LOS ANGELES – An imprisoned former Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy told a federal jury Friday that his illegal hiding of a jail informant from FBI agents was based on orders passed down from the former sheriff and other “big bosses” of the department.
James Sexton, 32, who was brought to the downtown Los Angeles courthouse in shackles and white jail clothing, testified that he believed directives came through his immediate superiors from then-sheriff Lee Baca to “remove a particular inmate” from the jail system — at least on paper — so federal authorities could not track him down.
Baca is on trial on obstruction of justice and conspiracy charges for allegedly putting into motion an expansive plan to make inmate-turned-federal informant Anthony Brown “disappear” during a six-week period in August and September of 2011 when prosecutors wanted to put him before a federal grand jury.
Sexton told the jury he and his colleagues listed Brown as having been released from Men’s Central Jail, and rebooked him under a string of fake names, phony crimes and bogus physical descriptions. They took Brown to a high- security wing and medical ward of the jail and finally out to the lockup at the sheriff’s station in San Dimas, Sexton said.
Meanwhile, the FBI was scrambling to try and find out what had happened to their informant, who was to be a key witness in their probe of allegations of civil rights abuses within jail walls.
Sexton testified that he was told by fellow deputies that orders to move Brown were “coming all the way from the top.”
Sexton, who came up with the name “Operation Pandora’s Box” for the scheme to block federal investigators, is serving an 18-month federal prison term following his 2014 conviction on charges of conspiracy and obstruction of justice.
The former deputy told jurors that his “Pandora’s box” reference came from the Greek myth telling of a jar containing all manner of evil, a metaphor for the Brown situation — and the reason why it should remain a secret among conspirators.
“There was suffering unleashed on the world” when the box was opened, Sexton said.
Sexton was one of about a dozen sheriff’s deputies who guarded Brown after the inmate was linked to the FBI. Brown, a career criminal who was awaiting transfer to state prison, was providing information to the FBI through a cell phone that had been smuggled to him by the FBI and a corrupt jail guard.
Sexton testified that he was asked to use his computer skills at the jail’s intake department to assign aliases — including John Rodriquez, Kevin King and Chris Johnson — to Brown and keep the informant’s fingerprints off the falsified booking records.
Tinos Diamantatos, one of Baca’s attorneys, attempted to get Sexton to pin the origins of the Brown scheme on Baca’s then-second-in-command, Paul Tanaka.
Was Tanaka actually “running the show?” Diamantatos asked.
“No,” Sexton responded, adding that he believed Tanaka was “one of two people” that could have authorized such a complicated plan involving so many officers.
The former deputy acknowledged, however, that he never spoke directly to Baca, but said he received emails from his unit commander telling him that the orders came from the sheriff.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox introduced evidence allegedly showing that Baca approved overtime pay for deputies involved in moving and guarding Brown.
Also taking the stand was Cecil Rhambo, the county’s former assistant sheriff, who told of discussions he had with his boss regarding the FBI’s probe and the sheriff’s department’s response.
Rhambo said Baca indicated that there was going to be an attempt by deputies to “intimidate” the FBI agent who helped smuggle the cell phone to Brown.
“I told him, `Don’t (mess around) with the feds. They’re not going to cooperate. We’re the suspects,”‘ Rhambo recalled for the jury.
“I said that if we do that — that’s obstruction of justice,” the retired lawman said.
Deputies subsequently went to the home of the FBI agent in charge of the investigation and threatened her with arrest. She is expected to testify next week.
Baca is facing a second trial — on a charge of making false statements to federal authorities — following the conclusion of the current proceedings.
U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson split the trial into two parts after he agreed to allow testimony by an expert on dementia — but only as it relates to the charges of lying.
Anderson agreed to hold a separate trial on those counts, so that the 74-year-old Baca — who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease — is being tried first on the conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges, saying the former sheriff’s mental state is not relevant to those counts. The conspiracy and obstruction charges carry a possible prison sentence of up to 15 years.
A second jury will be selected at a later date to hear testimony on the false statements count, which carries a possible sentence of up to five years in prison.
Baca — who ran the nation’s largest sheriff’s department for 16 years – – claims he knew nothing of the plan to impede the jails probe and that Tanaka was in charge of the operation.
Ten ex-sheriff’s officials — including Tanaka — have been convicted or pleaded guilty in connection with the obstruction case, and 10 others have been convicted of various charges connected to the overall federal probe.
Tanaka, who alleges that Baca initiated the plan, was sentenced to five years in prison.
Baca retired in 2014 at the height of the federal probe. He had been sheriff since December 1998.
The trial resumes Tuesday — it is dark Monday — with testimony from, among others, Gilbert Michel, the disgraced former deputy who accepted a bribe to smuggle the cellphone to Brown, which set off the chain of events that resulted in 10 indictments.
Michel was sentenced by Anderson in June to a six-month prison term. He pleaded guilty in January 2012 to the felony bribery charge and admitted that he accepted $1,500 in exchange for smuggling a cell phone, cigarettes and a note into the downtown Men’s Central Jail for Brown.
As part of his plea agreement, Michel agreed to cooperate, then testified at two trials of sheriff’s officials, including former undersheriff Tanaka’s.
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