Originally published on December 17, 2014, at NationofChange.org
Seven Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputies have been sentenced to federal prison for obstructing an FBI investigation into their department. Upon discovering an inmate working as an FBI informant, the deputies illegally concealed the prisoner, threatened an FBI agent, and attempted to influence witnesses. Although the deputies repeatedly asserted they had been following the orders of former Sheriff Lee Baca and then-Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, no charges have been filed against Baca or Tanaka.
As a sheriff’s commander under Baca, Bob Olmsted attempted several times to notify Baca and his staff about the abuses, corruption, and misconduct committed by deputies at Men’s Central Jail (MCJ) in Downtown Los Angeles. In 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the Sheriff’s Department accusing Baca of covering up and condoning violence against prisoners. In 2011, the ACLU released a report documenting over 70 instances of excessive force, misconduct, and sexual assault committed by deputies.
“I knew I had to act, and as a result, I notified the FBI of the department’s culture and acceptance of excessive force, inmate abuse, sheriff’s gangs, and corruption,” admitted retired Cmdr. Olmsted.
Conducting an investigation into these allegations of abuse and corruption within the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, FBI Agent Leah Marx recruited an inmate named Anthony Brown to work as an FBI informant. Brown had been arrested in 2009 for robbing banks, drug stores, and restaurants throughout Downtown Los Angeles. Convicted of his third strike, Brown was sentenced to 423 years in prison and serving his time at MCJ.
While secretly working for the FBI, Brown bribed Deputy Gilbert Michel to smuggle a cell phone into the prison. In the summer of 2011, a car pulled up alongside Michel’s car, and an undercover FBI agent handed the deputy a cell phone and a sunglasses case containing $1,500. Michel kept the money and gave the cell phone to Brown. Unbeknownst to Michel, Brown intended to use the phone to record any illegal activities and update the FBI in real-time.
Arriving home from work a few weeks later, Deputy Michel was confronted by FBI agents. After they showed Michel the video of him accepting the bribe, he agreed to cooperate with the FBI by gathering more evidence against his corrupt and abusive colleagues.
Brown concealed the cell phone for less than three weeks before a deputy confiscated it. When asked how he acquired the phone, Brown eventually admitted that he had been working as an FBI informant. Brown told the deputies that he had used the phone to record video and take photographs of inmates being beaten by deputies without provocation.
Unable to contact Brown with the smuggled cell phone, FBI agents Leah Marx and David Lam arrived at MCJ to interview him on August 23, 2011. Overseeing the Operation Safe Jails Program and its Jail Investigations Unit, Lieutenant Gregory Thompson suddenly terminated the interview and surreptitiously transferred Brown to a cell in the infectious diseases medical ward. Deputies Gerard Smith and Mickey Manzo stood guard over Brown, while Lt. Thompson ordered Deputy James Sexton to start falsifying entries into the database claiming Brown had been released. Lt. Thompson held Brown under the false name “John Rodriguez” before transferring him to the San Dimas station.
On August 25, 2011, the FBI obtained a writ from a federal judge forcing the Sheriff’s Department to turn Brown over to the U.S. Marshals Service. The writ suspiciously disappeared after being served to the Sheriff’s Department.
After arriving at the San Dimas station, Brown found Deputy Sexton standing guard outside his cell preventing any outside contact. Meanwhile, Lt. Stephen Leavins, Sgt. Scott Craig, and Sgt. Maricella Long of the Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau began conducting surveillance on Deputy Michel. According to recorded interviews, Leavins and Craig attempted to coerce Michel into refusing to cooperate with the FBI investigation. Sergeants Craig and Long also engaged in witness tampering by convincing Brown to cease working as an FBI informant.
Under orders from Lt. Thompson, Deputy Sexton falsified Brown’s name in the database to “Chris Johnson.” At the same time, Sergeants Craig and Long began conducting surveillance on FBI agents Marx and Lam. While being videotaped by their own surveillance team, Craig and Long confronted Agent Marx at her house in an effort to intimidate her. Sgt. Craig lied to the FBI agent by telling her that she was a named suspect in a felony complaint and threatened to obtain a warrant for her arrest.
A few hours later, Marx’s FBI Supervisor, Special Agent Carlos Narro called the Sheriff’s Department and spoke with Sgt. Long. When asked if Sheriff Baca knew about the warrant to arrest Marx, Sgt. Long affirmed that Baca was aware of the warrant. When asked what specific charges were filed against Marx, Sgt. Long answered, “Ok, you’re going to have to speak to the Undersheriff, and that’s Mr. Paul Tanaka.”
After Deputy Michel pleaded guilty to bribery in 2012 and began cooperating with the FBI, Baca impelled Tanaka to retire the following year. Multiple investigations conducted by the FBI led to the arrests of at least 18 Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputies. Although Baca had planned to run for re-election, he decided to retire amidst the exposure of numerous corruption and abuse scandals within his department. This year Tanaka campaigned for Los Angeles County Sheriff, but lost in a landslide defeat against Jim McDonnell. Tanaka is currently the mayor of Gardena.
During their trials, attorneys for the deputies attested that the defendants had been operating under orders from Baca and Tanaka. In his testimony, Deputy Michel also described beating inmates, subjecting prisoners to rape, and shooting them with a Taser without provocation. Michel admitted to falsifying reports with the other guards and covering up instances of excessive brutality. Michel faces a maximum sentence of 10 years for accepting the bribe and smuggling in the cell phone.
Convicted of participating in a conspiracy to obstruct justice, Lt. Leavins received a 41-month prison sentence. Lt. Thompson got 37 months and ordered to pay a $7,500 fine. Sgt. Craig was sentenced to 33 months, while Sgt. Long and Deputy Manzo each received two years in federal prison. Deputy Smith was ordered to serve 21 months. On Monday, Deputy Sexton was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison.
“You don’t serve the public by using your position to conceal wrongdoing in the jails. You don’t serve the public by hiding witnesses. You don’t serve the public by tampering with witnesses, and you don’t serve the public by threatening to arrest an FBI agent in some misguided effort to get her to reveal the details of her investigation,” stated U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson.