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Orders came 'all the way from the top,' former deputies say in trial of ex-Sheriff Lee Baca

Two ex-Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies who have been convicted of obstructing an FBI civil rights investigation into the county jails told a federal jury on Friday that they believed they were following orders from former Sheriff Lee Baca.

The witnesses said they were directed to guard an inmate informant who had been cooperating with the federal government. Prosecutors allege that the Sheriff’s Department hid the inmate from the FBI as part of a conspiracy to obstruct the agency’s investigation into allegations of corruption and abuse by jail deputies.

Jurors will soon have to decide whether Baca, 74, was also involved in the conspiracy and committed obstruction of justice, charges that could send him to prison for years if he is convicted.

Ex-Deputy Mickey Manzo, who is scheduled to begin serving a two-year sentence next month, testified about the steps he took to remove inmate Anthony Brown from a scheduled custody transfer to state prison, keeping him instead in Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles. Deputies were tasked with guarding Brown after discovering him with a cellphone that had been smuggled in by FBI agents as part of an undercover sting.

“Why did you keep him?” Assistant U.S. Atty. Brandon Fox asked.

“We were ordered to,” Manzo said.

“By whom?” the prosecutor asked. 

“The sheriff,” he replied.

Manzo recalled that during a briefing about the inmate and the FBI investigation, Baca and his second in command, then-Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, stepped out to have a private conversation. Tanaka came back into the room and said he had never seen the sheriff so upset, Manzo told jurors. 

“We know what he wants done, and we’re going to do it for him,” he quoted Tanaka as saying.

Under cross-examination, Manzo said that Tanaka was furious in briefings about the inmate, using one expletive after another about the FBI. Baca, he said, had a much calmer reaction when he found out that FBI agents had been allowed to interview Brown in the jail.

Manzo was followed on the witness stand by former Deputy James Sexton, who has served four months of an 18-month sentence at a federal prison in Alabama. 

Wearing an oversized white prison jumpsuit and bright orange shirt, and shackled at the ankles, Sexton said his fellow deputies repeatedly told him that orders about how to handle Brown came “all the way from the top.”

“Who did you understand that to mean?” Fox asked. 

“Deputy [Gerard] Smith and Deputy Manzo said they had briefed Sheriff Baca and Undersheriff Tanaka,” he said.

Defense attorney Tinos Diamantatos pressed Sexton about whether he had told the FBI in prior interviews that it was Tanaka, not Baca, who was giving the orders. 

“Was it your understanding that Mr. Tanaka was running the show?” the lawyer asked. 

“That’s a myopic perspective,” Sexton replied. “No, sir.”

Jurors also heard Friday from Cecil Rhambo, a retired assistant sheriff who said he walked into Baca’s office one evening when the sheriff was working late. Baca, he recalled, seemed dismayed by the federal investigation. 

“They committed a crime by bringing in this phone. Why couldn’t they just talk to me?” Rhambo quoted Baca as saying. 

“Don’t F around with the feds,” Rhambo said he warned Baca. “They’re not going to cooperate with us. We’re the suspects.”

Rhambo was not accused of obstructing the FBI.

Testimony in Baca’s trial is expected to resume Tuesday.

victoria.kim@latimes.com

For more news on the federal trial of former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, follow me on Twitter: @vicjkim

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