LOS ANGELES – Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca was convicted Wednesday of obstructing an FBI investigation into corrupt guards who took bribes to smuggle contraband into the jails he ran and savagely beat inmates.
The verdict was the 21st and final conviction in a wide-ranging corruption investigation that overshadowed a distinguished 50-year law enforcement career abruptly halted by Baca’s 2014 resignation from the nation’s largest sheriff’s department as the probe spread from rank-and-file deputies to his inner circle.
In addition to tarnishing his reputation as a policing innovator and jail reformer, the conviction threatens to put Baca, 74, who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, behind bars for up to 20 years. He showed no emotion in court as the verdicts were read but struck an upbeat tone outside court.
“My mentality is always optimistic,” Baca said, reading from notes. “I look forward to winning on appeal.”
Baca remained free ahead of a Monday hearing that is expected to set a sentencing date on convictions of obstruction of justice, conspiring to hinder the probe and lying to investigators.
Baca had escaped the fate of underlings indicted in the case until a year ago, when he unexpectedly pleaded guilty to a single count of making false statements to federal authorities about what role he played in efforts to thwart the FBI.
An agreement with prosecutors called for a sentence no greater than six months. But a judge — who has frequently ruled against Baca’s lawyers — rejected the deal as too lenient. Baca then withdrew his guilty plea, and prosecutors hit him with the additional conspiracy and obstruction charges.
A jury in December deadlocked 11-1 in favour of acquittal on the obstruction counts after prosecutors decided to seek a separate trial on the lying charge.
Prosecutors pressed all three counts at the second trial, one of several tactical changes that may have made the difference in winning over a new jury.
Two deputies who pleaded guilty in the conspiracy testified at the second trial, putting their former boss at the head of the scheme that included efforts to intimidate an FBI agent who had launched the investigation into civil rights abuses in the jails.
The jury foreman told reporters that there were several “aha” moments in testimony that helped win over four jurors who initially voted for acquittal. The 51-year-old salesman, who didn’t give his name, said the strongest evidence came from those in the department who had done the right thing and stood up to Baca.
He cited former Assistant Sheriff Cecil Rhambo, who had warned Baca he would break the law if he obstructed the federal investigation.
The foreman said jurors didn’t buy claims that Baca was out of the loop about a plot carried out by subordinates, nothing that “the leader runs the ship.”
The federal probe began in 2011 when Baca’s jail guards discovered an inmate with a contraband cellphone was acting as an FBI mole to record jail beatings and report what he witnessed.
Word quickly reached Baca, who convened a group to derail the investigation and ferret out more about what the FBI was focused on, prosecutors said.
His subordinates hid the FBI informant from federal agents by moving him between different jails and booking him under fake names. Other department members threatened to arrest his FBI handler. Baca had told them to do everything short of handcuffing her.
“Lee Baca knew what was right and what was wrong,” Acting U.S. Attorney Sandra R. Brown said. “He made a decision. That decision was to commit a crime, and he led others in a conspiracy to obstruct a federal law enforcement investigation into what he described as ‘his jails.’
“And when the time came, he lied. He lied to cover up his crimes,” she said.
Defence attorney Nathan Hochman didn’t dispute the efforts to hide the informant and impede the FBI but said prosecutors had presented no evidence Baca gave orders to obstruct the FBI.
Hochman was frustrated in efforts to present evidence of Baca’s diagnosis.
There was no evidence Baca suffered from Alzheimer’s during the scheme in 2011, and Judge Percy Anderson said mention of it could sway jurors to sympathize with Baca.
Hochman was left to hint at the issue, reminding jurors that Baca was 71 at the time he spoke with prosecutors and wasn’t lying but had forgotten details. Baca did not testify.
“The jury is only as good as the evidence it gets to consider,” Hochman said outside court. “The jury did not get to consider all the evidence, but the appellate court will. We look forward to prevailing on appeal.”
Baca thanked his lawyers, his wife and his friends who stood by him.
“It’s just a privilege to be alive,” said Baca. “I feel good.”
Associated Press writers Andrew Dalton and Michael Balsamo contributed to this story.