LOS ANGELES (AP) – The effort by former Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca and his underlings to derail an FBI investigation into beatings in the jails he ran was dubbed Operation Pandora’s Box.
Like the Greek myth the name was based on, it contained troubles the conspirators never anticipated when federal investigators uncovered the scheme and went after Baca and his associates for obstructing justice.
Baca was the final casualty when he was sentenced Friday to three years in federal prison by a judge who rebuked the longtime lawman for failing to live up to the lofty values he preached, bringing shame to his department and forever tarnishing his legacy.
U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson, who exceeded a two-year term recommended by prosecutors, said Baca would have received five years behind bars if not for nearly a half-century of public service and because he’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
The judge, however, took exception to a defense contention that Alzheimer’s is a sentence of its own.
“As awful as Alzheimer’s disease is, it’s not a criminal penalty,” said Anderson, who said the suggestion was an insult to millions of others suffering from the condition who have not committed federal crimes. “Alzheimer’s disease is not a get-out-of-jail card.”
Baca, 74, was the most prominent defendant in the case that expanded from a civil rights investigation of beatings by guards in the nation’s largest jail system into a broader corruption scandal that led to the top of the department. In addition to Baca and his top lieutenant, 19 others were convicted of crimes ranging from assaults to obstructing justice.
The sentence was a blow to Baca, who had been seeking probation and home confinement.
Baca, dressed in a light blue suit, delivered a scattered address from hand-written notes outside the courthouse after the sentencing in which he thanked the people of Los Angeles County, his lawyers and his wife standing by his side, who he couldn’t immediately locate.
He declined to comment on the sentence. But as he waited to cross a street, he said he was a man of faith who believes life is precious.
“I love life no matter where I am,” Baca said.
He was ordered to surrender to federal prison authorities July 25. He was convicted in March of obstructing justice, conspiring to obstruct justice and lying to federal authorities.
Baca and others launched Operation Pandora’s Box after discovering a jail inmate with a contraband flip phone was acting as an FBI informant. The group conspired to hide the inmate by changing his name in computers, moving him among different facilities and threatening to arrest his FBI handler.
Furious about the investigation, Baca confronted the local FBI head and top federal prosecutor saying he was ready to “gun up” for battle with them.
“Rather than stop the abuses in the jails, he entered into a conspiracy with his subordinates to obstruct a federal civil rights investigation to protect his legacy,” acting U.S. Attorney Sandra Brown said. “He made a decision to protect what he called his empire, his jails and then simply to protect himself.”
Baca, who served 15 years as sheriff and nearly half a century in the department, abruptly resigned in 2014 under a cloud.
He escaped charges until last year when he agreed to plead guilty and face no more than 6 months in prison. Anderson rejected the deal as too lenient, and Baca withdrew his guilty plea and went to trial.
The convictions tarnished Baca’s reputation as a soft-spoken, peaceful, progressive reformer who promoted education and rehabilitation for inmates and preached tolerance and understanding among different cultures and faiths.
Defense attorney Nathan Hochman said Baca’s misdeeds over six weeks in 2011 and four false answers to 400 questions during a voluntary interview with authorities in 2013 had to be balanced against an “extraordinary record of public service” and his condition, which has progressed to mild dementia.
More than 200 friends and supporters wrote letters of support for Baca, including former Mexican President Vicente Fox, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, Hollywood executives, clergy and former jail inmates.
“For 48 years, he served the people of Los Angeles with all his might, with all his heart,” Hochman said.
Baca plans to appeal, challenging several of Anderson’s rulings, including a decision not to allow medical experts to testify whether Baca’s medical condition impaired his memory when he lied to federal authorities.
Anderson said Baca’s fall was tragic, but he knew he was doing wrong and the actions by deputies who brutalized inmates had ruined lives and done lasting damage to the community.
“Your actions are an embarrassment to the thousands of men and women who put their lives on the line every day,” Anderson said. “Blind obedience to a corrupt culture has serious consequences.”
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