LOS ANGELES (CN) — A criminal defense attorney on Tuesday tried to distance former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca from a deputy who smuggled a cellphone to a jailhouse informant in an FBI sting on civil rights abuses at the jail.
Sheriff’s Officer Gilbert Michel appeared clean-shaven and dressed in a suit when he testified at convicted Undersheriff Paul Tanaka’s trial this year. Appearing in court Tuesday for Baca’s obstruction of justice trial, Michel was unrecognizable from the man who had testified at the first trial, dressed in white prison garb and sporting a grey-flecked beard and unruly hair.
During defensive and sometimes emotional testimony, Michel recounted how he smuggled a cell phone into the Men’s Central Jail after meeting with an undercover agent in a nearby parking lot.
After delivering the phone to the informant-inmate Anthony Brown, Michel was approached by FBI agents at his home in the summer of 2011.
In an audio interview played for jurors, Michel told Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau Sgts. Scott Craig and Maricela Long and Lt. Stephen Leavins that three FBI agents had approached him outside his home. All three officers have been convicted for their part in the obstruction scheme.
Michel was ordered in the interview not to talk to the FBI. But he was neither fired nor arrested, though he admitted to receiving $1,500 for smuggling the phone into Brown.
Instead, officials took his badge and gun and he was placed in an administrative position, he testified.
Baca is accused of conspiring to hide Brown from investigators after officials discovered Michel had smuggled the phone. Prosecutors say that while Baca put Tanaka in charge of obstructing the FBI, Baca called the shots and gave the orders.
Michel told Assistant U.S. Attorney Eddie Jauregui that Craig was clearly “annoyed and offended” when Michel told them that FBI agents had said he would lose his job and/or go to prison. At another point in the interview, Craig is heard telling Michel that it “pisses him off” that the FBI was “threatening” Michel.
“We’re all part of this department and we’re one big happy dysfunctional family, and the fuckin’ FBI is gonna come to your house and surprise you at your home and invade the sanctity of your home and come here and talk a gang load of shit to you and threaten you. … And then they are gonna fuckin’ manipulate you like you’re a puppet? I don’t think so,” Craig said, according to court records.
Michel told the court he was involved in beatings of two inmates. He said he had a neighbor whose 14-year-old daughter was abducted and prostituted by a man called Leroy Bragg. Michel said he looked up Bragg on the jail system and that he and other deputies took him to a shower area and beat him.
In another incident, Michel said he filed a false report after he beat another inmate, claiming the inmate had assaulted him.
U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson sentenced Michel to six months in federal prison in June after he pleaded guilty to felony bribery and agreed to cooperate as a government witness. He was at the department from December 2008 until September 2011 when he resigned in lieu of being fired after telling official in the department about the assaults.
Jauregui asked Michel to read aloud an email from Leavins to Capt. William Carey that mentioned the beatings. Michel took a long pause and his voice broke as he read:
“That idiot Michel is confessing to beating handcuffed inmates with other deputies … Not looking good … They are still interviewing him. … Will advise.”
Prosecutors say that Baca was the “heartbeat” of a conspiracy to obstruct an FBI investigation of brutality in the jails, but the 74-year-old for sheriff’s attorney Nathan Hochman says Tanaka kept his client out of the loop and orchestrated the conspiracy behind Baca’s back.
During cross-examination, Hochman sought to distance Baca from the deputy.
“When you were beating up those inmates did you ever tell Sheriff Baca that?” Hochman asked.
“No, sir,” Michel replied.
He answered the same way to a stream of questions about the bribes and the falsifying of reports.
For almost the entirety of the cross-examination, a photocopied mugshot of Anthony Brown was displayed on a large screen directly across from the jurors. In his opening, Hochman singled out lead FBI investigator Leah Marx as a “rookie” who had made a mistake in enlisting Brown, a violent felon, as an informant.
Baca asked Tanaka in August 2011 to investigate how Brown had received the phone. The next month, Baca instructed officials to “do everything but put handcuffs” on Marx, it’s alleged. Long and Craig approached outside her home and threatened to arrest her, the government says.
The trial continues Wednesday in U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson’s courtroom at the First Street courthouse.