For years, Bernice Abram was a well-regarded manager at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. She rose through the ranks, eventually making captain at the department's Carson station, where some 160 deputies served under her command.
As the city's de facto police chief, Abram was well-liked, hosting "coffee with the captain" meet-and-greets at local restaurants. But last April, Abram's ascent was unexpectedly halted, sources said, after federal agents wiretapping an alleged Compton drug trafficker overheard what they believed was the captain's voice.
Abram was placed on leave. FBI agents and sheriff's investigators descended on her station. The investigations are continuing, and officials have released few details about the case.
But recent interviews and documents reviewed by The Times shed new light on Abram's relationship with the suspected narcotics ring leader, Dion Grim, and raise questions over whether she tried to protect him from law enforcement scrutiny.
Although Abram denied knowing Grim in an interview with The Times last summer, Grim's attorney, Marilyn Bednarski, said her client did in fact know the captain. She said she knew of nothing to suggest the relationship was improper.
A top Sheriff's Department official said Abram brought Grim to department functions.
"I had no reason to suspect that anything was other than on the up and up," Assistant Sheriff Cecil Rhambo said. "She's in law enforcement. She's a friend. I still don't even know what's going on with this; of course I'm shocked."
But one sheriff's deputy is accusing Abram of conspiring with Grim to deflect law enforcement attention away from his alleged gang associates in Compton.
Deputy Michael Haggerty filed an administrative complaint against the county last year, alleging that he had been unfairly transferred from a coveted assignment because of Abram. In his sworn statement, Haggerty alleged that the FBI secretly recorded Abram talking to Grim and plotting to manufacture citizen complaints against him so he'd be transferred out of Compton. At the time, Haggerty said he had been aggressively investigating Grim and the Front Hood Crips.
In an interview with The Times, Haggerty said he was working in patrol at the sheriff's Compton station in 2010 when an informant told him Grim was associated with the Front Hood Crips and was "moving a lot of weight" — drugs — cross-country. Haggerty said he'd already noticed Grim regularly hanging out near a well-known walk-up drug house on Stockwell Street. Grim, he recalled, would regularly park his distinctive black-and-orange Ford F-350 truck — and matching boat — on the block.
Haggerty said he saw "an opportunity" to stop Grim one day when Grim was blaring music from his truck. He said he arrested Grim on an admittedly minor noise violation.
On the way to the jail, Haggerty said, Grim seemed oddly calm for someone in the back seat of a patrol cruiser. "You'll see what happens," Grim said, according to the deputy.
Hours after booking Grim, Haggerty said, he returned to his station and was confronted by his supervisor about the arrest. "There's a Capt. Abram calling," the lieutenant said, according to Haggerty. "She's not happy. She wants to know more about it."
Haggerty said Abram continued to call the station about the arrest into the next shift. She then went to the Lynwood jail and got Grim out of custody — and demanded that his vehicle, which had been impounded, be released, Haggerty said.
Soon after, Haggerty says, sheriff's officials and an FBI agent told him that Grim and Abram had been secretly recorded in a telephone conversation plotting to discredit the deputy and transfer him to another station where he wouldn't be able to keep targeting the Front Hood Crips.
Haggerty says a flood of citizen complaints came in, up to 25 over a 10-month period. Eventually, despite being reassured by his supervisors that they knew the gang was targeting him, he said, he was transferred to another station.
"It's pretty disheartening," Haggerty said. "You're playing by the rules, you're doing what you're supposed to be doing, and someone creates their own rules to the game."
In an interview, Haggerty's captain at the Compton station, Diane Walker, confirmed that Abram had called the station to express concerns about a 2010 arrest, but Walker could not recall who the arrestee was. Walker described Haggerty as a hardworking, reliable deputy. She also said department supervisors had become so concerned about the attention the Front Hood Crips were devoting to Haggerty that they moved him to another station for his own safety.
"I think they [the Front Hood Crips] were complaining against him to keep him off their trail," Walker said. "They knew when he worked, they knew his schedule. That puts him in danger.… I can't say why they do what they do, but usually it's because [the deputies] are affecting their business."
Haggerty's attorney, Arnoldo Casillas, said he's working to get the department to repair the damage to Haggerty's reputation and job placement caused by the citizen complaints.
After Haggerty was transferred, Abram was put on leave, as was her niece Chantell White, a sheriff's custody assistant. White is suspected of inappropriately accessing law enforcement databases, according to sources with knowledge of the investigation who requested anonymity because the investigation is ongoing. Both Abram and White hung up when called to comment for this article.
Several months after Abram's leave began, federal authorities arrested Grim and several people suspected of being members of the alleged drug ring.
During a raid of the Stockwell Street house, which Grim owned, so much marijuana was flushed down a toilet that almost 150 grams stayed clogged in the toilet bowl, according to law enforcement records. In another incident preceding Grim's arrest, law enforcement records said, one of his associates was pulled over with 4,200 Xanax pills and 13 single-pint bottles of codeine with promethazine, also known as "sizzurp" or "purple drank."
The drugs were in a duffel bag that came from a trash collection company where Grim worked. In court, his attorney described Grim as a mid-level employee at the company who made no more than $70,000 a year. A federal prosecutor said investigators believed Grim owned a 63-foot cigarette boat that could not have been paid for on that salary alone.
Rhambo, the assistant sheriff, said Grim and his boat were well-known among some sheriff's officials.
"Some people like to go, 'Oh, he's got a boat,'" Rhambo said. "Like, 'Wow, we don't know a lot of people with big boats.' … I just know he was a fairly wealthy guy."
Rhambo said he never asked Abram about the nature of her relationship with Grim.