In a move that could broaden a money-skimming investigation, an ex-narcotics officer with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department pleaded guilty Thursday to theft and income tax charges and told a federal judge that he and other deputies stole $235,000 during a 1986 narcotics raid.
Eufrasio G. Cortez, 41, who is serving a five-year prison term after his conviction in an earlier money-skimming case, said he pleaded guilty "after much soul-searching" and agreed to cooperate with government investigators.
"It's going to lead to more indictments and more convictions," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Steven M. Bauer of Cortez's cooperation in the 3 1/2-year investigation known as Operation Big Spender.
"It's going to assist our efforts to get to the bottom of police corruption both within the Sheriff's Department and without," Bauer said.
A 15-year veteran, Cortez was considered one of the department's most experienced and decorated narcotics officers until he became embroiled in a money-skimming scandal that has resulted in the conviction of 10 deputies, the indictment of 10 other officers and the suspension of more than 30 deputies.
Cortez now joins two other convicted former narcotics officers--Robert R. Sobel and Virgil Bartlett--who have pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against their former colleagues.
In his role as a money-laundering expert, Cortez had worked with officers from federal agencies and other law enforcement departments, as well as the Sheriff's Department. But prosecutors refused to comment on whether Cortez's cooperation means that investigators are looking at officers from other agencies.
Like Sobel and Bartlett, Cortez is expected to testify in the March 3 trial of three former narcotics officers who worked together on an elite sheriff's narcotics team known as Majors II.
The defendants--Tyrone Powe, Robert Juarez and Daniel M. Garner--are accused of stealing money during drug raids in 1986 and 1987. Garner's wife, Yhvona, also is charged with helping her husband launder the stolen cash. All have entered not guilty pleas.
Cortez's appearance in court Thursday was the first indication that he is cooperating with the government. It was disclosed in court that he had signed a plea agreement with prosecutors on Feb. 15.
Cortez told U.S. District Judge William J. Rea that he was not coerced into changing his plea, although prosecutors had threatened to indict him on additional charges and had subpoenaed the records of the attorney at his first trial--in an effort to determine the source of the legal fees that Cortez paid him.
"After a lot of soul-searching, I came to the government of my own accord and wanted to cleanse myself of my past deeds . . . and to start fresh," said Cortez.
In pleading guilty to theft, Cortez said he helped steal money that was found by deputies in December, 1986, during a drug raid in Marina del Rey. After booking a portion of the seized drug cash, Cortez said, he and the other officers shared $235,000 in skimmed money. In addition, he also pleaded guilty to failing to report his share of stolen money on his 1986 income tax form.
In exchange for the guilty pleas, prosecutors agreed to drop three other theft and money-laundering charges against Cortez.
Cortez, who faces a maximum of 13 years on the theft and tax charges and a $250,000 fine on each count, is scheduled to be sentenced June 8.