Former deputy testifies about jail beatings, FBI sting

ByMiriam Hernandez and Lisa Bartley via KABC logo
Thursday, June 5, 2014
Ex-deputy testifies about jail beatings
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A central figure in a sheriff's department corruption case took the stand Wednesday.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Six L.A. County Sheriff's deputies are accused of obstructing justice. Wednesday, a central figure in the prosecution's case took the stand. There were a series of confessions in the courtroom.

Former Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Gilbert Michel took a long pause, stared straight at the jury, and then broke down as he described beating a handcuffed inmate inside Men's Central Jail.

"I asked him about a girl I knew that was 14 years old that he used as a prostitute. So, I beat the ---- out of that inmate and I threw him back in his cell and I didn't give him any medical attention," Michel told jurors as he choked back tears. "And then myself and my partners covered it all up and did not say anything to anyone."

Michel's dramatic testimony came during cross-examination Wednesday at the federal trial of six LASD deputies, sergeants and lieutenants accused of obstructing an FBI investigation into corruption and abuse inside L.A. County jails. This was day two of Michel's testimony.

Michel, 40, was caught red-handed in an FBI sting during the summer of 2011. Michel accepted $1,500 to smuggle a cellphone into jail for inmate-turned-FBI informant Anthony Brown. Michel's decision to accept that bribe set off a series of events that ultimately led to the indictment of seven deputy sheriffs and lingering questions about the involvement of higher-ranking LASD officials, including former Sheriff Lee Baca and current candidate for sheriff Paul Tanaka.

Michel later pleaded guilty to bribery and agreed to cooperate with federal investigators. On the stand Tuesday and Wednesday, he described a culture of abuse inside the jail: unprovoked beatings, huddling with fellow deputies to get their stories straight, and shooting one inmate with a stun gun as other deputies punched and kicked him on the floor.

Attorneys for the six defendants pointed out repeatedly that Michel is an admitted liar. Over and over again, Michel was asked about specific instances of brutality and whether Michel lied about them.

"Are you a truthful person Mr. Michel?" asked defense attorney Mike Stone. "No" replied Michel.

None of the six defendants currently on trial is implicated in any use of excessive force inside the jails. But prosecutors are using Michel's testimony about the beatings to show jurors why the FBI believed they needed to investigate allegations of brutality behind bars.

The elaborate FBI sting that led to Michel's downfall took place in a parking lot in South Los Angeles, with up to 10 FBI agents watching every move from the air and on the ground. It was July 2011. Michel accepted a total of $1,500 on two occasions from an undercover FBI agent in return for delivering a cellphone to inmate Anthony Brown. Michel says Brown promised to pay him up to $20,000 over a period of time.

FBI Agent Leah Marx testified Wednesday about the decision to provide Brown with that cellphone. Marx says agents hoped Brown could document possible beatings and other civil rights abuses on the cellphone and communicate in real-time with his FBI handlers.

The plan to have Brown report abuse from inside jail unraveled when the phone was discovered on August 8, 2011. LASD investigators soon learned the phone belonged to the FBI and was part of their wide-ranging investigation into corruption and abuse inside L.A. County jails.

Michel was caught in the middle as two of the nation's largest law enforcement agencies investigated each other. Michel tried to cooperate with both sides at different times. In a recorded interview with three LASD investigators, now defendants in this case, Michel was told he was being manipulated and blackmailed by the FBI.

Defendant Scott Craig, a sergeant with the LASD, told Michel, "I'm ordering you not to discuss this with anyone, not your girlfriend, not the FBI." Prosecutors say that is evidence the defendants obstructed justice.

Defense attorneys say their clients were conducting a legitimate investigation of their own. They wanted to know if the FBI had smuggled other contraband -- possibly drugs or more phones -- into the jail. Was it possible that a rogue FBI agent was behind the plan to give inmate Anthony Brown that phone?

Michel is expected to be sentenced on the bribery charge later this month and could get up to 10 years in federal prison. He told jurors on Wednesday that he expects he may also be prosecuted in the future for the abuse of inmates.

"He said 'I know my career is over and I know what I have done is wrong,'" Michel's attorney, Bob Brode, told Eyewitness News.

FBI Agent Marx also testified Wednesday about a series of internal LASD emails obtained during her investigation. One email, dated September 7, 2011, was sent from Tanaka aide Christopher Nee to defendant Sergeant Steve Leavins. The email refers to a court order the LASD attempted to get from a judge that would have required the FBI to turn over all documents related to their investigation.

Nee wrote: "Good afternoon. After the document gets signed, will you make a copy for Mr. Tanaka?" Leavins replies, "You got it."

On September 25, 2011, Tanaka sent an email to Leavins and his boss, Captain Tom Carey. It was an article in the Washington Post with the headline, "Justice Department Boosts Activity to Police the Police." Leavins replied, "I figured that was the motivation."

Tanaka, who recently admitted that he is also a "subject" of the FBI's ongoing investigation into obstruction of justice, has told Eyewitness News he was issuing orders passed down from Sheriff Lee Baca, orders he believed to be lawful.

Testimony ended Wednesday with prosecutors playing a video recording of Sergeants Scott Craig and Maricela Long confronting FBI Agent Marx outside her home and threatening her with arrest.

On that recording, Craig tells Marx she is a named suspect in a felony complaint. "I'm in the process of swearing out a declaration for an arrest warrant for you," says Craig. Prosecutors say Craig and Long both knew those statements were untrue. In addition to the charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice, Craig and Long are also accused of making false statements to the FBI.

FBI Agent Marx will continue her testimony on Thursday morning. Prosecutors are also expected to introduce grand jury testimony previously given by defendants Long, Craig and Leavins. The defense could begin their case Thursday afternoon or Friday.