A federal court jury will begin deliberations today in the money-skimming trial of seven Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies after hearing prosecutors denounce the defendants as corrupt narcotics officers and defense attorneys argue that the government had failed to prove any thefts had occurred.
The deputies, who investigated major narcotics traffickers and money launderers, are accused of stealing more than $1.4 million in drug money in a corruption scandal that has shaken the nation’s largest Sheriff’s Department.
In closing seven weeks of testimony and legal arguments, Assistant U.S. Atty. Thomas A. Hagemann told jurors Thursday in a Los Angeles courtroom that the deputies had betrayed the public by skimming money during drug raids and spending it on cars, boats, vacation homes, stocks and other luxuries.
“Ultimately, this isn’t a case about money. . . . It’s a case about trust and the people we trusted,” Hagemann said.
Defense attorneys, however, charged that prosecutors themselves were dependent upon the testimony of convicted drug dealers and an admitted perjurer, former Sheriff’s Sgt. Robert R. Sobel, to build their case against his former narcotics officers.
“This is the person the government wants you to embrace and wants you to believe,” defense attorney Terrence A. Roden told jurors as he pointed to Sobel’s picture. “He is the one the government has embraced and made its star witness.”
In addition to the testimony of Sobel, who has pleaded guilty in the case, and the drug traffickers, prosecutors are supporting their case by relying on the videotape of an FBI sting, a secret recording made by Sobel of several deputies and financial records that purportedly show “vast, outlandish expenses” by deputies.
Some of the deputies, in turn, have testified that any additional income to pay for expenditures came from inheritances, gifts, outside jobs, legal gambling and other legitimate sources.
Roden, who represents Deputy Macario M. Duran, did concede Thursday that his client had failed to report $88,500 in cash on his 1988 tax return. But the attorney said that cash came from a beauty salon business owned by Duran’s wife, not from drug money.
That distinction is important for Duran and several other deputies who face tax evasion charges in the 27-count indictment. Because of the way the indictment reads, U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie instructed jurors that they must be convinced “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the unreported income comes from stolen drug money--and not merely from some other source--to satisfy the tax evasion charge.
“There are some serious tax problems that have to be dealt with,” Roden told jurors. “But that’s not this trial.”
Another defense attorney, Harland Braun, contended that prosecutors also failed to show that his client, Deputy Daniel M. Garner, had used stolen currency in his cash purchases. “Not a scrap of cash (was) traced to any thefts,” Braun said.
Other defendants include deputies Terrell H. Amers, James R. Bauder, Eufrasio G. Cortez, Ronald E. Daub and John C. Dickenson.
The defendants face an assortment of charges, including conspiracy, tax evasion, theft, money-laundering and extortion. If convicted, they face prison sentences ranging from 13 to 128 years and fines amounting to $3.6 million.
In calling for convictions, Hagemann urged jurors to use their common sense to explain why some deputies started spending freely after drug money had been seized in raids and why two stopped withdrawing cash from their banks altogether once the seizures began.
As his closing argument ended, Hagemann picked up a customized revolver confiscated from Garner’s home and showed jurors its ivory handle with a replica of a $100 bill, a sheriff’s badge, and “Federal Reserve Bank of Bogota, Colombia” inscribed on it.
“This is not a gun of a straightforward, honest police officer doing an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay,” he said. “It’s the gun of a corrupt, dishonest officer getting rich off our country’s effort to win the drug war.”