Ex-L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca has Alzheimer’s disease, but he still faces a 6-month prison term

Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, but  he nonetheless should serve time in prison for lying to federal investigators during a probe into jail abuses by sheriff’s deputies, the U.S. attorney’s office has concluded.

In a court filing released late Monday, Assistant U.S. Atty. Brandon Fox confirmed rumors about Baca’s health, writing that an expert on Alzheimer’s had evaluated the former sheriff for the government and verified the diagnosis.

Calling Baca “a study in contrasts” for his high achievements in office and the ethical failures that were his downfall, as well as “a physically fit 74-year-old who is able to function in his daily life,” Fox urged U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson to sentence Baca to six months in prison. Baca is scheduled to be sentenced next month.

The punishment, Fox wrote,  is  “appropriate after taking into account all sides of defendant Baca, including his crime, his current health and his likely prognosis.”

The suggested prison term stems from a deal Baca struck with prosecutors in February. Under the terms of the agreement, Baca pleaded guilty to lying to Fox and other officials during a long, voluntary interview he gave in 2013 about his knowledge of a scheme underlings carried out to obstruct an FBI investigation into corruption in the L.A. County jail system.

In pleading guilty, Baca admitted that he lied when he told federal authorities that he was unaware his subordinates were planning to approach the FBI agent leading the jail investigation at her home to threaten her with arrest.

And Baca agreed not to contest other allegations leveled by federal prosecutors, including that he directed subordinates to approach the agent, telling them that they should "do everything but put handcuffs" on her, the agreement said.

In exchange, prosecutors agreed not to pursue more serious charges against Baca and that he should spend no more than six months in prison.

Anderson, the judge, must still approve the deal. If he decides a six-month sentence is too lenient, Anderson would tell Baca before sentencing him. If that happens, Baca would have to choose whether to accept Anderson’s punishment or withdraw his guilty plea and take his chances with whatever charges the government might decide to bring.

In the new court papers, Fox said six months in prison was still appropriate despite the Alzheimer’s diagnosis, which came to light after the plea agreement was made.

Baca's cognitive impairment is "slight," Fox wrote, adding that there was no evidence his condition played a role in his lying to the FBI and that the interview took place a year before Baca first consulted a doctor about “memory issues.”

The physician who advised  the U.S. attorney’s office predicted his condition would not deteriorate significantly in coming months, Fox wrote. Forcing Baca to serve a prison term while his conditioned worsened badly would not serve justice, but six months in prison in the near future would do so, Fox told Anderson. The physician advised that the prognosis for Baca five or 10 years from now was “bleak.”

In justifying the call for Baca to spend time behind bars, Fox said stripping the former sheriff of his freedom would have a powerful deterrent effect on the law enforcement community.

“Instead of upholding the law, defendant Baca committed a crime by lying to the federal government. Baca’s actions showed that he believed he was above the law.”

Fox cited a defiant acceptance speech Baca made recently at a reception where he was given an award, where it was reported that he said, “I’ll stand on my record proudly, anywhere, whether it’s in the free world or in jail.”

Such comments, Fox found, “can be interpreted to mean that he still believes he is above the law and refuses to acknowledge the problems within the Los Angeles County jails.”

In a brief interview with The Times a few weeks ago, Baca said he could not comment about whether he had Alzheimer’s because of the ongoing court proceedings. He added that he was willing to take responsibility for his actions.

Baca’s attorney meanwhile asked Anderson to show leniency, requesting that the judge give Baca probation.

Michael Zweiback struck a decidedly remorseful tone, acknowledging in a court filing Monday that Baca “failed” the people he was elected to serve.

“His life’s work has ended in a large scale breakdown of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department at a time when he was its leader,” the attorney wrote.

However, Zweiback said, it would be unjust to let Baca’s failures at the end of his career completely overshadow his accomplishments running the department. In addition, Zweiback wrote, Baca’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s has left him in need of “consistent monitoring” and treatments that hope to slow the progress of the disease.

Baca, who ran the department for more than 15 years, retired in 2014 amid the FBI probe into misconduct and abuse by deputies in the county's jail system. So far, more than a dozen former sheriff's officials have been convicted as a result of the wide-ranging investigation, which began more than five years ago.

Prosecutors sought, and received, lengthier prison terms from Anderson for lower-level officers convicted in the obstruction case. And at his sentencing next week they are seeking five years behind bars for Baca’s former second in command, Paul Tanaka, who was convicted in April.

In his filing, Fox went out of his way to explain why Baca did not deserve such a harsh punishment, saying he had far less culpability than the others and that he should be credited for admitting his crime.

Reports that Baca might be suffering from Alzheimer’s were first reported by the blog Witness L.A. last month.

joel.rubin@latimes.com

Twitter:@joelrubin

Times staff writer Cindy Chang contributed to this report.

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UPDATES:

12:03 p.m.: This story was updated with a correction on June 30.

7:45 p.m.: Updated with additional details from court filing.

6:46 p.m.: This story was updated with Baca interview, background.

This story originally published at 6:38 p.m.

This article said that defiant comments by Sheriff Lee Baca were made by him during an acceptance speech at a reception where he was given an award. Baca made those comments, which were summarized in a court filing, in an interview he gave to the Jewish Journal after his speech.
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