Six Los Angeles County narcotics investigators accused of civil rights violations brutally beat drug dealers, routinely stole cash and valuables during raids and were protected by "a conspiracy of silence" in their ranks, a federal prosecutor charged Friday.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Michael Emmick said the five sheriff's deputies and one Los Angeles Police Department detective clubbed drug traffickers into confessions, planted cocaine to ensure their arrests and then lied in police reports and court.
"These are not bright-eyed cadets out of the academy, but hardened and experienced veterans, most having 10 years' experience working in the ghettos of Los Angeles," Emmick told jurors in his opening statement of the U.S. District Court trial in Los Angeles.
The six are accused in a 34-count indictment of civil rights violations, conspiracy to violate civil rights and theft. Several of the officers also are charged with income tax violations and one is charged with perjury before a grand jury.
The officers had worked together from 1985 through 1987 on a sheriff's anti-drug team known as the Lennox Crew and evolved into a multiagency task force named the Southwest Regional Distribution Crew.
With a mandate to investigate mid-level and major drug dealers, the officers crossed the line from law enforcement to law-breaking and their activities were prolonged by "a conspiracy of silence" among the crew members, Emmick said.
"Once they are in the conspiracy, they cannot get out of the conspiracy," he told jurors.
But defense attorneys for the officers scoffed at the government's claims and maintained their clients' innocence. They accused the federal government of weaving a fanciful case based on the tainted word of convicted drug dealers and a former sheriff's sergeant who turned government witness after admitting he participated in drug money thefts.
Attorney David Weichert, who represents LAPD Detective Stephen W. Polak, told jurors that the drug traffickers and former Sgt. Robert R. Sobel, who once commanded the Lennox and Southwest crews, have falsely accused officers. Instead, Weichert portrayed the accused officers as modern-day knights who worked in the most dangerous areas of the county while combatting violent gang members and narcotics traffickers.
"I don't want to sound hokey," Weichert told jurors, "but these (officers) were literally knights in LAPD blue and in sheriff's green."
The trial, which is the second to be heard in federal court since a money-skimming investigation began three years ago, is expected to last three months.
In addition to Polak, on trial are Sheriff's Sgt. Robert S. Tolmaire, 42, and Deputies J.C. Miller, 47; John L. Edner, 44; Roger R. Garcia, 45; and Edward D. Jamison, 41.
Attorney Lindsay Weston, who represents Garcia, said her client and the others had risked their lives on the job for years and were now being accused of crimes by drug dealers and gang members who "will become heroes or go up in estimation to their homeboys if they nail a cop."
But according to Emmick, prosecutors will provide evidence that the defendants began skimming money in 1985 during raids, he said. At first, the money was placed in a "kitty" to buy weapons and equipment the deputies needed. But soon, they were stealing cash and splitting the proceeds--with some getting $22,000 in one case--Emmick said.
In addition, they stole valuables, including fur coats, an $8,000 diamond ring, a generator, crystal figurines and a maroon, eelskin purse with $5,000 cash inside--all of which were found by investigators during raids on the deputies' homes.
Emmick told jurors that investigators also found thousands of dollars in "unexplained cash, deposits and expenditures" by some deputies, including $11,000 in Jamison's home that the prosecutor claimed was part of the stolen cash--a charge Jamison's attorney denied.
At one point, the prosecutor dramatically displayed a long, metal flashlight and two leather saps and told jurors they were similar to those used by the officers to beat drug suspects.
One drug dealer's jaw was broken in two places when he was struck with a flashlight or sap, Emmick said. Another suspect suffered a broken wrist trying to ward off blows from a sap and then was thrown down stairs, the prosecutor said. Still another handcuffed suspect was beaten so badly by Tolmaire that a neighbor called for help and shouted that an ambulance had been called, Emmick alleged.
"An ambulance?" the prosecutor quoted Tolmaire as saying. "You should have called the morgue."
Tolmaire's attorney, Roger Cossack, conceded that Tolmaire had struck Powell, but only after deputies found a loaded 9-millimeter gun in Powell's waistband and a full magazine clip in his pocket.
"Yes, Delanie Powell got beat, but it's because my client and these men did not want to go home in a body bag," Cossack said.
In addition to the alleged victims themselves, the government witness list includes friends and family members and others who will testify about the alleged beatings and thefts. But Emmick said the government's "most important witness" will be Sobel, who can give "the insider" account of the corruption in the Lennox and Southwest crews.
The star prosecution witness in the first money-skimming trial, Sobel has already pleaded guilty to conspiracy and tax evasion. Seven other deputies were convicted in that trial and are now serving time in prison.
Despite the results of that trial, defense attorneys indicated they were eagerly anticipating his appearance.
"The crux of the government's case against these peace officers is the testimony of the self-described devil himself," said Weichert of Sobel, whose nickname was "El Diablo."