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FBI pulled plug on 2011 undercover sting against Sheriff’s Department

Gilbert Michel
Former Sheriff’s Deputy Gilbert Michel was central to Operation Blue Line, smuggling in the cellphone that would tip off the department to the FBI probe.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Operation Blue Line was a go.

In August 2011, FBI agents were gearing up to launch the next phase of their wide-ranging investigation into suspected brutality and corruption by sheriff’s deputies in the Los Angeles County jails.

The plan was to rent a warehouse, spread the word that it was full of narcotics and hire corrupt deputies from the jails to moonlight as guards. Included in the budget was $10,000 for bribes and kickbacks, according to an internal FBI memo reviewed by The Times.

The deputies lured into the purported drug enterprise would then be used to get information about abuses in the jails.

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Two days after it was greenlighted by headquarters in Washington, Blue Line came to an abrupt halt. Sheriff’s officials had caught an inmate with a cellphone and traced the phone back to the FBI, exposing an investigation that had been kept secret from them, even though they ran the jails.

Instead of moving forward with Blue Line, the FBI spent the next few months doing damage control with sheriff’s officials who hid the inmate informant and threatened an FBI agent with arrest. Of the 21 criminal cases eventually filed by federal prosecutors, seven were obstruction of justice cases stemming from the cellphone incident.

With the federal investigation into the jails still ongoing, Blue Line stands as the undercover operation that might have been. Whether it would have led to more informants and more indictments will never be known. What is certain is that after the discovery of the cellphone, the federal investigation temporarily stuttered and the warehouse scheme never got off the ground.

At the time, 15 deputies were being investigated for excessive force against inmates, and the FBI also hoped to confirm allegations that some deputies were accepting bribes for smuggling contraband into the jails.

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“When the case melted down a few weeks ago, the decision was made to shift management of this case...,” Assistant Special Agent in Charge Peter Angelini wrote in a Sept. 7, 2011, email to colleagues.

Officials from the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office declined to discuss the aborted operation.

Central to Blue Line was a sheriff’s deputy named Gilbert Michel, who accepted a bribe to smuggle the cellphone to the inmate informant. Investigators hoped that Michel would recruit his coworkers to guard the warehouse if he were enticed with additional bribes, the memo said.

The jail informant, Anthony Brown, had tried to get several deputies to bring in a phone. Michel was the only one who took the bait, pocketing $1,500 from an undercover FBI agent to deliver the phone and a note to Brown.

The budget for the monthlong Blue Line operation included $3,000 for commercial rent and $1,500 for residential rent, according to the FBI memo. The warehouse would be bugged with recording devices, as would an apartment where the undercover agent would rendezvous with Michel and the other deputies, who possibly would be bribed to introduce drugs into Men’s Central Jail, FBI records show.

Some of the $10,000 bribe budget would go to Michel, who believed he was owed an additional $1,500 for what he had already brought to Brown. The threat of prosecution could be used to get him to cooperate, the memo said.

Investigators planned to ask him about the 3000 Boys, a tattooed clique of deputies on the third floor of Men’s Central Jail who allegedly “earned their ink” by beating inmates, the memo said. The FBI had received complaints that deputies would assault inmates, then write false reports stating that the inmates had instigated the violence.

The memo noted that more than 25 inmates — but apparently no deputies — were providing the FBI with information.

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Michel’s attorney, Robert Brode, said he had never heard of the plan and that it seemed far-fetched for a deputy with only two years’ experience to rope others into a shady after-hours gig.

“It sounds to be, no disrespect to anyone working on it, ‘pie in the sky in the sweet by and by,’” Brode said. “I don’t see it ever working.”

After the cellphone was found, the FBI futilely searched for Brown, who seemed to have disappeared somewhere in the county jails — moved around and booked by the Sheriff’s Department under a series of aliases, as it turned out. Federal officials met with an angry Sheriff Lee Baca, who warned that an interagency battle could get nasty.

Michel soon resigned from his job. Instead of being the linchpin of a new undercover operation, he was charged with bribery.

Michel, now 41, pleaded guilty in January 2012 on the condition he cooperate with federal investigators. In a series of interviews with the FBI from late 2011 to early 2013, he described incidents of unprovoked assaults by deputies against inmates, including some that he was personally involved in, according to FBI internal documents reviewed by The Times.

Some of the assaults punished inmates accused of rape or other violent crimes against women, Michel said. Other times, deputies would squeeze an inmate’s fingers until he flinched, then claim the inmate had started the altercation. Often, the incidents would not be reported or deputies would falsify reports, Michel told investigators.

Michel said he was among the deputies who felt he had to be “one notch” more aggressive than the inmates. If a deputy treated inmates well, other deputies called him or her “Deputy Love,” Michel told agents.

Michel’s sentencing has been delayed until Sept. 15. Federal prosecutors may seek his cooperation on other matters, they wrote in their request for postponement.

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cindy.chang@latimes.com


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