LOS ANGELES (CN) - In former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca’s obstruction trial, a prosecutor likened efforts to obstruct the FBI investigation to a chess match in which Baca was the king, and his underlings were pawns. In contrast, Baca argued that his involvement in the scheme was non-existent, not even amounting to a game of checkers.
Now Baca is almost out of moves. A jury convicted him on Wednesday for leading an obstruction scheme that over five years of legal battles has led to the convictions of nine other sheriff deputies and commanders, including Baca’s closest aide, former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka.
The former sheriff, dressed in a brown suit and wearing a black and yellow striped tie, stared without emotion as the clerk read the verdict at 2 p.m. Wednesday with his wife Carol Chiang watching from the courtroom.
Jurors began deliberations at around 2:45 p.m. on Monday. Prosecutors said the 74-year-old retired lawman conspired with those under his command to thwart an investigation into inmate abuse at two jails by hiding inmate-informant Anthony Brown within the jail system. That was after deputies cracked open a covert FBI operation into Men’s Central Jail and the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in the summer of 2011 when they pulled a smuggled cellphone out of a Dorito’s bag among Brown’s belongings.
The discovery led to a series of foolhardy maneuvers over the course of six weeks in August and September 2011. Obstruction trials would expose corruption in one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the nation.
Officials conspired to keep Brown from testifying before a grand jury, rebooking him within the jail system under different aliases. Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau deputies Scott Craig and Maricela Long approached FBI Agent Leah Marx outside her home and threatened her with arrest, taping the encounter on video for good measure.
In another brazen move, Craig asked Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge John Torribio to sign off on a warrant to sweep the FBI’s offices in Los Angeles. The state court judge calmly explained that neither he nor the sheriff’s department has the power to investigate a federal agency.
Baca, according to prosecutors, had a view of the entire board and moved all the pieces.
But in the first trial, persuading a jury that Baca was the lynchpin of efforts to obstruct – or that he even had direct involvement – proved problematic. That explained, at least in part, why all but one juror voted to acquit the congenial former official just before Christmas last year.
On the one hand, Baca was vocal in his disdain for the FBI, telling presenters on the television show “Good Day LA” in the summer of 2011 that the department could police itself and that he was investigating the feds for smuggling a phone into the Men’s Central Jail. Never mind that the FBI’s move to get the phone to Brown was entirely lawful. To Baca, it represented an unconscionable intrusion and a criminal act.