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COLUMN ONE : The Slide From Cop to Criminal : They were once the elite of the war on drugs. They busted bad guys, won awards and seized millions in illicit money. But along the way they succumbed to greed and lawlessness.

BREACH OF TRUST. Inside the Sheriff's Department money-skimming scandal. First in a series

December 01, 1993|VICTOR MERINA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One night in September, 1989, Sheriff's Sgt. Robert Sobel told his wife he was leaving their Westminster home to buy a pack of cigarettes. Instead, he drove straight toward the ocean, with $12,000 in stolen drug money and thoughts of suicide.

Only hours earlier, the $100 bills were hidden in a roll-top desk, overlooked by investigators searching Sobel's house. Now, he was intent on ridding himself of the tainted cash.

Parking near the Long Beach Marina, Sobel walked to a bridge over the dark water and flung the package of bills into the ocean. He watched as they sank, then drove to a nearby berth where he boarded his sailboat, a 34-footer purchased with skimmed drug money.

Inside the cabin, Sobel unzipped a black bag and took out his 9-millimeter Beretta. He slid the pistol under his chin and cocked the hammer. In the distance, through a porthole, he could see the lights in the marina. Weeping, he grabbed the gun with both hands and shoved the barrel into his mouth, his finger curled around the trigger. But he could not squeeze it.

Minutes passed before Sobel put the gun down, engaged the safety and tossed the Beretta onto the bunk. Then he walked outside into the brisk night air--intent on breaking the code of silence he had followed during two decades as a sheriff's deputy.

Four years later, Sobel's decision to cooperate with federal prosecutors--and to testify against fellow narcotics officers--has helped unravel one of the worst scandals in local law enforcement history.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department became yet another police agency to fall under the scourge of corruption. With surprising swiftness, greed and lawlessness had taken root among a trusted corps of narcotics officers and spread within a department once considered incorruptible.

Played out in the country's cocaine capital, the affair demonstrated tragic pitfalls of drug enforcement work in the past decade. Experienced and much-decorated law officers succumbed to temptation while capturing millions of dollars in illicit drug proceeds for county and federal coffers. They bent the law and their own rules to put suspects behind bars. And, seeing themselves as unsung, underpaid warriors, they stole.

In all, 19 present or former deputies have been convicted of money skimming and other charges, several other officers are awaiting trial and a half-dozen family members or friends have been convicted or indicted in what has been dubbed Operation Big Spender.

Throughout the case, the 48-year-old Sobel has emerged as the central figure, lauded by some as a West Coast Serpico, vilified by others as a crooked cop who betrayed his brethren to save himself. Now serving a six-month prison sentence, he was the first deputy to admit that narcotics officers were raking off drug money. He was the first to cooperate with government investigators. He was the first to blame a "street justice" culture among deputies for brutality and other misconduct in the nation's largest sheriff's department.

Sobel was not alone in his crimes or his recriminations.

Other deputies eventually stepped forward, including Eufrasio G. (Al) Cortez, a former California Narcotic Officer of the Year. Like Sobel, Cortez told a sordid story of elite anti-drug teams skimming more than $1 million in drug money, beating suspects, planting cocaine, falsifying search warrants, lying in police reports and perjuring themselves.

Why did these veteran law enforcement officers resort to crime? How could they flourish? How were they caught? And what were the ramifications of their crimes?

Relying on interviews with convicted deputies, family members, other narcotics officers, investigators and prosecutors--as well as on court transcripts and other documents--The Times has pieced together what took place in this hidden corner of the much-publicized war on drugs.

For some deputies, their misdeeds were sudden aberrations by officers with otherwise unblemished reputations. For others, the slide from cop to criminal was a gradual descent into what one called "the pits of hell." For Sobel and Cortez, their own plunges began not long after they embarked on their law enforcement careers.

The Initiation

Unlike many sheriff's recruits, Robert Rhee Sobel did not come from a family of cops, nor did he hunger for a law enforcement job. Raised in Northern California, Sobel was a Vietnam veteran of Russian and Korean descent. After a brief stint at UCLA, he worked for a telephone company and as a newspaper truck driver before friends suggested he try law enforcement.

Hired by the Sheriff's Department in 1970, Sobel found that he enjoyed police work and finished third in his academy class. He relished the responsibility of upholding the law and the adrenalin rush that came from pursuing criminals.

"We showed up at the front door, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and we were going to save the world, do things by the book," Sobel said in an interview. "That changed when we saw how things really were on the outside."

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