In the end, it wasn’t the jail beatings that caught up with Lee Baca. It wasn’t the unwarranted cavity searches or the broken eye sockets. It also wasn’t the rampage of deputy gangs who operated above the law in the jails and on the streets. Nor was it the cronyism — the promotions for yes-men and the little favors for golfing buddies.
Instead it was a very simple thing — lying to federal agents — that could send the former sheriff, now 73, to prison for up to six months.
But in a way, it is a perfectly fitting end to his five decades of public service. According to his guilty plea, Baca denied involvement in a cover-up of jail abuse. With Baca, denial ran deep. His ultimate problem — the one thing that destroyed his administration — was his inability to acknowledge problems.
Baca is one of the strangest and most fascinating people ever to wear the sheriff’s stars. To understand him and the scandals that undid him, it helps to know something about his childhood. He was made to feel unwanted. His parents split before his first birthday, and at 7 his mother tried to give him up for adoption.
His father’s parents took him in, and he lived with them until his father, somewhat grudgingly, reclaimed Baca when he was 14. At 18, Baca took the cadet test for the Los Angeles Police Department. He failed. When he came home, his father said, “Well, I didn't think you'd pass it anyway.”
This was not a promising start for a future sheriff. But somehow Baca was able to put all the rejection to one side and drive with single-minded focus toward his goals. Through a connection with Sheriff Sherman Block, he got hired by the Sheriff’s Department and began to rise through the ranks.
He also pursued intellectual interests. One of his favorite books was Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, which posits that the heroic struggle to build and achieve is a defense mechanism against the awareness of mortality. (It is no coincidence that Baca has often said, in total seriousness, that he plans to live to be 100 years old.)
“Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level,” Becker wrote.
Baca’s heroic impulse, as Becker would call it, propelled him to become sheriff. At first, he was hailed by progressive activists. Block had been a cop’s cop. Baca seemed like a Zen sage by comparison. He became a sort of global ambassador, jetting around the world to share a message of compassion and inclusion.
But there was also something fragile about him.
“Baca was beset by insecurities and self-doubt,” the Weekly wrote in 2012, “which made it hard for him to see his own flaws clearly, much less confront them. He seemed to resolve his self-doubts by banishing them, closing himself off from anything that might disturb his sunny aura.”
Over time, Baca surrounded himself with people who knew that he did not like to hear bad news. The effect of this was to cut him off from what was happening in the jails. As jail abuse claims mounted in 2010 and 2011, Baca often said they were blown out of proportion. He got frustrated when the media focused on jail beatings instead of his program to teach inmates life skills.
The episode that led to the criminal case against Baca began with the discovery of an inmate’s cellphone in August 2011. The inmate, Anthony Brown, had been using the phone to call FBI agents who were investigating corruption and abuse in the jail system.
According to the plea, Baca directed his subordinates to isolate Brown and prevent him from talking to the FBI. He also directed deputies to threaten an FBI agent with arrest — to “do everything but put handcuffs on her.”
This was not a rational act. But hiding the inmate was an extremely literal manifestation of Baca’s tendency toward denial and suppression. Instead of making the problem go away, however, it made things much worse. Had he been open to the FBI probe and agreed to let them examine the inmate’s allegations, Baca would not be pleading guilty to a crime today.
Instead, he is now the eighth Sheriff’s Department official convicted in connection with this episode. Thwarting a federal investigation, it turns out, is serious business.
It’s often said that “it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.” But in Baca’s case, it's not the crime or the cover-up. It’s lying to cover up the cover-up — a denial of a denial.
On April 13, 2013, Baca told federal agents that he had not participated in the efforts to hide Brown. He also said he had not been aware that deputies were planning to go to the home of an FBI agent to threaten to arrest her.
Baca did not waver from these statements even after they were contradicted by his deputies. This was, of course, self-serving, but it’s not impossible that he believed what he was saying.
He had long since found a home inside his own reality.