Six current and former members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department were found guilty Tuesday of obstruction of justice and other charges for their part in an alleged scheme to stymie a federal grand jury investigation into civil rights abuses and corruption in the county’s jails.
The verdicts come after a different jury failed to reach a verdict in May on whether a seventh deputy was guilty of obstruction on similar allegations. Jurors were split 6-6, dealing a blow to prosecutors in the first trial to arise out of the federal jails investigation, which has been ongoing since 2010.
Attorneys for that deputy, James Sexton, had highlighted how junior he had been in the department — a young deputy with just three years on the job.
The second trial involved deputies with more experience in addition to two sergeants and two lieutenants. But at trial they insisted they were only complying with orders from their superiors.
Attorneys repeatedly invoked former sheriff Lee Baca and then-undersheriff Paul Tanaka, alleging that they had been the driving force behind actions taken by the defendants after the department learned of the federal investigation.
Tuesday's verdict could have a bearing on prosecutors' decisions on whether to bring charges against higher-ranking members of the department -- they have acknowledged in court that Tanaka, as well as a current captain of the department, remain subjects in the still-open grand jury investigation. Tanaka is currently a candidate for sheriff, heading toward a November runoff.
Sheriff’s officials became aware of the federal investigation sometime in August 2011 after they discovered a cell phone on an inmate at Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles.
The phone had been smuggled to the inmate, who was a federal informant, by FBI agents through a corrupt deputy in exchange for a bribe. Anthony Brown, the inmate, was supposed to use the phone to corroborate claims of widespread abuse and corruption among deputies in the jails.
Prosecutors accused Lt. Gregory Thompson and deputies Gerard Smith and Mickey Manzo, upon learning the phone was linked to the FBI, of launching an elaborate effort to ensure federal agents couldn’t get to Brown. They moved him to a high-security floor with a camera, then to the infectious disease wing, then to the San Dimas substation while re-booking him under bogus names -- including Chris Johnson, a deputy’s fantasy football pick.
The name the department internally gave the plan -- “Operation Pandora’s Box” -- was telling, prosecutors repeatedly told jurors. It was, they argued, motivated by a desire to keep the department’s evils from spilling out into the world. Defense attorneys had a different explanation -- that Thompson, Smith and Manzo were working to protect Brown from the very abusive deputies he was informing on, as had been ordered by Baca and Tanaka.
Lt. Stephen Leavins, Sgts. Maricela Long and Scott Craig were part of the department’s Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau, which was tasked with investigating the cell phone and the corrupt deputy, Gilbert Michel. Michel pleaded guilty to bribery in 2012 and is facing a maximum 10-year sentence.
Prosecutors said statements made by the three in recorded interviews of witnesses, when they urged Brown, Michel and others not to cooperate with the FBI, amounted to witness tampering. They also said Long and Craig committed crimes by going out to the FBI agent’s home and threatening her arrest, and telling her a warrant would be issued, knowing it wasn’t true.
Long and Craig are each charged with a count of making false statements for allegedly lying to the agent and her supervisor.
Defense attorneys contended Leavins, Long and Craig were conducting a legitimate investigation arising from the many claims made by Brown, including that the FBI agents had also allowed for drugs to be smuggled into the jails -- which agents testified at trial was untrue.