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Ex-LA Sheriff Lee Baca likely headed to prison after Supreme Court declines to review case

Alex Wigglesworth, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

"The Supreme Court is the final say on direct appeal," he said.

Baca has remained free while his appeals were pending. The Supreme Court's decision clears the way for U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson, who sentenced Baca, to set a date when the former lawman must begin serving his sentence.

The 9th Circuit must first issue a mandate sending notice to Anderson, who then can schedule a surrender date once he assumes jurisdiction of the case. That process could take several days, said Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office for the Central District of California.

Baca was the last in a group of Sheriff's Department deputies and commanders to be accused of playing a role in the 2011 scandal, which involved hiding an inmate who was an FBI informant and threatening to arrest the agent who was leading the investigation. All 10 of the people who faced charges in the case have either pleaded guilty or were convicted. They included Baca's second-in-command, former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who in 2016 was sentenced to five years in prison after a jury found that he had played a leading role in the scheme.

The obstruction plan played out over six weeks in August and September 2011, after sheriff's officials discovered FBI agents had used a corrupt deputy to smuggle a cellphone to a jail inmate who was working as an informant.

The audacious move was part of an investigation opened the year before into the Men's Central Jail, the main facility in the county's enormous detention system. For years, the Sheriff's Department had been dogged by reports of a place run amok, in which deputies routinely beat inmates without provocation and covered up the abuse, often with the knowledge of supervisors. Other corruption, including deputies who took bribes to sneak contraband to inmates, was said to be rampant as well.

Prosecutors argued during trial that word of the smuggled phone and the FBI investigation angered Baca and Tanaka, who viewed it as an unwarranted incursion into their territory by an outside agency.

With Baca's knowledge and, at times, his involvement, Tanaka oversaw a group of deputies and midlevel commanders who worked to derail the FBI investigation. They moved the informant under fake names to conceal his whereabouts from his handlers, pressured deputies and the informant not to cooperate with federal authorities and brazenly tried to intimidate the lead FBI agent on the case by threatening her with arrest.

 

Baca initially tried to plead guilty in a deal with prosecutors, but Anderson rejected it as too lenient and signaled he would impose a stiffer prison sentence than what was in the plea deal. Baca and his attorneys chose instead to withdraw his plea and take his chances at trial.

Baca nearly won an acquittal when all but one member of a jury wanted to find him not guilty. With the lone juror unwilling to budge, Anderson declared a mistrial. For the second trial, however, prosecutors revamped their case, and Anderson issued a string of rulings that hamstrung the defense.

The sentence deepened the stain already imprinted on Baca's legacy and the reputation he enjoyed as one of the nation's most visible and respected reformers in law enforcement. While quirky to the point of being enigmatic, Baca was seen as a champion of progressive ideas, including the need for police to build strong ties to minority communities. He stepped down in 2014 with the department engulfed in the jail scandal.

(Times staff writer Joel Rubin contributed to this report.)

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