors spoke to the deputies and their lawyers, jurors also reportedly said that a partial surveillance video from the Durango Bar parking lot, which the prosecution portrayed as central to its case, instead supported the accounts of Lindsey and Rodriguez. According to jurors, once they reviewed the video with extraordinary care, frame-by-frame, combined with Lindsey’s own testimony, the images supported acquittal.
“In all my years of practice, I’ve never had a jury do any of that,” said James Blatt, Rodriguez’s criminal attorney, when he described the jurors’ strong desire to wait to meet the defendants.
What does this all mean?
So does this story have a meaning beyond the fact that the two deputies have now gotten some monetary redress? If so, what?
According to attorney Ron Kaye, the most important part of the Lindsey/Rodriguez civil rights lawsuit has to do with making the district attorney accountable.
“What happened here,” said Kaye, is that the two deputies “had the good fortune to have an acquittal,” and the acquittal was grounded, he said, “in the fact that they were upstanding law enforcement officers.”
(Rodriquez was a war veteran and an experienced cop. Lindsey has been described as a potential star deputy—at least before the six-plus-years of legal battles. He was reportedly one of the standouts in his class in the training academy. His grandfather was in the sheriff’s department, his father was a commander. And, in 2013, when the charges were first announced, an LASD spokesperson said both deputies had an “exemplary service record.”)
But the case should also be a wake-up call, according to Kaye.
“Unfortunately, the failure of prosecutors to disclose exculpatory evidence to criminal defendants is not a rare occurrence.”
The rest of us only find out about it, said Kaye, after bad convictions are vacated 20 years later when the withheld exculpatory evidence finally sheds light on the truth of the matter.
In the case of Lindsey and Rodriguez, “thankfully the jury saw through the deception.”
But it could have been otherwise.
“That’s what this settlement symbolizes. You can’t play cloak and dagger with the evidence. The duty of the prosecution is to do justice. It’s not to win. It’s not to get convictions. You have to engage in the pursuit of justice.”
The Los Angeles District Attorney’s office, Kaye said, “didn’t do that in this case.”
The DA’s office had no comment on the settlement or the case, nor did the LASD. We tried to reach Judge Stennis through his attorney, but the attorney did not return our calls.
In his emails, Kevin Stennis repeatedly typed U Visa as “uvisa.” We put the correct spelling in brackets for purposes of readability, as was the case with some other typos in the Stennis/Flores email exchange. Yet all editorial changes are noted.