Witnesses testify former Los Angeles County undersheriff Paul Tanaka protected rogue deputies

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A string of prosecution witnesses took the stand Friday in the public corruption trial of Paul Tanaka, the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department's former second-in-command.

It took only moments on the third floor of Men's Central Jail for its new captain to see the trouble signs of rogue deputies operating more like hardened gang members.

"Quite a few deputies had broken right hands, which tells me that obviously they were using some sort of force," retired Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Cmrd. Bob Olmsted told ABC7 after testifying Friday.

Olmsted was one in a string of prosecution witnesses to take the stand Friday in the public corruption trial of Paul Tanaka, the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department's former second-in-command.

Tanaka is facing up to 15 years in prison for allegedly conspiring to obstruct a federal investigation into brutality and corruption inside the jails. Tanaka has pleaded not guilty.

Olmsted was one of seven witnesses to testify Friday, many of whom described a "culture of violence and fear" inside the jails and a foul-mouthed Tanaka who retaliated against anyone who suggested reforms or challenged his power inside the sheriff's department.

Olmsted, who retired in 2010, testified that the "use of force" by deputies against inmates was off the charts inside Men's Central Jail when he took over in late 2006.

He said a curiously high number of reports were "cookie cutter" in nature, describing similar circumstances that often involved deputies using flashlights against inmates.

"The blow itself would glance off the shoulder and hit the inmate in the head, again and again and again," Olmsted said.

Olmsted said when he first took command of the jail, deputies acted like "they ran the place," and even confronted him on one of his first walks around the notorious third floor.

"They wanted to know what I, the captain of Men's Central Jail, was doing on their floor," Olmsted testified.

Another former captain at the jail, John Clark, suggested rotations to break up cliques of deputies.

"I was told Mr. Tanaka did not approve of the plan," Clark testified.

Clark said he was transferred out of his position within days.

A former jail watch commander, retired Lt. Al Gonzales, testified that deputies on the second and third floors of the jail would depart "in unison down the escalators... their faces expressionless."

Gonzales said he tried to warn one deputy that his behavior resembled that of a gang member, not a member of law enforcement, sworn to uphold the law. The defense suggested on cross-examination that the groups of deputies were simply friends - this was innocent camaraderie.

Gonzales also proposed rotating deputies to break up cliques. Gonzales testified that Tanaka told him, "You will stay off those floors and let deputies do what what they have to do."

Perhaps the most startling testimony of the day came from retired Capt. Steve Roller who described complaints about deputies at the Century Station who called themselves "The Regulators."

Roller referred to the deputy clique as a "rogue organization in charge of the station," and said they extorted citizens and probationary deputies to donate money to various causes, including a fundraiser for a suspended deputy.

Tanaka, Roller testified, told a group of Century Station deputies in 2007 that he "hated Internal Affairs," and that the unit had no place in the department.

According to a memo Roller wrote about that meeting, Tanaka said deputies should be "aggressive in their approach to dealing with gang members," and that "officers should function right on the edge of the line."

"I was just in shock," Roller testified. "Because it contradicted everything I was trying to do at Century."

Roller said he was transferred out of the station without warning less than three weeks after writing that memo.

Retired LASD Cmrd. Pat Maxwell told jurors that Tanaka ordered supervisors at the Norwalk Station to "allow deputies to work in the gray area."

"I was surprised," Maxwell testified. "I took that to mean outside policy or outside the law."

Maxwell said at another meeting, Tanaka again expressed his disdain for the department's Internal Affairs Bureau.

"We have 45 investigators, and in my opinion, that's 44 f---'ing too many," Maxwell paraphrased Tanaka as saying.

Defense attorneys tried to portray Maxwell as having a personal bias against Tanaka, noting that he filed what's known as a "Policy of Equity" complaint against Tanaka when he was the Assistant Sheriff.

LASD Sgt. Robert Bayes was the only witness Friday to testify about events directly connected to the scandal that enveloped the department in 2011 and led to the eventual indictment of Tanaka.

Seven other deputies, sergeants and lieutenants have already been convicted in the probe. Two others, including former Sheriff Leroy Baca, have pleaded guilty to reduced charges in exchange for reduced prison terms.

Bayes was the original detective assigned to the investigation of a contraband cellphone discovered inside the jail that August. Bayes told jurors how the investigation took a dramatic turn once LASD officials learned the phone belonged to the FBI.

It had been smuggled into the jail by a corrupt deputy as part of an undercover sting.

"The door burst open," Bayes recounted of an incident at Sheriff's Headquarters at the height of the investigation. "Undersheriff Paul Tanaka came out screaming, 'mother-f---, f---, f---.' He was complete irate."

Jurors also heard Friday from Peter Eliasberg, legal director for the ACLU of Southern California, which monitors conditions inside the jails as part of a federal consent decree.

Eliasberg described how the ACLU tried for years to warn LASD officials about excessive force and overcrowding inside the jails. He testified that time and time again, their complaints were ignored.

"Based on everything I've seen, the charges are warranted," Eliasberg told ABC7 outside court. "So, perhaps justice will be done, but I wish it had never come to this."

Former federal prosecutor Miriam Krinsky worked as Executive Director of the Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence, which spent months examining allegations of excessive force inside L.A. County Jails.

"When they cross the line, they create a seismic rift in the entire structure of our system of justice," Krinsky tells ABC7 of law enforcement officers who operate outside the law. "The foundation of our justice system is based on the the trust and faith that we have in law enforcement, and when it goes bad it shakes all of us to the core."

Tanaka's trial resumes Tuesday morning when convicted former deputy Mickey Manzo is expected to take the witness stand. Manzo, who is free on bond while his conviction is appealed, has been granted "statutory immunity" for his testimony.

Got a tip? Email Investigative Producer Lisa.Bartley@abc.com.

Related Topics:
trialcourt casecorruptionlos angeles county sheriff's departmentjailFBIDowntown LALos Angeles
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