Closing arguments: Ex-Sheriff Lee Baca was 'king' of chess match w/ FBI

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Lee Baca was more than just the sheriff of Los Angeles County. Baca was the "king" in an elaborate and high-stakes chess match between the department and FBI, prosecutor Brandon Fox told jurors during the government's rebuttal closing arguments on Monday.

Fox drew on Baca's own alleged reference to the face-off between the law enforcement agencies as a "chess match" - and then took the analogy further.

Fox likened the convicted lower-ranking deputies, sergeants and lieutenants to pawns, knights and bishops that Baca used to control the game - and obstruct the FBI's investigation into brutality and corruption inside Men's Central Jail.

"The pawns and bishops go out to attack and do all the dirty work," Fox said.

He told jurors that Baca cast the blame on his underlings. "It's all their fault," Fox told jurors of Baca's alleged mindset.

The case is now in the hands of the jury. The jury of eight men and four women deliberated for about 45 minutes Monday afternoon before heading home. Deliberations resume at 8 a.m. Tuesday.

Baca, 74, is charged with three felony counts: conspiracy to obstruct justice, obstruction of justice and lying to federal investigators. He has pleaded not guilty.

The former sheriff's first trial ended in December with the jury hopelessly deadlocked 11-to-1 for acquittal.

"Motive is the million-dollar question here," said Miriam Krinsky, a jail reform advocate and former federal prosecutor. "There is no dispute that certain acts took place. The question is why did they take place and what was in Lee Baca's mind?"

Prosecutor Lizabeth Rhodes told jurors that Baca "ran this conspiracy the same way he ran his department," by issuing orders others would carry out -- acts that, in this case, prosecutors said were criminal.

"Defendant Baca knew he had a big problem," Rhodes said. Once he learned the LASD was on the FBI's radar, Baca obstructed justice and lied about it because "his department and his legacy" were at risk.

Baca is accused of telling four specific lies during a recorded interview with federal investigators in April 2013. Among them -- when did he know two LASD sergeants were planning to confront lead FBI Special Agent Leah Marx outside her home?

"So, the call from Mr. Martinez was the first time you were aware that somebody was going out to Leah Marx's house to threaten to arrest and charge her, is that correct?" prosecutor Fox asks in the recorded interview played for jurors.

"Yes," Baca replied. "I wasn't aware of any of the investigative particulars."

"There are a lot of pieces of evidence that suggest his interview with the government in 2013 was peppered with false statements," Krinsky said.

Prosecutors reminded jurors of witness testimony that Baca was briefed ahead of time and allegedly told his investigators, "Just don't put handcuffs on her."

And how did Baca react when he saw video of the sergeants threatening to arrest Special Agent Marx?

"Baca laughed," Fox told jurors, "because they did exactly what he wanted them to do."

"That's not how a leader acts," Fox told jurors. "That's how a criminal acts."

Baca defense attorney Nathan Hochman implored the jury to "see through the eyes of Baca."

Inmate-turned-FBI informant Anthony Brown initially claimed that multiple deputies were smuggling contraband into the jails - not just cellphones, but drugs.

"Sheriff Baca wanted to join the investigation, not thwart it," Hochman told jurors -- but he was "stonewalled" by the FBI for six weeks.

"Sheriff Baca had nothing to hide," Hochman said. "Paul Tanaka had a different agenda."

Prosecutors have played video for jurors of Baca describing his relationship with former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka as "like father and son."

Hochman told jurors Monday that a "son sometimes hides things from his dad," reiterating his argument that Tanaka was the actual "heartbeat of the conspiracy."

"I think the defense did a good job of trying to put a different lens on the evidence," Krinsky told Eyewitness News.

Hochman referred to the prosecution's evidence as, "spaghetti thrown against the wall to see what sticks."

As for the co-conspirators who testified against Baca? Hochman told jurors they received "sweetheart deals" from the prosecution in return for their testimony - "baskets of goodies" that could include shorter prison terms.

"Sheriff Baca couldn't have been more open, direct and transparent," Hochman said, reminding the jury that Baca told U.S Attorney Andre Birotte that he believed the FBI had committed a crime.

Baca, Hochman said, put a "white hot spotlight on everything he was thinking," including calling the FBI "incompetent" to carry out an investigation into the jails.

Got a tip? Email ABC7 investigative producer
Copyright © 2020 KABC-TV. All Rights Reserved.