Peering through the peephole of his room at the Valley Hilton Hotel, Sheriff’s Sgt. Robert Sobel surveyed the empty corridor. The drug dealer who had occupied the penthouse suite across the hallway was nowhere in sight.
Sobel nodded to his narcotics deputies, Dan Garner and Jim Bauder. The officers slipped outside, spotted a hotel maid and flashed their badges. She opened the penthouse door. A few minutes later, the deputies returned to Sobel’s room with a gym bag. Stuffed inside were three bundles of cash totaling $30,000.
It was not the first time that members of Sobel’s crew ripped off money from a drug dealer, but this time there was a difference. A hidden video camera had captured their every move.
Meanwhile, in another hotel several miles away, Sheriff’s Cmdr. Roy Brown stood with a telephone pressed to his ear, listening intently as an FBI agent described what was happening. What he heard electrified him.
“They took money!” Brown reported to a group of investigators clustered around him. “They took money on tape!”
The news caused little celebration. Many, like Brown, were sheriff’s deputies still hoping that allegations of corruption in the narcotics bureau were untrue. For others, it was a signal of what lay ahead. “Strap yourself in,” said Assistant U.S. Atty. Thomas Hagemann, whose job would be to prosecute the deputies. “We’re in for a helluva ride.”
Indeed, that trip through one of the worst corruption scandals in local law enforcement history has been tumultuous. So far, it has lasted nearly five years--beginning with an anonymous tip in 1988, followed by the undercover sting and culminating in more than 10 criminal trials in state and federal court.
In all, 19 former sheriff’s deputies and half a dozen of their relatives and friends have been convicted. Another dozen ex-narcotics officers are awaiting trial or retrial on charges stemming from the money-skimming probe. And it is still not over.
In recent months, several current or former deputies have been indicted, and the ongoing probe not only has snared members of the major anti-drug teams at the Sheriff’s Department but also has implicated deputies on smaller station crews. Federal prosecutors say more indictments may be forthcoming.
“The investigation is still ongoing, and we are going to follow it to its natural conclusion,” said U.S. Atty. Terree A. Bowers.
When that conclusion will come is uncertain. But in the aftermath of Operation Big Spender, it is clear that the fallout already has resulted in severe repercussions for the drug enforcement community:
* Defendants in six state court cases have been freed, had their sentences reduced or had criminal charges dismissed because deputies involved in their arrests were implicated in the money-skimming scandal. Included was the dismissal of charges against a Sylmar man who was caught holding 862 pounds of cocaine for the Medellin cartel.
* In one major federal drug case, a convicted narcotics dealer serving a 20-year term was released from prison early and had additional charges dropped because of tainted evidence supplied by sheriff’s deputies.
* Some of the most effective drug-investigative teams in the Sheriff’s Department were dismantled in the wake of the scandal, leading to a sharp drop in the amount of drugs and money seized by narcotics officers. The amount of drug cash seized by deputies plunged from $10.1 million in 1989 to $863,000 in 1991, before rebounding to $4.7 million last year.
* The Big Spender probe cost the financially strapped Sheriff’s Department more than $8 million in salaries, overtime and other costs, with much of the money coming from the agency’s dwindling share of forfeited drug funds.
* Undercover techniques in drug investigations were disclosed during the trials of narcotics officers, prompting some law enforcement officers to fear that the public discussion would hamper future investigations against drug traffickers and money launderers.
* The credibility of local narcotics officers was shaken in the wake of admissions by some deputies that they lied on search warrants, planted cocaine and perjured themselves to strengthen the evidence against drug suspects.
“The ramifications of this case have been enormous,” said a federal narcotics agent who has worked with sheriff’s deputies and asked not to be identified. “All narcotics officers, not just the sheriff’s, have been undermined by this case, and we’re still trying to recover.”
Still, it is the reputation of the 8,000-officer Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department that has been hit the hardest, although officials adopted a series of reforms aimed at preventing a recurrence of the thefts.
Where they once enjoyed the benefit of the doubt, some deputies are now encountering skepticism from judges, jurors, prosecutors and others in the judicial system.
“I had had nothing but respect for law enforcement officers,” said Hagemann, the ex-prosecutor who is now in private practice in Houston. “But all of a sudden we’re talking about a topsy-turvy world, and my views of officers changed real fast.”
