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Ex-deputy who took bribe to smuggle phone into jail testifies in Baca trial

Ex-deputy who took bribe to smuggle phone into jail testifies in Baca trial
Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and wife, Carol Chiang, arrive at federal court earlier this month for his trial. Baca faces obstruction of justice and conspiracy charges. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

A former Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy whose decision to accept a bribe and smuggle a cellphone into county jail set off an abuse scandal that upended the Sheriff's Department testified Tuesday that he took part in beatings of handcuffed inmates and helped cover up brutality by colleagues.

Appearing at the trial of former Sheriff Lee Baca, Gilbert Michel also told jurors about the steps he took in 2011 to sneak in the phone to an inmate in exchange for thousands of dollars in promised bribes. A few weeks later, he learned the phone was part of an undercover sting conducted by FBI agents investigating abuse and corruption in the sheriff's jails.

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The discovery of that smuggled phone by jailers set in motion a series of actions by sheriff's officials that federal prosecutors contend constituted a conspiracy to obstruct the civil rights investigation. Federal prosecutors allege that sheriff's officials tried to keep the inmate who had received the phone away from his FBI handlers and attempted to intimidate one of the federal agents conducting the inquiry.

Baca's second-in-command and eight others have already been convicted in connection with the alleged plot.

In Baca's trial, prosecutors said they would prove that the ex-sheriff was the "heartbeat" of the conspiracy, and ultimately responsible for the actions taken by his subordinates to hinder the federal investigation.

Michel, in white jail scrubs with a bushy beard and unkempt hair, made scant mention of Baca as he testified that in his two years as a sheriff's deputy assigned to Men's Central jail, he beat inmates, falsified reports and covered up incidents of deputies brutalizing inmates.

After his fellow deputies discovered the phone on the inmate, Michel was approached by FBI agents who asked him to cooperate in their investigation. Prosecutors played for jurors a subsequent interview Michel had with sheriff's officials in which Sgt. Scott Craig told Michel not to talk to the FBI, and Lt. Stephen Leavins told Michel he was a "pawn in a little game."

"They're trying to bring down the department," Michel said in the recording.

"And who are they trying to use to do that?" Leavins asked.

"Me, sir," Michel responded.

Craig was convicted in a 2014 jury trial of being part of the conspiracy to obstruct the FBI. Michel, 43, is serving a six-month sentence after pleading guilty to one count of bribery.

Under cross-examination by an attorney for Baca, Michel said he had no contact with the sheriff about accepting the bribe, beating inmates or falsifying reports.

Jurors also heard Tuesday from another former sheriff's deputy who said she resisted a request from fellow deputies to falsify jail computer records about the inmate who received the phone from Michel and was working as an FBI informant.

Tara Adams said the other deputies wanted her to change the jail records to say the inmate had been released and to book him under a bogus name.

"We have our orders," the deputies said, recalled Adams, who has since resigned from the department.

Testimony is expected to resume Wednesday.

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For more news on the obstruction of justice trial of former L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, follow me on Twitter: @vicjkim

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