In the end, the key was the murky black-and-white images on an undercover videotape shot by FBI agents in the penthouse suite of a Sherman Oaks hotel.
Jurors sitting in judgment on seven sheriff’s deputies charged with stealing money seized in drug raids had been bombarded for seven weeks with testimony from more than 200 witnesses and more than 1,000 pieces of physical evidence.
But here, before them on a television screen, was the blurry picture of the accused as they pulled bundles of marked cash from a tote bag belonging to undercover agents posing as drug dealers.
“How could you dispute the evidence from that videotape?” said juror Federico Silva, 59, a catering manager from Pico Rivera. “It was right in front of you. There was no doubt whatsoever . . . unless you’re a blind man.”
After seven days of deliberation, jurors on Monday convicted the six deputies of conspiring to steal the drug money and related counts. They found a seventh deputy guilty of trying to conceal income. Afterward, jurors said the videotape was a crucial piece of evidence, buttressed by financial records, a secret audio recording and the deputies’ inability to explain away their well-to-do lifestyles.
“The sting and the financial records were a big part of the decision,” said Peter Boor, 59, the jury foreman. “There was just a lot of money flying around.”
The weak link in the prosecution’s case, according to some jurors, was the testimony from a former sheriff’s sergeant, Robert Sobel, who turned against his co-workers and testified as the prosecution’s star witness. Sobel testified after pleading guilty to conspiracy and tax evasion.
The jury was hung on most of the specific theft charges that largely relied on Sobel’s word. They failed to reach a decision on 26 counts.
“We thought that the money was taken,” said juror Timothy Lynch, 43, an instruments engineer at Mobil Oil Corp.'s Torrance refinery. “We agreed on that. But there wasn’t that little piece of conclusive evidence.”
Several jurors said the panel leaned toward conviction on most of the deadlocked charges, and some of them came away from the seven-week trial with a more jaded view of law enforcement.
“Cases like this do open your eyes,” said one juror, who did not want to be identified. “All this information before you. It’s all kind of surprising. I’m disappointed to know that these guys would do something like this.”
In interviews with eight of the 12 jurors, it became clear that in all of the weeks of testimony and piles of evidence, an FBI videotape stood out as the most persuasive element. It stemmed from an Aug. 30, 1989, sting operation in which undercover investigators posed as drug dealers with a stash of $498,000.
The tape shows the deputies confiscating $450,000 in cash. The prosecution argued that the deputies skimmed $48,000 of the marked bills, some of which were found in the homes or property of four deputies.
Jurors said that when deliberations began there was unanimity on counts related to the videotaped sting. “If they didn’t have that tape,” said Lynch, “I don’t think they would have the verdicts they did have. . . . It proved a lot of stuff. . . . They (deputies) went into this, they found the money and they took it and then it shows up in everybody’s house.”
Also persuasive to the jurors was a secret audio recording, which captured the deputies as they gathered in a bar to watch a “Monday Night Football” game and commiserate about the money-skimming charges that had been filed against them.
The recording, which was later dubbed the “Monday Night Football tape,” was made with a microphone hidden on Sobel.
The voices on the tape could barely be heard over the barroom shouting and crackling static that obscured phrases and enveloped the conversation in an electronic buzz. The jurors listened to the recording twice, trying to sort out words, searching for some explanation from the deputies that would either clear them or point to their guilt.
“It’s like going to a movie twice,” Lynch said. “You see things or hear things that you didn’t hear the first time. There’s just little things in there.”
The first time he listened, the juror said, the accused “came across as being . . . people concerned with each other. Their houses had been searched. They were relieved of duty.”
On a second listening, Lynch became convinced that the meeting was an attempt to draft a cover-up story. “They weren’t there concerned over each other. They were all their concerned over their own butts. They were trying to find out where everybody stood.”
The jurors were split seriously on whether to believe Sobel, who had admitted in court to stealing his share of drug money and lying to cover the trail of wrongdoing by his elite crew of narcotics officers.
Boor, a project supervisor at Lockheed Corp., said he believed Sobel was an important part of the prosecution’s case, corroborating most of the other evidence and providing an inside look at the deputies’ activities.
Others were more wary. “The only part of Sobel’s testimony that I found credible was when he had something to back it up, whether it was physical evidence or someone else’s testimony,” said juror Dawn Hurtt, 26, a lab technician from Santa Maria.
Silva said a majority of the jury supported convicting the deputies on the specific theft counts that hinged on Sobel’s testimony.
“Most of them believed Sobel,” he said. “The feeling I received from my fellow jurors was that they felt the deputies were all guilty. I did not.”
Silva said he was even less persuaded by the parade of drug dealers and money launderers who also testified against the deputies.
“Let’s face it, they’re drug dealers,” Silva said. “They’re testifying because they can get a few years off their sentences.”
Despite the problems with the testimony from Sobel and the drug dealers, several jurors said they were convinced the prosecution demonstrated a pattern of money skimming that enriched the deputies, who purchased new cars, vacation homes and kept stashes of cash at home.
Juror Carol Varnes said she found the deputies’ explanation that they had saved the money by scrimping or had been given the money by relatives simply unbelievable.
“It didn’t strike me as believable at all,” she said.
For many jurors, the case unveiled a dark side of the war against drugs, shaking their confidence in law enforcement.
“To me it was an eye-opener,” said Lynch. “I’m upset that it could happen. They seemed to be awful loose in the way the money was handled. I think anybody would be tempted.”
Hurtt said she had to battle at times with her emotions. Sometimes, she felt sympathy toward the deputies; other times she became angry and viewed their crimes as a betrayal.
“I wished I didn’t have to sit on the case,” she said. “It was hard to watch them and just imagine them even doing some of the things that they were accused of doing.”
In the end, the decision was not difficult. “They stuck their fingers in the cookie jar,” the juror said, “and they got burned. It’s as simple as that.”
Times staff writers Darrell Dawsey and Hector Tobar contributed to this story.