As part of an elite intelligence team, Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies Michael Rathbun and James Sexton turn inmates into informants, looking for tips on crimes and gang activity inside the nation's largest jail system.
Earlier this year, one of their informants offered up a bombshell: A fellow jail deputy was working as an operative for drug-smuggling, skinhead gangsters.
Following protocol, the partners detailed the allegations in a direct memo to their boss, Lt. Greg Thompson, the head of jailhouse intelligence.
But what happened next stunned them. Thompson told the deputy suspected of working with the skinheads about the memo and revealed to him the names of the confidential informant as well as those of Rathbun and Sexton, according to sources close to the case.
The informant's allegations echoed those against at least five jailers who have been convicted or fired in recent years over ties to a thriving drug trade behind bars. But the way this confidential information was handled was also part of a pattern. The Sheriff's Department has been accused in recent months of weak investigations of deputy misconduct and a corrosive code of silence that hamstrings those investigations from the start.
Even more than most tips, this one should have been handled discreetly, experts say. In the wrong hands, the information was dangerous. Inmates who cooperate with police are violently targeted by fellow inmates. Deputies who report colleagues for misconduct can be ostracized. And, if the deputy suspected of smuggling contraband got wind of the tip, catching him in the act would become nearly impossible.
The Times has found that days after the informant's cover was allegedly blown, he was moved out of protective custody and sent for at least several hours into general population housing, where he was more vulnerable to retaliation, according to internal custody records. Sheriff's officials were unable to explain why he had been moved.
The inmate was brought back into protective custody at the urgent pleading of Rathbun and Sexton, according to Rathbun's father, David -- a retired sheriff's official. A short time later, Sexton was confronted late one night in the employee parking lot by another jailhouse intelligence deputy who warned that Sexton and his partner had better keep their mouths shut, David Rathbun said.
David Rathbun, who served in the department for 35 years before retiring and is now a reserve deputy, said that even he felt intimidated. On three occasions since his son was revealed as a "snitch," he said, white supremacist pamphlets have been left outside his home.
Sexton and Michael Rathbun have declined to comment.
Sheriff Lee Baca also declined to discuss the situation, citing an ongoing probe. His spokesman, Steve Whitmore, refused to discuss specifics but said the department would take appropriate action.
Thompson is now the subject of an internal sheriff's investigation as a result of his alleged conduct. He declined to comment for this story.
According to the Feb. 9 memo written by Michael Rathbun and Sexton, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, the partners said they were alerted by the informant that a jail deputy at Men's Central Jailhad developed a close relationship with a prisoner named Charles Reimer. The informant had given the deputies reliable information in the past and was deemed credible by the pair.
Reimer, who went by the moniker "Fritz," was affiliated with the San Fernando Valley Peckerwoods, a skinhead gang. He wielded considerable influence over white inmates, according to the memo, such that he had "ordered physical discipline" against other inmates from his cell.
Nevertheless, the deputy allegedly bonded with Reimer over tattoo work, with the inmate offering to "hook him up" with free tattoos at a local parlor, one that also served as a hub for heroin sales, the memo states.
According to the memo, Reimer gave the deputy the phone number of a friend on the outside, a white supremacist gang member known as "Pest." Reimer told the deputy that "Pest" would get him tattooed for free. However, the informant, according to the memo, said "Pest" was more than just a tattoo enthusiast: He was a drug dealer who smuggled dope behind bars through "individuals turning themselves in for sentences or parole violations."
"These smuggled narcotics are then sold, with Reimer profiting," the memo states.
Over time, the informant alleged, the deputy became a go-between, passing messages between Reimer and "Pest," the memo states. On one occasion, the informant said he witnessed the deputy passing a small package, wrapped in brown paper, to Reimer.
The informant admitted he wasn't sure what was inside the package but said he would testify in court that he witnessed a hand-off, the memo states.