LOS ANGELES (KABC) --Six sheriff's personnel are on trial, accused of obstructing justice by hindering an FBI investigation into county jails.
"Lock the jail, hide the federal informant, silence the witnesses and threaten the FBI agent." That was the alleged scheme outlined by federal prosecutor Liz Rhodes during opening statements Tuesday in the trial of six current and former LASD deputies, sergeants and lieutenants.
Lieutenant Greg Thompson, Lieutenant Steve Leavins, Sergeant Scott Craig, Sergeant Maricela Long, Deputy Mickey Manzo and Deputy Gerard Smith are accused of conspiracy and obstruction of justice for hiding inmate Anthony Brown after they learned he was secretly feeding information to the FBI about possible corruption and abuse by deputies inside the jails.
Sergeants Long and Craig are also accused of making false statements to the FBI. All six defendants have pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutor Liz Rhodes told jurors the FBI took a calculated risk by introducing a cellphone into Men's Central Jail in the summer of 2011 so that Brown could report back to the FBI in real time. Federal investigators wanted more information about allegations they were hearing from inmates about beatings, assaults and other abuses inside the jails.
As part of an FBI sting, inmate Anthony Brown convinced Deputy Gilbert Michel to bring him a cellphone in return for a bribe of $1,500. Deputy Michel, who has since pleaded guilty to bribery, didn't know that Brown's "associate" on the outside was really an undercover FBI agent.
Brown's phone was found on August 8, 2011, wrapped in a glove and stashed in a bag of Doritos. The investigation was initially low-priority for the Sheriff's Department, a possible misdemeanor charge for Brown who was already facing 423 years in prison for a string of armed robberies.
But, according to Rhodes, once that phone was linked to the FBI and a widening federal investigation of the LASD and its jails, everything changed. Plans to ship Brown to state prison were suddenly scrapped, Brown was moved, his name was changed, he was guarded around the clock and the FBI was barred from LASD jails without approval from Undersheriff Paul Tanaka.
In an email obtained by Eyewitness News, defendant Gerard Smith described the operation to fellow deputies as "one of the most important investigations involving the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, in its 160 year history." Smith told his colleagues that Brown was not to be moved, "without the presence of the following people: US Tanaka, ICIB Cpt. Tom Carey, ICIB Lt. Leavins, Lt. G. Thompson, Dep. G. Smith or Dep. M. Manzo."
Rhodes told jurors the next phase of the operation was to "silence the witnesses," including Deputy Gilbert Michel and inmate Anthony Brown.
Michel, who had initially agreed to cooperate with the FBI after the phone was discovered, suddenly changed his mind. Brown began to believe the FBI had abandoned him and wrote a letter to Long, Craig and Leavins stating: "I will no longer cooperate with the FBI. They've left me for dead." Rhodes told jurors, "He'd been silenced."
Sergeants Craig and Long conducted surveillance on lead FBI Agent Leah Marx and her partner on several occasions. On September 26, 2011, Craig and Long confronted Marx at her home and threatened her with arrest.
Defense attorneys told jurors during opening statements Tuesday that many of the facts surrounding "Operation Pandora's Box" are not in dispute. The question, they say, is why? Why did the LASD move Brown and why did they change his name? Defense attorneys contend that Brown was moved for his own protection, to keep him safe from possible retaliation from corrupt deputies or other inmates.
Bill Genego, attorney for defendant Gerard Smith, described the FBI undercover sting as "dangerous" and "risky," a scheme cooked up by "Anthony Brown and an FBI agent barely one year out of the academy."
Sheriff Lee Baca was livid and ordered a full investigation. He wanted to know how the phone got into the jail. Were there more phones yet to be discovered? Did the FBI also help to smuggle in drugs? Brown was to be isolated and the phone analyzed.
Defense attorneys characterized their clients as pawns in a larger turf war between the FBI and the LASD. They were following orders from higher-ups, including then-Sheriff Lee Baca and then-Undersheriff Paul Tanaka.
Retired Lieutenant Steve Leavins spent 27 years in the LASD. He'd never met Sheriff Baca until this investigation suddenly exploded. Leavins' defense attorney Richard Raynor told jurors his client met with Baca and Tanaka at least 10 times on the matter.
Scott Craig's attorney, Michael Stone, told jurors the investigation reached the highest levels of the LASD -- meetings with top brass including Baca and Tanaka. Members of a newly created task force worked in secrecy, squirreled away in the basement of Sheriff's Headquarters with the windows blacked out.
Brown told investigators incredulous stories, but those stories contained some "nuggets of truth." Sergeant Maricela Long's attorney, Angel Navarro, told jurors that Brown claimed his pregnant wife had been killed by the Gambino mafia crime family.
Navarro says Long and Craig were ordered to conduct surveillance on FBI Agent Leah Marx. They were told not to arrest her. The confrontation was recorded by the LASD. One day later, Marx's supervisor, Carlos Narro, called Sergeants Long and Craig on the phone. Sergeant Long told Narro in part, "Call Undersheriff Tanaka."
The trial is expected to last for one month. The trial of co-defendant Deputy James Sexton ended in a mistrial last week, with the jury split 6-6. There's no word yet if Sheriff Baca or former Undersheriff Tanaka will testify in the current trial.