Like many aspiring deputies, John W. Pace had impressive qualifications. He is a former collegiate football player who speaks Spanish and has a clean record. But Pace also had a personal recommendation from Baca's son, David.
David Baca, a sergeant with the Murrieta Police Department, said Pace called him "looking for help" in becoming a cop. David Baca agreed to put in a good word with his father.
"I'm friends with a kid … who wants to get into law enforcement," David Baca said he told his dad.
David Baca said his father offered no assurances, but sometime thereafter Pace became the department's only trainee hired since October 2009.
In an interview with The Times, the sheriff acknowledged speaking to Pace about a position in his department, but denied having any special involvement in the young man's hiring.
"He applied like everyone else did," Baca said. "He wanted to be a deputy sheriff. He had been interested for quite a while.… He pretty well knew what needed to be done."
Capt. Kevin Herbert, who supervises the department's hiring of recruits, said Pace's connection with Baca's son played no role in his employment. "It looks bad, but in my opinion that was not taken into consideration.… He's an outstanding candidate."
Pace, 26, was selected from among thousands of applicants, Herbert said.
Although the department hadn't hired new recruits since October 2009 because of concerns about the county's fiscal problems, it wasn't until March 2010 that Baca said he imposed a freeze on hiring rookies to address a multimillion-dollar deficit. The agency has hired some experienced officers from other police departments, known as lateral transfers, in the last 19 months, but Pace has been the only new recruit.
A job at the Sheriff's Department is considered one of the better positions in local law enforcement, particularly since the L.A. County Board of Supervisors boosted deputies' pay a few years ago. The last time the department had a major recruiting drive, in 2006, it received more than 20,000 applications, performed more than 4,000 background checks and hired about 1,000 new deputies.
Although the department has stopped hiring new trainees, its academy continues to train recruits from smaller police forces, including those in Burbank and El Monte.
Pace was hired in February 2010 and worked administrative tasks as a civilian employee until he was assigned to a spot in an academy class, officials said. He graduated last month with academy Class 383. At the ceremony, new police recruits performed drills before family, friends and top brass gathered in the courtyard of the academy in Whittier. Baca shook hands and congratulated each graduate.
Pace stood out among his classmates. All 19 recruits were dressed in crisp black uniforms, except for Pace, clad in the department's distinctive tan and green.
Repeated attempts to reach Pace were unsuccessful.
"This hire does stick out like a sore thumb," said Eugene O'Donnell, a professor of law and police studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "And it takes place in a backdrop that has been troubling — apparent cronyism, favoritism, that things happen in that agency that really shouldn't happen."
Baca has been accused of providing special treatment before. At least twice, the sheriff has launched special criminal investigations for donors in another police agency's jurisdiction. In one of those cases, a lease dispute was given rush status generally reserved for high-priority cases like homicides. In the other, a detective said he spent more time investigating unfounded embezzlement allegations made by a wealthy donor than he had for any other case he'd ever embarked upon.
A Times public records request to review all correspondence regarding Pace was denied by the department for being too broad, and potentially violating personnel protections.
When contacted by The Times about whether he spoke to his father about hiring Pace, David Baca initially said, "What's the relevance of that? I'm not going to answer that." Eventually, he acknowledged that he did speak with his father about Pace.
David Baca said he didn't know Pace before the potential recruit reached out to him, inquiring about a profession in law enforcement. He said Pace got his number through a mutual acquaintance, Riverside County Judge Judith Clark, and that the two soon developed a rapport during phone conversations.
David Baca said he did not think Pace's request for help was unusual.
"Anybody wants to call me — 'Hey, want to talk law enforcement?' — I'll talk to him," the sheriff's son said. "We obviously want quality people for this job.… It's not like this person's not qualified. He went through the academy, went through the background check. L.A. County is getting a great thing."