LOS ANGELES – Former Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca was indicted Friday on charges of obstructing justice and conspiring with underlings to derail a federal investigation into beatings in the nation's largest jail system.
The charges that carry up to 20 years in prison come just days after Baca withdrew a guilty plea to lying to investigators and said he would go to trial before he is crippled by Alzheimer's disease so he could "set the record straight."
Baca, 74, made the decision knowing federal prosecutors were likely to bring stiffer charges, but his lawyers said he didn't have much choice when negotiations collapsed after a federal judge rejected a plea deal as too lenient. That deal would have put the longtime lawman in prison no more than six months.
Defense lawyer Michael Zweiback said Baca needed certainty about the sentence he would serve, and it appeared the judge was seeking several years behind bars. Judge Percy Anderson could have sentenced Baca up to five years in prison if he didn't withdraw his guilty plea, though he never indicated what kind of sentence he would have imposed.
Baca's prognosis, which will factor into his defense, was a driving force for opting for trial, Zweiback said earlier in the week.
"We have a very, very small window of time that we believe Mr. Baca's life will be normal," he said Monday. "There's a good likelihood that he'll be suffering very dramatically from the disease at issue. So if there was a possibility that he was going to go beyond his good years in prison, then he should go out and fight."
Baca, who withdrew his guilty plea to lying to federal authorities, now faces that charge in addition to obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice.
His lawyers didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Twenty members of the Sheriff's Department have been convicted in the probe that began after deputies discovered an inmate was an FBI informant gathering evidence about civil rights abuses by jailers.
Baca had denied any involvement in a scheme to hide the informant from the FBI in what conspirators dubbed "Operation Pandora's Box." The inmate was moved to different jails and listed under fictitious names, and deputies intimidated an FBI agent with the threat of arrest.
Baca stepped down in January 2014 after heading the nation's largest sheriff's force for 16 years.
In the plea agreement that has since been withdrawn, he acknowledged for the first time that he had lied to investigators and was aware of efforts to thwart the investigation.