LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Trial was underway Tuesday for Deputy James Sexton, the first of three deputies, two sergeants and two lieutenants accused of obstructing justice in a sweeping investigation of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and its jails.
Prosecutors say Sexton and his co-defendants obstructed a federal investigation by hiding inmate-turned-FBI informant Anthony Brown who was providing information to the FBI about alleged corruption and abuse by deputies inside Men's Central Jail.
It all began in the summer of 2011, when sheriff's deputies discovered that inmate Anthony Brown had a contraband cell phone he was using to communicate with his FBI handlers. The phone was found in Brown's belongings, wrapped in a glove and stashed inside a bag of Doritos.
Deputies didn't know it at the time, but Brown was part of an FBI sting operation inside the jail. The convicted armed robber told several jail deputies that he had access to money and drugs on the outside; he was willing to pay deputies to bring the contraband to him inside Men's Central Jail.
As Assistant U.S. Attorney Liz Rhodes said in her opening statements, "one deputy took the bait." Deputy Gilbert Michel met with Brown's "associate" on the outside, who was actually an undercover FBI agent. Michel took a cash bribe for himself and a cell phone for Anthony Brown.
Initially, Rhodes says the investigation into how Brown got the cell phone was low-priority, a possible misdemeanor charge for Brown. However, once LASD investigators realized Brown was using the phone to contact the FBI's Civil Rights Investigation Unit, the investigation took an urgent turn.
Co-defendant Lt. Greg Thompson issued an order that "no outside law enforcement" would be allowed to contact Brown without permission. FBI agents went to Men's Central Jail and despite Thompson's order, were allowed to meet with Brown. The agents were "kicked out" after about an hour and informed there would be no further visits with Brown.
Prosecutors say that's when Sheriff's Department officials realized they couldn't just hide Anthony Brown inside the jail; they had to make him disappear, by falsifying computer records and physically moving Brown to different locations, including the Sheriff's Department station in San Dimas. Brown was re-booked under a series of fake names. A team of deputies, including Sexton and co-defendants Mickey Manzo and Gerard Smith, guarded him around the clock. Prosecutor Liz Rhodes says Sexton described the Sheriff's Department's actions to a federal grand jury as "now, the wheels were off the wagon."
Prosecutors say Sexton, at Lt. Greg Thompson's request, was instrumental in changing changing computer records to make it appear that Brown was no longer in LASD custody. When FBI agent Leah Marx searched for Brown in the LASD database, records indicated that the convicted armed robber, who had recently been sentenced to 423 years to life, had been released. In fact, Brown was stashed away in that San Dimas jail cell, being guarded in 12-hour shifts by one team of deputies, and questioned by another team from the LASD's Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau.
Deputy Sexton is being represented by former U.S. Attorney Thomas O'Brien. In opening statements Tuesday, O'Brien characterized the case as a "jurisdictional battle" between the FBI and the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. O'Brien says former Sheriff Lee Baca was "irate" when he learned the FBI was investigating possible corruption and abuse inside county jails, which are run by the Sheriff's Department.
Deputy James Sexton was 26 years old, less than three years out of the academy, and part of an elite intelligence unit that investigated prison gangs and other criminal activity connected to the jails. O'Brien says Sexton was a "junior deputy" at the time, following orders from higher-ranking Sheriff's Department officials, including orders that trickled down the chain-of-command from Sheriff Baca and then Undersheriff Paul Tanaka.
O'Brien says Sexton's actions were part of the LASD's own investigation, "being done for a legitimate law enforcement purpose." Investigators found photos of drugs and cash on Brown's cell phone. One theory LASD investigators considered was that FBI agent Leah Marx was possibly a "rogue agent", that she was conducting an off-the-books, unauthorized investigation. Sheriff Baca repeatedly stated that the FBI had committed a crime by setting the plan in motion that allowed inmate Anthony Brown to receive that cell phone behind bars.
O'Brien argued that Brown was hidden for his own safety and that his name was changed to protect him from corrupt deputies who might view him as a snitch.
Deputy Sexton cooperated with federal agents before he was indicted late last year. O'Brien told jurors that Sexton shared details of the operation with the FBI and testified before a federal grand jury on two occasions. Court documents filed by the defense state that Sexton was not informed he was a target of the federal investigation until after his second appearance before the grand jury.
A declaration filed by defense attorneys in March indicates that federal authorities repeatedly asked Sexton to wear a wire to secretly record conversations between Sheriff Baca and Sexton's father, a friend of Baca's who had recently accepted a position as Baca's Chief of Homeland Security.
Prosecutors will begin calling their witnesses on Wednesday morning. Among those expected to testify in the coming days are FBI agent Leah Marx and the inmate-turned informant Anthony Brown.
Sexton's defense team is expected to call former Sheriff Lee Baca, former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, Captain Tom Carey, Lieutenant Steve Leavins and Steven Martinez, the former head of the FBI's Los Angeles Field Office.
Trial underway for first of 7 deputies accused of hiding inmate turned federal informant