For months, Anthony Brown fooled his jailers into believing that he was just another prisoner inside Men's Central Jail.
In fact, the 45-year-old armed robber was working for the FBI on a highly sensitive investigation of the Los Angeles County jails. He took down the names of sheriff's deputies who he alleged were dirty. He reported tales of violent abuse of inmates at the hands of jailers. He even ensnared a deputy in a phone smuggling scheme that resulted in a criminal conviction.
Brown gave FBI agents what they couldn't have gotten on their own: an insider's view of a jail system beset with allegations of excessive force and other deputy misconduct.
But the same knack for duplicity that made Brown a successful informant could complicate the larger case federal prosecutors are building on alleged abuses inside the nation's largest jail system.
Until now, little has been known about the informant. But The Times confirmed his identity and spoke to him at length at Centinela state prison in Imperial County, where he's serving 423 years to life for armed robbery.
Interviews and court records reviewed by The Times paint a complex portrait of the inmate who set off the recent upheaval inside the Sheriff's Department — a bank robber and crack cocaine addict who has a history of lying and making dubious allegations against law enforcement.
Brown's credibility speaks to the larger challenges the FBI faces in its investigation of jail abuses. As with any jailhouse probe, inmates inherently play a central role, but few come without baggage.
To prove crimes by deputies, experts say federal authorities will need to substantiate their charges independently — and it appears they're trying.
Federal investigators, who declined to comment for this story, have secured recordings, internal documents and interviews with multiple officials from within the sheriff's own ranks, persuading some to cooperate in their widening probe. It's not clear what role, if any, Brown will play in any future indictments.
Parts of Brown's story were impossible to substantiate and seemed unlikely. Still, some of his allegations can be corroborated.
His claim that he successfully manipulated a jailer to smuggle him a cellphone has already resulted in that deputy pleading guilty to bribery. And a source with knowledge of the FBI's probe confirmed that federal authorities were investigating another of Brown's allegations — that after his cover was blown, sheriff's officials attempted to hide him from his FBI handlers by moving him from jail to jail under multiple aliases.
Court records show Brown, a New Yorker, told police that before he turned to crime he had worked in the entertainment industry, including a stint at Def Jam Recordings operating "right under" co-founder Russell Simmons. (A company representative, however, found no record of Brown as an employee or contractor.) Brown says he came to California in 2004 as a sound engineer for singer Beyonce's nationwide tour. But eventually he began using crack cocaine, traversing Los Angeles by bicycle, high and looking for places to rob.
By 2005, he was charged and convicted in three bank robberies and sent to prison. Though he confessed, he later changed his story, alleging he was innocent and accusing a detective of committing perjury at his trial. His allegations were dismissed.
He was released in 2009. In his interview with The Times, Brown said it was then that he was approached by the FBI and asked to work as an informant, a role he says he had performed for federal authorities decades earlier on an unrelated investigation in New York.
This time, he said, agents wanted him to go behind bars on a phony gun charge and catalog instances of deputy misconduct. He would not elaborate on how the FBI had chosen him.
An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment for this story, and The Times was unable to corroborate exactly how and when he became an informant. Sources familiar with the case as well as the attorney for the deputy who pleaded guilty to bribery this year confirm Brown was the informant.
Brown did end up back behind bars later in 2009, not on the phony charge, but for another series of armed robberies. He detailed the crimes in a recorded interrogation but then denied the crimes in court, accusing a detective of allowing him to smoke crack in return for a false confession.
During his court case, Brown, who is black, also accused his attorney of using a racial slur against him, but he later wrote to a judge admitting the attorney never used the term. Court records show that another judge determined that Brown made other false complaints, ultimately telling him: "I don't believe a word you have to say."
Brown was incarcerated at Men's Central Jail, where he began working for the FBI.
In his interview with The Times, Brown alleges that he delivered notes about corrupt and brutal deputies during weekly visits with his FBI handler.
Brown says he paid a jailer to smuggle him a cellphone, which he used to take photos of deputy beatings and transmit them to his FBI handler. The Times could not independently verify whether he provided photos to the FBI.
Sometime later, Brown says he lost that phone and enlisted a second deputy to smuggle in another cellphone. Much of this account is confirmed in court and other public records. Unaware that Brown was working with the FBI, the deputy, Gilbert Michel, brought him the cellphone and other contraband in exchange for $1,500 in cash from an undercover FBI agent who pretended to be Brown's associate on the outside. When jailers eventually found Brown's phone, Michel called Brown's "associate" to alert him, unwittingly tipping off FBI agents that their informant had been compromised. Brown alleged that his handlers rushed into the jail to visit him, but as their meeting began, a sheriff's investigator barged in and ended it.
He says he was fingerprinted, given a lie-detector test and interrogated.
Sheriff's officials moved him from one facility to another, including the sheriff's San Dimas station. Brown said they listed him under monikers such as "Robin Banks" — an allusion to Brown's criminal history.
Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore declined to say whether the department had hidden Brown from the FBI.
Brown was eventually transferred to state prison.
Earlier this year, Michel pleaded guilty to a bribery charge. Brown alleges that in exchange for his work with the FBI, officials put small amounts of money in his inmate account to buy items from the jail store. Brown said he hoped the FBI would also help him get out of prison sooner.
In his interview from prison, Brown made no mention of his past credibility issues. In fact, he says he wants to pen an autobiography about his work as an informant.
"My information is good enough for the FBI," he said, "so it's good enough for a book."