The deputy described beating inmates unprovoked, slapping them, shooting them with a Taser gun and aggressively searching them to pick a fight — something he learned "on the job." He would huddle with other jail guards to get their stories straight and write up reports with bogus scenarios justifying the brutality. If the inmate had no visible injuries, he wouldn't report the use of force, period.
He did all this with impunity, former Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Gilbert Michel testified Tuesday, knowing that even if inmates reported the abuse it "wouldn't go anywhere." If they were to put it in writing and drop it in a complaint box, it was his fellow deputies who opened that box too.
Michel, 40, took the stand at the obstruction of justice trial of six sheriff's officials accused of impeding a federal civil rights investigation into allegations of excessive force at L.A. County jails. His decision to smuggle a cellphone to an inmate in exchange for a bribe in August 2011 — an undercover FBI operation, unbeknownst to Michel — led to the Sheriff's Department finding out about the federal investigation and, prosecutors say, set into motion a conspiracy to frustrate the inquiry. None of the defendants on trial — two lieutenants, two sergeants and two deputies — is accused of civil rights violations or excessive force.
Michel, the first sheriff's deputy to be charged in the wide-reaching, ongoing investigation, faces a maximum of 10 years in prison after pleading guilty in 2012 to a count of bribery and agreeing to cooperate with federal prosecutors. He has not been charged with crimes relating to his admitted uses of excessive force.
From the witness stand, Michel, broad-shouldered with short-cropped hair, described a culture among deputies guarding the high-security floors of the jails that led to excessive force and frequent coverups. He matter-of-factly recounted incidents in which he said he and at least five other sheriff's employees brutalized inmates on the third, or "3000," floor of Men's Central Jail, then falsified reports to legitimize their actions.
In one incident, Michel said, he asked an inmate routine questions during a search, but was rebuffed.
"I don't have to talk to you," he recalled the inmate saying. "Talk to my lawyer."
As the inmate was walking back into his cell, another deputy told Michel he was being disrespected, saying "He's laughing at you," the former deputy testified.
Michel said he called the inmate back out into the hallway and told him to face the wall. He told the inmate to spread his legs — and when he didn't, Michel said, he kicked the inmate's leg to make him buckle, grabbed the back of his neck and shoved his face into the wall. He did it to provoke a fight and justify a beating, the former deputy said.
"Was that something you learned on the job … on the 3000 floor?" Assistant U.S. Atty. Lizabeth Rhodes asked.
"Yes," Michel responded.
Michel and the other deputy fought the inmate and eventually handcuffed him, then the other deputy sprayed the inmate with pepper spray, he said. They took the inmate to the clinic for his injuries, then Michel wrote up a report in which he made up a claim that he had seen the inmate passing drugs through the bars, and that the inmate had called him a homophobic slur during the search.
In the summer of 2011, where Vermont Avenue meets the 105 Freeway, a man in another car pulled up so his driver's side window lined up with Michel's, and he handed the deputy a cellphone and a sunglasses case stuffed with cash.
A few weeks later, as Michel arrived home from work, he was confronted by FBI agents. They showed a video recording of him taking the bribe — in exchange for which he had smuggled the phone to a county jail inmate. The inmate was an FBI informant, and Michel had fallen for a sting. Now, they wanted his cooperation in getting information about excessive force and other corruption by deputies in the jails.
In the following days, Michel was interviewed by internal Sheriff's Department investigators, who told him that the smuggling of the phone wasn't a big deal and that he was being blackmailed by the FBI — statements that prosecutors say was part of the department's alleged effort to impede the federal investigation.
Sgt. Scott Craig, one of the defendants in the trial, told Michel in a recorded interview played for jurors Tuesday that he was angry. "We're all part of this department and we're all one big happy dysfunctional family, and … they're going to … manipulate you like you're a puppet? I don't think so," Craig said.
By the end of the interview, Lt. Stephen Leavins, also a defendant, asked Michel to consider: "What's this about? Open your mind up here a little bit."
"It's about, they're trying to bring down the department and find out information," Michel responded.
"Who are they trying to use to do that?" Leavins asked.
"Me, sir," Michel said.
Michel resigned from the department the following month, in lieu of being fired. He is expected to resume his testimony Wednesday.