Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca was convicted Wednesday of obstructing an FBI investigation into corrupt and violent guards who took bribes to smuggle contraband into the jails he ran and savagely beat inmates.
The trial cast a dark shadow over a distinguished 50-year law enforcement career that abruptly ended with his 2014 resignation from the nation’s largest sheriff’s department as the corruption investigation spread from rank-and-file deputies to his inner circle.
In addition to tarnishing his reputation as a policing innovator and jail reformer, the case threatens to put Baca, 74, who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, behind bars for up to 20 years.
“I am a faith-based person. My mentality is always optimistic,” Baca said outside court. “I look forward to winning on appeal.”
He was not in custody ahead of a Monday hearing to discuss his sentence for obstruction of justice, conspiring to hinder the probe and lying to investigators.
Baca appeared to have escaped the fate of more than a dozen underlings indicted by federal prosecutors until a year ago, when he pleaded guilty to a single count of making false statements to federal authorities about what role he played in efforts to thwart the FBI.
A deal with prosecutors called for a sentence no greater than six months. When a judge rejected that as too lenient, Baca withdrew his guilty plea and prosecutors hit him with two additional charges of conspiracy and obstruction of justice.
A jury last year deadlocked 11-1 in favor of acquittal on just the obstruction and conspiracy counts. Prosecutors then refiled the case.
The federal probe began in 2011 when Baca’s jail guards discovered an inmate with a contraband cellphone was acting as an FBI mole to record jail beatings and report what he witnessed.
Word quickly reached Baca, who convened a group to derail the investigation and ferret out more about what the FBI was focused on, prosecutors said.
“He lied to cover up his crimes,” Acting U.S. Attorney Sandra R. Brown said after Baca’s conviction.
His subordinates hid the FBI informant from federal agents by moving him between different jails and booking him under fake names. Other department members tried to intimidate his FBI handler by threatening to arrest her.
Defense attorney Nathan Hochman didn’t dispute those facts but told jurors that prosecutors had presented no evidence Baca gave orders to obstruct the FBI.
Hochman was frustrated in efforts to present evidence of Baca’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.
There was no evidence Baca suffered from the condition during efforts to impede the FBI in 2011, and Judge Percy Anderson said mention of it could harm the prosecution by swaying jurors to sympathize with the ailing former lawman and was speculative.
The issue might have arisen if Baca testified, but he sat silent throughout the proceedings.
Hochman only vaguely hinted at the issue, reminding jurors that Baca was 71 at the time of his interview with prosecutors and wasn’t lying but had forgotten details.
“The jury is only as good as the evidence it gets to consider,” Hochman said outside court. “Here the jury did not get to consider all the evidence, but the appellate court will. We look forward to prevailing on appeal.”
Outside court, Baca thanked his legal team, his wife and his friends and supporters.
“It’s just a privilege to be alive,” said Baca, who headed the sheriff’s department for 15 years before his resignation. “I feel good.”
Associated Press writer Andrew Dalton contributed to this story.