LOS ANGELES – A former Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy at the center of the scandal that shook up the department and led to the convictions of over a dozen officials told a jury in the trial of ex-Sheriff Lee Baca that he and other jail guards participated in unprovoked beatings of inmates and were warned by superiors not to cooperate with the FBI.
Gilbert Michel, 43, was the first to be charged in a wide-ranging FBI investigation into misconduct and corruption in the jails after he was caught in a sting operation smuggling a cell phone to an inmate in return for a $1,500 bribe.
He was the third ex-deputy to testify against Baca by suggesting that orders from the ex-sheriff to obstruct an FBI investigation trickled down through the department’s chain of command.
Prosecutors called the currently incarcerated Michel to the stand to describe an unchecked culture of brutality within Men’s Central Jail that the government alleges was symptomatic of corruption that went all the way to the top.
Michel is serving a six-month sentence after pleading guilty to the bribery charge and agreeing to testify against other sheriff’s officials in subsequent trials, including the current case against Baca.
Recounting a deputy assault on a handcuffed inmate, Michel testified that he and other jail guards took the detainee to a shower area where he punched him in the stomach.
“He went down to his knees and I kneed him in the back,” Michel told the jury, repeating testimony he gave in a previous criminal trial.
Each time the inmate fell to the floor, Michel and his colleagues picked the inmate up and continued the assault, he said. Michel was not charged with crimes relating to his admitted uses of excessive force.
The August 2011 discovery of the cell phone that Michel smuggled into the jail exposed the FBI’s secret investigation inside the jail and disrupted the bureau’s plans to carry out a larger probe of corruption inside the Sheriff’s Department.
The finding of the device hidden within a jail informant’s bag of Doritos also set into motion a secret program known by participants as Operation Pandora’s Box, a conspiracy by sheriff’s officials to thwart the FBI probe. As a result, 10 sheriff’s officials were convicted of obstruction of justice or other charges. Baca is being tried on conspiracy and obstruction counts in connection with the case.
Prosecutors played for the jury excerpts of recorded interviews with Michel conducted by internal Sheriff’s Department investigators, who told him that the phone wasn’t a major issue and that he was being manipulated by the FBI. Prosecutors contend sheriff’s investigators were breaking the law by attempting to turn Michel against the FBI.
Ex-Sgt. Scott Craig, who was convicted of conspiracy and other charges in a separate trial, is heard telling Michel: “I’m ordering you not to discuss this with anyone, not your girlfriend, not the FBI.”
Baca’s name was rarely mentioned in Michel’s hours-long testimony.
The former sheriff is facing a second trial — on a charge of making false statements to federal authorities — following the conclusion of proceedings now in their second week in downtown Los Angeles.
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 lying charge. Baca — who ran the nation’s largest sheriff’s department for 16 years — is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
Last week, two ex-deputies who were convicted of obstructing the FBI jails investigation told the jury that they believed they were following orders from Baca when they worked to derail the federal probe by hiding the informant within the jail system.
Former deputies James Sexton and Mickey Manzo testified about the steps they took to conceal the whereabouts of Anthony Brown, who was working as a federal informant. Both ex-lawmen said that they believed their orders came from Baca and then-Undersheriff Paul Tanaka.
Tanaka, who alleges that Baca initiated the plan, was sentenced to five years in prison after his April conviction on conspiracy and obstruction charges.
Prosecutors allege that Baca put into motion the scheme — overseen by Tanaka — to derail the investigation by intimidating the lead agent in the case, pressuring deputies not to cooperate and keeping Brown hidden.
Baca suddenly retired in 2014 at the height of the federal probe. He had been sheriff since December 1998.
Anderson halted Michel’s testimony Friday afternoon and cleared the jury before tossing a woman from the gallery for loudly giving her opinion of the case.
“Young lady, you’re excused from this trial and you can’t come back,” the judge said. “Everyone’s welcome to sit and listen.”
The trial continues Wednesday.
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