Ex-L.A. Sheriff Lee Baca must pay $100,000 in jail beating verdict or face debtors court action

Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca must decide within a week whether to pay $100,000 in damages stemming from a civil lawsuit involving an inmate abuse case or face liens on his assets, an attorney for the inmate said Friday.                      

The money is part of a 2013 judgment handed down by a jury in a federal civil rights suit over injuries suffered at the hands of deputies by inmate Tyler Willis while he was housed in Men’s Central Jail in 2009. Punitive damages were assessed against Baca, three deputies and a captain.

During an appearance Thursday in federal court in Riverside, Baca said he would consult his wife about paying his portion of the judgment — $100,000 — and respond by next Friday, said Samuel Paz, an attorney for Willis. 

“Baca has to pay up or we will proceed to collect in debtors court,” Paz said. “If necessary we will go forward with proceedings to identify his assets and place liens to collect on the debt.”

The case is the first time Baca has been held personally liable for the conduct of sheriff’s deputies. The former sheriff currently faces separate federal charges of obstructing an investigation into jail beatings. Baca was the county’s top law enforcement officer for 15 years before he retired in 2014, amid a growing scandal over jailhouse abuse that eventually ensnared two dozen subordinates who were convicted on criminal charges.

Willis filed the lawsuit in 2010, alleging that deputies severely beat him while he was awaiting trial. He alleged he was punched, kicked and repeatedly shot with a Taser as well as struck “numerous times” in the ankle with a heavy metal flashlight, resulting in fractures and head injuries.

After a weeklong trial, the jury returned a verdict in Willis’ favor in 2013. They found that the conduct of deputies Anthony Vasquez, Mark Farino and Pedro Guerrero, then-Capt. Daniel Cruz and Baca had been “malicious, oppressive or in reckless disregard” of Willis’ rights. The defendants agreed to divide the $165,000 damage award.

At a hearing Thursday before U.S. Magistrate Judge David Bristow, three deputies agreed to pay $10,000 apiece and the now-retired sheriff’s captain agreed to provide $35,000 to settle their personal liability. Baca, however, requested a delay. 

Under state law, Los Angeles County could pick up the tab for Baca, but county supervisors have not taken up the issue, Paz said.

In court papers, an attorney for the county and Baca, Thomas C. Hurrell, said the county has not agreed to pay punitive damages for any of the defendants. Hurrell did not return calls seeking comment.

Paz said while he cannot place a lien on a Baca’s current $328,000 annual pension, he can seek a lien on assets in Baca’s bank account.

Such personal judgments against officials are rare, but not unique. In 1992, a federal jury found then-L.A. Police Chief Daryl F. Gates and nine officers liable for $44,001 in damages in connection with a deadly shooting. 

Federal prosecutors are slated to retry Baca following a recent mistrial over charges of conspiracy and obstructing an FBI investigation into the county’s jails. The judge in the case granted a request by the U.S. attorney’s office to include an additional charge of making false statements to federal authorities when the case is retried later this month. 

During the first trial, federal prosecutors sought to convince jurors that Baca played a central role in a scheme carried out by a group of subordinates to thwart an FBI investigation into abuses and corruption by sheriff’s deputies working as jailers. Baca’s lawyers countered he had been unaware of the ploy unfolding beneath him. All but one of the 12 jurors voted to acquit Baca. 

richard.winton@latimes.com

Twitter: @lacrimes

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