The Big Spender cases also saw a reversal of roles: Drug dealers testified as government witnesses against the very cops who had arrested them. And even the staunchest of law enforcement officials were moved to apologize for disbelieving drug dealers who had complained earlier that they had been victimized by deputies.
“This may be a terrible thing to say,” said Sheriff Sherman Block, “but as we got into this thing, it became obvious that the stories being told by the crooks were more credible than the stories told by our officers.”
One of those theft stories surfaced in the waning days of August, 1989. A defendant in a federal drug case accused narcotics deputies of stealing more than $100,000 during a raid. When the prosecutor relayed news of the allegation to his supervisors, he was told to keep the information confidential. Investigators already were on the verge of obtaining evidence against the narcotics officers--and that evidence would come from the videotaped sting.
The undercover operation at the Valley Hilton had climaxed nearly six months of investigation. And on the morning after the sting, more than 20 sheriff’s investigators, federal agents and prosecutors gathered in the Sunland home of a task force deputy to watch the incriminating videotape.
On the television screen, they saw the flickering black and white image of the “drug dealer"--actually an undercover FBI agent--exiting the hotel room and leaving behind $480,000 in a garment bag. A short time later, two plainclothes officers are seen entering the room, finding the money and stuffing three bundles into a gym bag.
As they watched the video, several sheriff’s investigators looked pained. One took her coffee mug outside and sat alone on the patio. “Maybe I was a Pollyanna,” she said later, “but I didn’t think it would end like this.”
That ending was actually only the beginning.
Within hours, search warrants were prepared, and teams of officers were recruited to meet before dawn in the ballroom of a San Gabriel Valley hotel. More than 100 strong, they were sheriff’s deputies, local police officers, FBI agents, IRS agents and SWAT team members equipped with protective vests and high-powered rifles. It was the start of the Labor Day weekend, and none of the officers were aware that their targets were narcotics deputies. They were only told to wait for further orders.
The delay was prompted by one more gambit: Investigators wanted to isolate one of the narcotics deputies and try to persuade him to cooperate. They decided that Bauder--the son of a sheriff’s lieutenant and a deputy with a stellar record--was the most likely candidate. On a pretext, a meeting was arranged at a hotel near Bauder’s home. Bauder was ushered into a room, and the videotape of the sting operation was played, showing Bauder and Garner taking money from the hotel room. Bauder was quick to deny wrongdoing. He insisted that he had removed the money only to preserve evidence. He refused to cooperate with the investigation and asked to see his union attorney.
A short time later, investigators searched the homes of all nine members of the Majors Two team, which handled some of the largest drug cases. Soon, agents and deputies were returning to the hotel ballroom with boxes of receipts, financial records and other documents. The deputies’ calendar books--known as Red Books--were seized, as were jewelry, weapons and other property believed to have been purchased with stolen money.
Investigators also came back with tens of thousands of dollars. In Whittier, agents discovered nearly $13,000 in sting money at Deputy Ronald Daub’s home. In Garden Grove, a similar amount was found in a briefcase in the home of Deputy Nancy Brown. In Chatsworth, agents found more than $6,000 in a shaving kit at the home of Deputy John Dickenson--half of it marked money from the sting.
At the Chino Hills home of Eufrasio G. (Al) Cortez, agents found $14,000--but no sting money. A confident Cortez assured investigators that he could explain the cash and had nothing to hide. As investigators searched his home, Cortez coolly answered pager calls as part of his undercover assignment--until, like the other deputies, he was relieved of duty. Only years later would he acknowledge that he had stashed another $20,000 in stolen drug money behind a plywood wall in his garage.
The investigators failed to find that cash, and they also overlooked $12,000 in sting money that Sobel had placed in a secret compartment inside his desk--money he later flung into the Long Beach Marina.
By then, word had spread about the massive searches of deputies’ homes. The media were on the story, and Block called a news conference to disclose the corruption probe and announce the suspension of all nine Majors Two officers. Providing few details, the sheriff never mentioned the anonymous letter that had first alerted authorities. Instead, he said the investigation began after information was developed “during the conduct of one of our internal audits.” He also reassured the public that the corruption involved “a very small number” of officers.
That small number, however, was about to multiply.
Later that day, Sobel’s lawyer, Mark Beck, placed a call to the U.S. attorney’s office. The former federal prosecutor knew that the first person through the door would strike the best deal with the government--and he was determined to do just that.
