Returning to their office trailer at Lennox Station, the five Los Angeles County sheriff's narcotics deputies eyed the $5,000 bundles of cash stacked on the office couch.
Then their leader, Sgt. Robert R. Sobel, announced that the crew would skim some of the money they had just seized in a successful drug raid.
"Each crew member took a bundle off the couch and returned to their desks," Sobel told a federal court jury in recounting the 1986 incident.
As he described the alleged theft, Sobel used the same matter-of-fact tone that has marked his two weeks of testimony during the civil rights trial of six narcotics officers accused of stealing drug money, planting drugs on suspects and beating and torturing some of them.
One suspect was thrown down a flight of stairs, another was beaten unconscious with a flashlight and several others were nearly drowned in a motel hot tub as officers tried to extract information, Sobel said.
But defense attorneys quickly challenged his testimony.
"So much of this is made up," said attorney Lindsay Weston after one court session. "It's just Sobel's fantasy, pure fantasy."
For Weston's client--Deputy Roger R. Garcia--and the other defendants, whether the jury believes Sobel will be one of the key factors in determining the fate of the veteran officers.
In addition to Garcia, deputies John L. Edner, Edward D. Jamison, J.C. Miller, Robert S. Tolmaire and Los Angeles Police Department detective Stephen W. Polak were members of an anti-drug task force who worked with Sobel in the mid- to-late 1980s.
As members of the Lennox/Southwest Crew, they targeted both middle-level and major drug dealers. And as their supervisor, Sobel was a leader with a flamboyant nickname--El Diablo--and a hard-charging style that made his crew one of the most active drug enforcement teams in the Sheriff's Department and LAPD.
But Sobel told jurors that his team was lawless in its anti-drug crusade.
The 46-year-old Sobel testified that his officers tortured and beat drug dealers in an effort to coerce them into confessions or force them to become informants.
In one case, Sobel said Tolmaire slugged a handcuffed drug dealer so savagely with a flashlight that the man lapsed into unconsciousness. Fearful that he might be dead, Sobel said, one of the deputies--"It might even have been me"--grabbed the dealer by the testicles to make sure he wasn't feigning injury.
"After he jumped," Sobel said, "Tolmaire got angry and began beating him again."
On another occasion, Sobel said he watched as Miller took a running start, leaped in the air and landed "a body slam" on a handcuffed suspect lying face-down on the floor. The force was so violent, Sobel said, that "it shook the house."
The ex-sergeant also described how deputies allegedly took drugs that had been seized in one raid and used them to plant on other suspects. A plastic sandwich bag of cocaine was slipped into the purse of one drug dealer's wife, he said, and a kilogram of cocaine was planted in the bedroom of another home.
Other drugs, meanwhile, were taken from the evidence locker to be used as evidence in unrelated cases, he said.
Sobel testified that it was an "open secret" among crew members that Polak carried a stolen kilogram of cocaine in the trunk of his car for weeks waiting for an opportunity to plant it on someone. During one surveillance, he said, Polak showed him a plastic bag of cocaine in his jacket that he was going to plant in another dealer's car.
Sobel also testified that Edner shot at an unarmed drug dealer after a car chase, then concocted a story--backed by the rest of the crew--that it was the fleeing drug dealer who had fired on deputies.
Phony police reports and falsified search warrants were routine among crew members, Sobel said. In addition to lying about finding suspects with drugs, officers fabricated stories about "confidential reliable informants" buying drugs from suspects, he said, and they lied about conducting surveillance on suspected drug houses. Such information was used to obtain search warrants and justify raids, he said.
Sobel testified that, in one case, deputies needed a confidential informant to appear before a judge and support their request to search a drug dealer's house. Using an informant from another case, the deputies showed the man pictures of the dealer, fed him information about the dealer and then told the informant to say he bought drugs from the dealer, Sobel said. The informant lied to the judge, and the crew got their warrant.
During his testimony, Sobel rarely looked at his former colleagues, who sometimes shook their heads in disagreement as he spoke.