Returning to their office trailer at Lennox Station, the five Los Angeles County sheriff's narcotics deputies eyed the $5,000 bundles of cash stacked on the office couch.
Then their leader, Sgt. Robert R. Sobel, announced that the crew would skim some of the money they had just seized in a successful drug raid.
"Each crew member took a bundle off the couch and returned to their desks," Sobel told a federal court jury in recounting the 1986 incident.
As he described the alleged theft, Sobel used the same matter-of-fact tone that has marked his two weeks of testimony during the civil rights trial of six narcotics officers accused of stealing drug money, planting drugs on suspects and beating and torturing some of them.
One suspect was thrown down a flight of stairs, another was beaten unconscious with a flashlight and several others were nearly drowned in a motel hot tub as officers tried to extract information, Sobel said.
But defense attorneys quickly challenged his testimony.
"So much of this is made up," said attorney Lindsay Weston after one court session. "It's just Sobel's fantasy, pure fantasy."
For Weston's client--Deputy Roger R. Garcia--and the other defendants, whether the jury believes Sobel will be one of the key factors in determining the fate of the veteran officers.
In addition to Garcia, deputies John L. Edner, Edward D. Jamison, J.C. Miller, Robert S. Tolmaire and Los Angeles Police Department detective Stephen W. Polak were members of an anti-drug task force who worked with Sobel in the mid- to-late 1980s.
As members of the Lennox/Southwest Crew, they targeted both middle-level and major drug dealers. And as their supervisor, Sobel was a leader with a flamboyant nickname--El Diablo--and a hard-charging style that made his crew one of the most active drug enforcement teams in the Sheriff's Department and LAPD.
But Sobel told jurors that his team was lawless in its anti-drug crusade.
The 46-year-old Sobel testified that his officers tortured and beat drug dealers in an effort to coerce them into confessions or force them to become informants.
In one case, Sobel said Tolmaire slugged a handcuffed drug dealer so savagely with a flashlight that the man lapsed into unconsciousness. Fearful that he might be dead, Sobel said, one of the deputies--"It might even have been me"--grabbed the dealer by the testicles to make sure he wasn't feigning injury.
"After he jumped," Sobel said, "Tolmaire got angry and began beating him again."
On another occasion, Sobel said he watched as Miller took a running start, leaped in the air and landed "a body slam" on a handcuffed suspect lying face-down on the floor. The force was so violent, Sobel said, that "it shook the house."
The ex-sergeant also described how deputies allegedly took drugs that had been seized in one raid and used them to plant on other suspects. A plastic sandwich bag of cocaine was slipped into the purse of one drug dealer's wife, he said, and a kilogram of cocaine was planted in the bedroom of another home.
Other drugs, meanwhile, were taken from the evidence locker to be used as evidence in unrelated cases, he said.
Sobel testified that it was an "open secret" among crew members that Polak carried a stolen kilogram of cocaine in the trunk of his car for weeks waiting for an opportunity to plant it on someone. During one surveillance, he said, Polak showed him a plastic bag of cocaine in his jacket that he was going to plant in another dealer's car.
Sobel also testified that Edner shot at an unarmed drug dealer after a car chase, then concocted a story--backed by the rest of the crew--that it was the fleeing drug dealer who had fired on deputies.
Phony police reports and falsified search warrants were routine among crew members, Sobel said. In addition to lying about finding suspects with drugs, officers fabricated stories about "confidential reliable informants" buying drugs from suspects, he said, and they lied about conducting surveillance on suspected drug houses. Such information was used to obtain search warrants and justify raids, he said.
Sobel testified that, in one case, deputies needed a confidential informant to appear before a judge and support their request to search a drug dealer's house. Using an informant from another case, the deputies showed the man pictures of the dealer, fed him information about the dealer and then told the informant to say he bought drugs from the dealer, Sobel said. The informant lied to the judge, and the crew got their warrant.
During his testimony, Sobel rarely looked at his former colleagues, who sometimes shook their heads in disagreement as he spoke.
The former sergeant said that he freely took part in thefts, sometimes parceled out shares of stolen cash to his crew members and did nothing to stop the beatings of suspects or the planting of drugs. When internal investigators at the Sheriff's Department were probing brutality allegations against some members of his team, Sobel said, he told one officer that he would lie to investigators to protect the crew.
"I told him essentially that I would cover our butts when I was interviewed," Sobel told the jurors.
But Sobel also testified that when he tried to curb some of the illegal activities--out of fear of being caught or drawing attention to the crew--his subordinates sometimes ignored him.
After one drug raid, Sobel said, he was surprised to return to his car to find a bulge under a floor mat where one deputy had hidden stacks of stolen cash. At another raid, he said he saw Jamison stuff $10,000 into his raid vest, zip it up and then glare at Sobel.
Asked why he didn't stop the deputy from stealing, Sobel said he was paralyzed from acting because "everybody had dirt on everybody."
In all, Sobel testified that he received $40,000 as his share of the crew's thefts. But defense attorneys said the only officer soiled by corruption was Sobel, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy and tax evasion charges after he testified last year as a star witness against seven other deputies accused in the corruption scandal.
"This is a guy who admits he's a perjurer," said defense attorney Roger Cossack, who represents Tolmaire. "How do you know when he's telling the truth?"
Attorney David Wiechert, who represents Polak, opened the cross-examination of Sobel on Friday by challenging his motivation for testifying against Polak.
Wiechert handed Sobel a small photograph. The picture showed Sobel dancing with Polak's wife when both men were partners on the Southwest Crew.
The attorney then asked Sobel if he had sought an extramarital affair with Polak's wife, and Sobel acknowledged that he had.
Sobel also admitted that he had lied while testifying in dozens of criminal cases during the 10 years before he joined the Lennox/Southwest Crew, and that he later lied to supervisors to protect his illegal activities. Sobel also admitted that he had skimmed money long after he left the Lennox/Southwest Crew to join another team investigating major drug dealers.
"You are a very good perjurer, aren't you?" Wiechert asked Sobel.
"Yes, I am," Sobel replied.
Sobel testified that he had received $140,000 as a member of the Majors II team. And he said much of the money he stole went to buy cars, stocks, jewelry, a boat and other luxury items--even though those expenditures were risky because they threatened to draw attention to the thefts and jeopardize his family.
"So, your greed won out over your family?" Wiechert said. "That's true," Sobel answered.