Hagemann was not in his office to take Beck’s call. When he returned, the prosecutor greeted the message with mixed feelings. He had anticipated that one of the deputies would seek a deal with the government, but he had not expected it to be the team’s leader. Hagemann alerted his supervisor, and they decided not to return the call. They would wait to see if anyone else would call over the weekend.
Beck, however, called again on Labor Day and found Hagemann working in his office. The two attorneys spoke for a while before reaching an agreement: Sobel would meet with federal prosecutors and investigators the following day at a Century City hotel room. As part of the deal, no sheriff’s officials would be present because Sobel did not trust them. But he would talk about the money-skimming, and prosecutors would consider granting him leniency for his cooperation.
Hagemann was curious about the sergeant whom he knew as a brash, aggressive crew chief called “El Diablo.” But what he saw the next day was a different Robert Sobel.
Seated in the room was a nervous, stocky man in a blue suit. He appeared emotionally spent and heavily medicated. He nervously chewed the skin on his fingers and chain-smoked Winston cigarettes. He would interrupt himself with bouts of weeping, but he laid out a story that astonished investigators.
Sobel said the Valley Hilton theft was only the tip of the corruption inside the narcotics bureau. There was widespread money-skimming among drug deputies, he said, and it had been going on for some time. Over the years, Sobel himself had received as much as $150,000 in stolen cash as his portion of skimmed drug money. And the corruption extended beyond thefts into other misconduct, he said. Beyond Majors Two to other narcotics units.
According to notes taken that day by FBI agent Robert Hightower, there were 10 people listening to Sobel. And as Hightower furiously jotted on his yellow legal pad, it was obvious that Sobel was eager to help authorities. “Bring files,” Sobel told his interrogators. “I’ll name names.”
In that interview and in dozens of subsequent sessions, Sobel did just that--naming names, recounting incidents and describing a pattern of corruption in the Sheriff’s Department that he claimed dated back to his days at the academy. He spoke of seeing a deputy stuff a wad of $100 bills inside his raid vest, of watching deputies move evidence to bolster cases and of working in an atmosphere where “everyone wanted to get to majors” because those narcotics units handled the big-money cases.
For the first time, the federal authorities also heard about the “code of silence” from a deputy who appeared reluctant to break the unwritten rule and inform on his fellow officers. “The code walked into the room with Bob Sobel,” Hagemann recalled, “and you could see him fighting the fact that he was now a rat.”
When Sobel was done, task force officials were eager to protect their prize informer. They decided to move Sobel and his family out of their Westminster home and safeguard his identity. Sobel eventually agreed to repeat his story to the department’s own investigators. Then, he agreed to do more than talk.
He recorded telephone conversations with other deputies. And when some of his crew members asked him to meet them at a Pomona restaurant to watch Monday Night Football, Sobel wore a transmitter to allow FBI agents to monitor their conversation. Joining him were Daub, Garner and Bauder, and the primary topic of conversation was the money-skimming investigation.
“You tell me how can they corroborate any of it,” Bauder said, “without some other deputy gets up there . . .”
One of the deputies interrupted him, agreeing that the government needed an informant.
“Ain’t gonna happen,” said Bauder, the deputy who earlier had refused to cooperate.
Unbeknown to his colleagues, however, Sobel had already turned.
Armed with information from Sobel and other evidence, investigators launched raids on the homes and businesses of two dozen narcotics officers. The second wave of sweeps signaled an expansion of the investigation and threw the sheriff’s narcotics bureau into turmoil and fearful speculation. In a special meeting with his narcotics officers, Chief of Detectives Ollie Taylor told his deputies that the majors teams were being disbanded and officers were being sent to different substations. Surveying the room, Taylor said the probe would be extensive and added an ominous oath: None of the guilty would escape. “We’re going to get every one of you,” he said.
To some officers, his words were shocking. Recalled one deputy, “We now feared whether our names would be implicated and (worried) what we could do about it.”
Deputies started calling their union for counsel. Those who expected to be indicted contacted private lawyers. Other deputies called with desperate requests, including an officer who asked a lawyer to relay a message to the deputy’s wife. He wanted his wife to move some property and records that investigators might be seeking. But the attorney declined because it could have been considered obstruction of justice.
