Disgraced deputy testifies against former Sheriff Lee Baca

ByLisa Bartley via KABC logo
Wednesday, December 14, 2016
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Former Sheriff Lee Baca is on trial in a federal corruption case.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Shackled and handcuffed, disgraced former Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Deputy Gilbert Michel shuffled to the witness stand Tuesday at the federal corruption trial of former Sheriff Leroy Baca.

For years, Michel proudly wore the LASD's signature tan-and-green deputy uniform. Now he's clothed in a white prison jumpsuit with a bright orange shirt underneath.

Michel told jurors Tuesday about his downward spiral into corruption in the summer of 2011, a spiral which prosecutors say dragged Baca and others down along with him.

Former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka and eight other former LASD deputy sheriffs have already been convicted or pleaded guilty in the federal obstruction of justice probe.

Baca has pleaded not guilty.

In July 2010, the FBI began investigating brutality and corruption in the jails. After months of interviewing various inmates, FBI agents recruited jail inmate Anthony Brown to feed them information from behind bars. Brown eventually played a pivotal role in an undercover FBI sting by bribing Michel to smuggle him a cell phone.

"I made a mistake, I did wrong," Michel told Eyewitness News after his sentencing in June of this year. Michel is currently serving a six-month sentence for bribery.

Baca's defense attorney Nathan Hochman showed jurors FBI photographs from the two encounters when Michel accepted the cash bribes. FBI surveillance from the sting operation shows Brown's "friend" on the outside giving Michel the contraband cellphone in exchange for $1,500.

Michel learned later that Brown's friend "CJ" was actually an undercover FBI agent.

On the witness stand Tuesday, the normally clean-cut Michel appeared dramatically different - in prison clothes, with shaggy hair and a graying beard.

Prosecutors say the corruption was clear as deputies tasked by Baca and Tanaka questioned Michel about what he'd told the FBI after the contraband cellphone was discovered during a routine search.

In audio recordings of the LASD interrogation of Michel played for the jury and obtained by Eyewitness News, LASD investigators encourage Michel to cooperate with the Sheriff's Department - telling him he's being "blackmailed" and manipulated "like a puppet" by the FBI.

Jurors listened to the recordings as Michel was ordered by Sergeant Scott Craig to not talk to the FBI. Lt. Steve Leavins tells Michel that he's a "pawn" in the FBI's little game.

Lt. Steve Leavins: "Is this just about a cellular telephone Gilbert?"

Deputy Gilbert Michel: "No, sir."

Leavins: "What's this about? Open your mind up here a little bit!"

Michel: "It's about, they're trying to bring down the department ... and find out information."

Leavins: "And Gilbert, who are they trying to use to do that?"

Michel: "Me, sir."

Leavins: "Thank you."

In a later interview with the same LASD investigators, Michel confessed to more than just smuggling the cellphone to Brown. Michel described kicking, punching and kneeing handcuffed jail inmates without justification - the very reason the FBI was investigating the jails in the first place.

Michel got emotional - choking up on the witness stand when asked to read an email between LASD investigators sent during that second interview. Michel paused for nearly a minute, collecting himself before he read the email.

"That idiot Michel is confessing to beating handcuffed inmates with other deputies... not looking good," Michel read from the email.

Baca's defense? Separate the former sheriff from the illegal acts of his deputies.

On cross-examination, Baca's attorney Hochman asked Michel - when you beat up inmates, when you falsified reports, when you were taking bribes - did you ever ask the sheriff?

"No, sir," Michel answered.

Hochman went on to question Michel about his plea deal and cooperation agreement with federal prosecutors.

Michel has testified at a series of federal trials. In return, prosecutors recommended a more lenient sentence for the former deputy. Michel is expected to be released from prison next month after serving a six-month term.

Earlier in the day, former LASD Deputy Tara Adams testified that "angry" jail deputies - who said they were acting on Tanaka's orders - demanded that she change data in the jail computer system to hide Brown.

Adams refused, saying she could not alter computer records to make it appear as if Brown had been "released" without a court order.

"Are you going to tell Tanaka, no?" Adams says the deputies asked her. Adams told the deputies she wouldn't do it unless Tanaka put the order in writing.

Despite Adams' refusal, a "scared and nervous" civilian records clerk then complied with the deputies' request to falsify the records and Brown was "released" from the LASD computer system.

The FBI could not find and had no further contact with their informant, Brown, until he was shipped to state prison weeks later.

On cross-examination, Baca defense attorney Tinos Diamantatos made one key point, asking Adams - "You had no conversations with Leroy Baca?"

"Correct," Adams replied.

Outside court after her testimony, Adams told Eyewitness News she's "glad it's over." Adams resigned from the LASD in 2014 and has since settled a retaliation lawsuit against the department.

Prosecutors are wrapping up their case against Baca. Witnesses still expected to take the stand include lead FBI agent on the case Leah Marx and former U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr.

Birotte, now a federal judge, is expected to testify about a tongue-lashing he received from Baca at the height of the tensions between the LASD and federal investigators.

Got a tip? Email ABC7 Investigative Producer Lisa.Bartley@abc.com