Federal agents were secretly investigating "dozens, if not hundreds" of allegations of violent beatings and other abuses by deputies at L.A. County jails when they decided to smuggle a phone in to a cooperating inmate to corroborate those claims, an FBI agent testified Wednesday.
Inmates claimed deputies were assaulting them, staging "gladiator-type" fights and sometimes filming them, allowing inmates to enter other inmates' cells to attack one another, and smuggling in contraband in exchange for bribes, FBI Special Agent David Dahle said. The alleged incidents, he said, were concentrated on two high-security floors of Men's Central Jail and the mental health wards of Twin Towers Correctional Facility.
Despite the volume of claims, agents knew the allegations would be challenging to corroborate, Dahle testified.
"When your main victims are inmates and potentially the defendants are law enforcement, it's difficult to prove those cases when your victims are seen by many as inherently untrustworthy," he said.
The agent's testimony came in the trial of six sheriff's deputies who face obstruction of justice and conspiracy charges for allegedly attempting to foil the FBI's investigation by hiding the inmate informant and threatening an FBI agent, Dahle's colleague. Prosecutors have previously disclosed during another deputy's trial that the federal grand jury investigation into civil rights abuses and corruption at the jails, which has resulted in more than 20 arrests, is ongoing.
As part of the investigation, authorities have charged eight deputies and a sergeant in three separate cases with civil rights violations over alleged incidents of excessive force against inmates and visitors and the ensuing coverup. Those trials are pending.
By the time he was assigned to the investigation in August 2011, Dahle said, the FBI had come up with a recourse for the problem of inmates' credibility: Through a corrupt deputy, they supplied an informant, Anthony Brown, with a cellphone to document use of force incidents and report them to his FBI handlers in real time.
But within a couple of weeks, before Brown recorded any incidents, deputies found the phone during a routine search. Soon, they also discovered Brown had been in contact with the FBI's civil rights squad.
"I know you're working with the feds, dude.... No more beating around," Deputy Gerard Smith, one of the defendants, told Brown in an interview, a recording of which was played for jurors Wednesday.
"How do you know I'm not a federal agent?" Brown asked in response.
"I don't," Smith replied.
Prosecutors allege that in the recorded interviews of Brown, which took place while the deputies were keeping him hidden in the system and away from the FBI, the defendants' motivations to keep federal authorities out of the jails become clear.
"You clean your backyard, or you want the feds to clean it? Because if the feds clean it … I'm gonna tell you now, they're gonna clean house," Brown told deputies Smith and Mickey Manzo, also charged in the case. "They're gonna come through that front door, M16s and all that."
"Someone's already here. This is my house," Smith said, pounding on the table. "If someone's coming to my house to clean it up, they better … knock on my door first."
A few days later, Dahle, along with two other agents, arrived at Men's Central Jail to interview Brown and find out what happened with the phone. About an hour in, a sergeant barged into the room and started shouting at them and took Brown away, Dahle testified.
Concerned that their operation had been compromised, the agents decided to accelerate their investigation, he said.
That same afternoon, Smith, Manzo and Lt. Stephen Leavins sat down to question Brown once more. The deputies told Brown they would move him to a station jail for his own protection, and to allow him to smoke cigarettes — something the inmate demanded before he told them more about the federal investigation.
"You're not gonna kill me are you?" Brown said in the recorded interview. "I've been watching too much TV."
Brown told the deputies he had reported more than 50 excessive force incidents to federal agents.
It was after that day, prosecutors allege, that the defendants launched into their conspiracy to obstruct the federal investigation by booking Brown under a string of bogus names, moving him from jail to jail and threatening a federal agent with an arrest warrant that had already been denied by a local judge.
"Is this some form of turf war going on between the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department and the FBI?" Assistant U.S. Atty. Brandon Fox asked Dahle, raising an argument that had been made by several of the defense attorneys.
"No. We heard numerous allegations of misconduct by deputies," he said. "It looked like there was a pattern and practice."