In vigorously denying wrongdoing, deputies and their attorneys expressed outrage at what they viewed as a runaway investigation bordering on a witch hunt. “One woman was brought in for questioning and asked if she had had affairs with any of the crew members. Now what does that have to do with money-skimming?” defense attorney Richard Hirsch said recently.
Angry deputies railed against tactics used by investigators to squeeze them, including pursuing cases against their wives in an effort to persuade them to cooperate. Questions were also raised about the methods used by task force investigators in obtaining information on narcotics deputies. “Some have suggested that it was an overzealous investigation, and from my limited perspective, one could easily reach that conclusion,” Richard Shinee, attorney for the Assn. of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, said in an interview.
But both sheriff’s officials and prosecutors denied any improprieties by their investigators.
By 1990, the Big Spender task force had mushroomed to nearly 50 investigators working in donated space in the Arco towers Downtown. Outside their doors was the cover name: “B & B Enterprises.” And from that spot, investigators fanned out, collecting records and interviewing deputies, family members, friends and associates.
Meanwhile, the Majors Two deputies, facing indictment and a pending trial, were also meeting to discuss their defensive tactics. At one session, one deputy’s priest showed up for moral support. On other occasions, the strategy meetings deteriorated into drinking sessions that included, Cortez would later testify, talk of finding Sobel and “doing away” with him.
For Sobel himself, it was an endless round of interviews and preparations for the Majors Two trial. All along he had been hoping that another deputy would step forward and join him in testifying against his fellow officers. But only a few months before trial, Sobel’s two federal handlers--Hagemann and Hightower--joined him for an afternoon barbecue and broke the devastating news. He would be the key prosecution witness--the only deputy to testify.
When that day arrived, Sobel waited in the judge’s chambers until the moment he stepped onto the witness stand. Federal agents accompanied him as a security measure, and as he stepped into the courtroom, Sobel saw his former colleagues for the first time in more than a year.
During those opening minutes he spotted a deputy, a former co-worker, among the packed spectators, and the man glared at him before walking out of the courtroom. Then, Sobel glanced at his former crew members who sat at a tier of tables with their defense attorneys. Moments later, he began responding to Hagemann’s questions, his voice cloaked in a monotone so as not to betray the emotions he was struggling to contain.
Sobel’s first day lasted only an hour, but the prosecution’s star witness was spent by the time he left the witness stand. Afterward, Sobel walked stoically with prosecutors and federal agents to Hagemann’s 13th-floor office. Well-wishers had gathered outside the office, but they were quickly shooed away. Closing the door behind them, Hagemann and Hightower sat down with Sobel. He began sobbing uncontrollably. The next day he was back on the witness stand.
During the defense case, the deputies on trial tried to explain away the cash found in their homes. The money spent on boats, vacation homes and other luxuries, they said, all came from legitimate sources. Garner talked of selling cars at swap meets and of an inheritance. Bauder said he and his wife had accumulated thousands of dollars from baby-sitting and other savings and put aside loose change found in their living room couch.
Family members testified that Cortez’s elderly father--who worked at swap meets--had loaned him $100,000. Daub’s relatives testified that he had won thousands of dollars gambling and had received an inheritance from his father. A number of the deputies said they kept large amounts of cash at home because they did not trust banks, and a parade of character witnesses--including other deputies--vouched for the reputation and integrity of the narcotics officers.
To Block and other sheriff’s officials, however, it was the testimony of the deputies themselves that proved the most damning. None could adequately explain how they were awash with cash, and fellow officers who once supported them no longer gave them the benefit of the doubt. “It was a critical turning point in the attitude of people in the department,” Block said.
The flood of unexplained money, the paper trail of financial documents and the testimony of Sobel and other prosecution witnesses also helped persuade the 12 jurors that the deputies were guilty of a variety of charges, including theft, money laundering, tax evasion and conspiracy. All were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 2 1/2 years to eight years in prison.
The last Majors Two member to be sentenced was Sobel, who had pleaded guilty to conspiracy and income tax charges as part of his plea agreement. He received a six-month sentence but did not begin serving his term until more than 2 1/2 years after the initial trial.
Last summer, Sobel, 48, sat at a San Fernando Valley coffee shop, still chewing the skin off his fingers and chain-smoking Winston cigarettes. He had traveled from the new home where his family had relocated. And the restaurant, he noted, was just down the block from an apartment building where he and his deputies had once seized more than a million dollars from a drug dealer--and skimmed some of the money.
