In closing arguments Friday, federal prosecutors portrayed six Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials as co-conspirators who thwarted a grand jury investigation by hiding an inmate informant, threatening to arrest an FBI agent and encouraging colleagues not to cooperate with authorities.
Defense attorneys countered that the situation arose out of a dispute between two law enforcement agencies that should have been settled by high-level management. The defendants, the highest-ranking of whom are lieutenants, were following orders from then-Sheriff Lee Baca, then-Undersheriff Paul Tanaka and others, the attorneys said.
“Can we agree that what we have is two overtly masculine entities butting heads?” Kevin McDermott, who represents Lt. Gregory Thompson, said of the FBI and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. “Out of this we have this dispute, and my client faces being labeled a convicted felon for the rest of his life.”
The six are on trial on charges of obstructing an investigation into brutality and corruption in Los Angeles County jails. Their trial, which has lasted more than three weeks, will resume Monday with closings from the remaining defendants.
A related trial of Deputy James Sexton on similar charges ended last month in a hung jury. In addition to the seven obstruction-of-justice cases, the FBI’s investigation into the county jails led to criminal charges against 14 other sheriff’s officials.
Tanaka and Chief William “Tom” Carey, who testified in both obstruction trials, are subjects of an ongoing federal investigation. Baca and Tanaka are retired, but Tanaka is in a runoff with Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell to be the next sheriff.
On Friday, Asst. U.S. Atty. Margaret Carter characterized the defendants as desperate to conceal the jails’ problems, which included brutality against inmates and visitors, from FBI investigators.
“It would open Pandora’s box,” she said. “The problems of the L.A. County jails would be exposed and the department would look bad.”
Thompson, Lt. Stephen Leavins, Deputy Gerard Smith and Deputy Mickey Manzo are accused of moving the FBI inmate informant from jail to jail under assumed names to prevent the FBI from finding him.
Earlier in the trial, Leavins testified that the informant, Anthony Brown, was moved for his own protection because he was providing information about violent and corrupt deputies. But after Brown stopped talking to the FBI and threw a tantrum over being denied an In-N-Out burger, sheriff’s officials moved him back to Men’s Central Jail, Carter said.
“He’s back in MCJ with those deputies,” Carter said. “There are no safety concerns. He’s just not cooperating anymore.”
Prosecutors also allege that Leavins, Sgt. Scott Craig and Sgt. Maricela Long, who were investigating how Brown obtained a cellphone from the FBI, tried to persuade colleagues not to cooperate with the federal investigation.
Craig and Long are also accused of falsely informing an FBI agent that they would arrest her for her role in smuggling the phone.
Craig testified Thursday that the harsh language he used to describe the FBI was an interrogation technique. He and Long approached the FBI agent at her home to warn her about a criminal investigation they thought would conclude in her arrest, he testified.
Leavins’ attorney, Peter Johnson, said in closing arguments that his client was following orders from Baca himself.
“Leavins got orders from the top to keep him safe,” Johnson said, referring to the informant. “That cellphone is dangerous in there — that’s what’s going on in Lt. Leavins’ mind.”
Manzo attended several meetings about Brown, but as a young deputy, he hardly spoke, except to say, “I am officially lost,” said his attorney, Matthew Lombard.
“Mickey Manzo is not the fall guy for this,” Lombard said. “All he did was his job.”
Attorneys for Smith, Craig and Long will make closing arguments Monday before the case goes to the jury.