Sheriff’s Witness Rule Called Intimidation : Courts: Defense lawyer in money-skimming trial of deputies says the department deters workers by ordering them to notify superiors of plans to testify for colleagues.
In what defense attorneys claim is an attempt to intimidate witnesses, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has warned its employees that they must notify the department if they plan to appear on behalf of suspended deputies on trial for alleged money skimming.
A teletype sent two months ago to sheriff’s stations told deputies to inform their superiors of any plans to testify for the former members of a Lennox-based anti-narcotics crew who are defendants in a federal court case.
The memorandum was disclosed Monday during the first day of testimony in the trial of five deputies and a Los Angeles Police Department detective accused of beating drug dealers, stealing cash and planting cocaine on suspects over a three-year period.
The defendants hope to call a number of witnesses on their own behalf, including current members of the Sheriff’s Department. But attorney Larry Bakman, who represents Deputy John L. Edner, said the department message has had a “chilling effect” on prospective witnesses.
The other defendants are Sheriff’s Sgt. Robert S. Tolmaire, LAPD Detective Stephen W. Polak and deputies Roger R. Garcia, Edward Jamison and J. C. Miller. All had worked, at one time or another between 1985 and 1987, on an anti-narcotics team that began as the Lennox station crew and evolved into a multi-agency task force in southwest Los Angeles.
It was Edner’s attorney who introduced the typewritten “Sheriff’s Department broadcast” into evidence at the trial.
Labeled an announcement from detective division headquarters, the memorandum carried Sheriff Sherman Block’s name at the conclusion. It warned employees that if they were subpoenaed to testify or planned to testify voluntarily for any suspended deputies, they had a “duty” to inform their supervisors.
“The trial for the former members of our Narcotics Bureau/Southwest Task Force is scheduled to commence in the near future,” the teletype began. “Personnel who intend to testify for the defense during this trial are reminded . . . (to) notify his unit commander as soon as possible.”
The announcement went on to say that upon receiving that information, the unit commander would immediately notify the investigating officers and federal attorneys. The memorandum said such a requirement was part of the department’s policy manual.
But a Sheriff’s Department witness testified Monday that he was not aware of any other instance when such an announcement had been sent.
Lt. Robert Harris, who was the lead investigator in the investigation of the Lennox/Southwest crews, said he took part in drafting the memorandum and acknowledged that it was sent, in part, because sheriff’s officials were concerned that deputies would testify for their suspended colleagues.
“Was that a means of intimidation to deter deputies from testifying for their friends?” Bakman asked.
“Absolutely not,” Harris replied.
“How many times have you seen such a memorandum generated in your 18 years in the department?” Bakman asked.
“In my 18 years? None,” answered Harris, who was the first government witness to take the stand. His testimony will resume today.
Asked about the memorandum, Sgt. Robert Stoneman, a sheriff’s spokesman, said the department would have no comment on trial testimony.
Several deputies testified for the defense in the first money-skimming trial against deputies. Despite that testimony, all seven defendants were convicted.
Two ex-deputies convicted during that trial--Eufrasio G. Cortez and Daniel M. Garner--were indicted last month on additional theft charges. Three Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies also were indicted at the same time and arraigned on Monday.
Deputies Virgil Bartlett, Robert Juarez and Tyrone Powe pleaded not guilty to allegations that they joined Cortez and Garner in stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars during drug raids while members of a narcotics investigation team in the late 1980s.
Garner’s wife, Yhvona, also pleaded innocent on Monday to money-laundering and tax charges.
Both Daniel Garner and Cortez are expected to be arraigned next week.