“You know,” he said, shaking his head, “even when all this stuff was going on, we didn’t stop going after crooks.”
The man called El Diablo looked up from his coffee cup. “We were good cops. My deputies were good cops. I was a good cop,” he said. “What we did was wrong, but I’m not going to take the rap as some rogue cop. That’s convenient to the department.”
In the end, Sobel said, the responsibility should be shared by both the deputies who had crossed the line and a department that had failed to monitor their activities or had overlooked them for so many years. “We all wanted to succeed, so we went along with the system,” he said, lighting another cigarette.
“Once you cross over, you don’t walk back.”
About This Series
Millions of dollars were stolen. Nineteen narcotics deputies were convicted. And the image of the nation’s largest sheriff’s department was shattered during a drug money-skimming scandal. “Breach of Trust,” a three-part series, reveals the stories of the deputies who turned to crime and the investigators who caught them. During a six-month investigation, Times staff writer Victor Merina examined thousands of pages of court transcripts, government records and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department documents. He interviewed scores of deputies, investigators and other participants in the money-skimming case. What emerged is a profile of corruption and greed that flourished in elite units of a law enforcement agency that had long prided itself on integrity.
* Today: The cost of corruption
Seizures by Deputies
Over the last six years, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies have seized more than $46 million in cash and 19,000 pounds of cocaine in narcotics cases. The majority of seizures were by members of teams investigating major drug traffickers and money launderers. Other seizures were by deputies assigned to stations. After a money-skimming scandal was exposed in late 1989, seizures dropped before rebounding.
COCAINE SEIZURES (In thousands of pounds) 1987*: 2.5 1988: 5.1 1989: 2.2 1990: 1.2 1991: 4.6 1992: 2.0 1993*: 1.1
CASH SEIZURES (In millions of dollars) 1987*: 8.9 1988: 15.7 1989: 10.1 1990: 3.8 1991: 0.9 1992: 4.7 1993*: 2.3
ARRESTS (In hundreds) 1987*: 12 1988: 27 1989: 34 1990: 30 1991: 17 1992: 9.4 1993*: 7.9
* Partial year
Source: Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department
All nine members of the Sheriff Department’s elite Major Violators Two team were convicted between 1990 and 1992 of charges related to the skimming of drug money during narcotics raids. Four later pleaded guilty to additional crimes. They are among 19 present or former sheriff’s deputies who have been convicted in the money-skimming investigation known as Operation Big Spender.
MAJOR VIOLATORS TWO TEAM
DEPUTIES YEARS WITH CRIME SENTENCE DEPARTMENT Terrell H. Amers* 22 conspiracy, theft, tax violations 48 months James R. Bauder 9 conspiracy, theft, tax violations 48 months Nancy A. Brown 17 conspiracy, theft 16 months Eufrasio G. Cortez* 14 conspiracy, theft, money-laundering, tax violations 60 months Ronald E. Daub* 16 conspiracy, theft, money-laundering, tax violations 60 months John C. Dickenson 10 conspiracy, theft 24 months Daniel M. Garner* 18 conspiracy, theft, tax violations 54 months Michael J. Kaliterna 19 conspiracy, theft, tax violations 40 months Robert Sobel 19 conspiracy, theft 6 months
OTHER CONVICTED DEPUTIES Genevieve Amers Virgil Bartlett Julian Castorena Macario Duran Thomas Gordon
OTHER CONVICTED DEPUTIES Robert Juarez Stephen Nichols Tyrone Powe Narcizo Reaza
FAMILY AND FRIENDS CONVICTED** Maria Duran Melba Espinoza Yhvona Garner Lilia Vasquez
DEPUTIES AWAITING FEDERAL TRIAL Richard Ballesteros Jack (Jake) Gray Edward Jamison Leo Michael Newman Stephen Nichols
DEPUTIES AWAITING FEDERAL RETRIAL*** John Edner Roger Garcia **** Edward Jamison J.C. Miller Robert Tolmaire
* Also pleaded guilty in a related case
** George Papac, a friend of several deputies, is awaiting trial.
*** Steven Polak, a former LAPD officer, is awaiting retrial.
**** Roger Garcia and Steven Gibbs were acquitted of charges in state court.
NOTE: Some of the deputies have retired, resigned or been removed from the department.
SOURCES: U.S. attorney’s office and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department