From Beat-downs to Bear Hugs

My Journey from L.A. County Custody to Sheriff Lee Baca’s Wild World of Wheelin’ and Dealin’

'03 Gold Star AwardsIn 2003 I was hired to write a teleplay for the 2nd Annual California Gold Star Awards: Dedicated to Homeland Security – a Donald Sterling, black-tie, $25,000 per-table fundraiser for the Orange County Reserve Deputy Sheriff’s Association held at the Disneyland Hotel. L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca was representing, and security for the luminary-laden event was, according to the official press release, listed as “war mode.”

Now for those of you somehow unfamiliar with the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, the event’s principal underwriter, Donald Sterling, is one of Southern California’s largest real estate moguls. He’s also routinely accused of flagrant racism, not least of all by the U.S. Department of Justice for his attempts to exclude blacks, Latinos and prospective tenants with children from renting apartments in properties he owns. Even when it appears as though others are honoring him, words like “fake,” “ugly,” and “mirage” have been used to describe Sterling’s garish “philanthropy,” while he himself enjoys a widespread reputation for being miserly, sexist, and self-aggrandizing. (UPDATE: 8/6/14 Well, I guess there’s no question now what the world thinks of the man now, eh?) 

Donald Sterling

So it’s no surprise that Sterling’s 2003 Gold Star Awards wound up a salute to scheming police officials, usual-suspect politicians, and cop-groupies coating themselves in the shellac of syrupy righteousness – even if it did take several years for the veneer of “honor” and “heroism” to wear off for many of the evening’s celebrants. These days, the long string of fallen dominos looks like its heading the way of wheeler-dealer Lee Baca, as the FBI and ACLU climb into bed together to investigate the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department.

Fallen from grace
George Jaramillo and Mike Carona

Back on that chilly April night in 2003, it was my job as “Show Writer” to be responsive to every conceit the producers chose to throw at the podium, no matter how vomitus. My duties even included “Voice of the Theater” lines, such as:

And now, ladies and gentlemen, we’re pleased to introduce tonight’s Event Chair and Master of Ceremonies, Mr. Arthur Kassel.

I halfheartedly wish I’d known Art before his wife, Tichi, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Meeting her allowed me to confirm that Kassel had been a kinder and much less agitated dude once upon a time. But I’d gotten the later version: Baca buddy, founder of the Eagle and Badge Foundation, driver of Ford Crown Vic Police Interceptors, and bear of a gun nut who didn’t go three feet without a Glock 17 holstered to his hip.

Crook love

In person, Kassel is the spitting image of Broderick Crawford’s Harry Brock from the 1950 film adaptation of Born Yesterday. Everything about him says cop groupie, and he brings out the police courtesy in people regardless of the fact that his badge reads “Reserve” and is mainly a product of his friendship with Lee Baca. In ’03, his police vehicle had come courtesy of former Gov. Pete Wilson, who’d appointed Kassel to CA’s Department of Mental Health as some sort of celebrity/security/anti-stigma liaison. (Shame he had to quit recently due a state audit that says he did jack shit for his salary). L.A. Sheriff’s Department spokesman Steve Whitmore described Art to the L.A. Times as “an unpaid part of the Sheriff’s kitchen cabinet” and a member of the “loose-knit group of friends the Sheriff sometimes consults.” Lee Baca's "cabinet"

After several years of working together and having perfected the art of high-profile charity chintz, Donald Sterling and Art Kassel trumped up this particular fundraiser from pieces and players willing or bidding to return (plus maybe a handful who were convinced by the promise of reciprocity). Production staff meetings were held at either Art’s Beverly Hills home or at Trader Vic’s: at both, one got the feeling of being a potentially useful source of plasma that Kassel would forget about before he put his fork down. Yet somehow the whole experience was worth feeling like the gum on the bottom of Art’s shoe. Even if the writing credit felt, well, awkward, you knew you were being allowed an exclusive peek behind the curtain of a powerful tit for tat choreography. During one meeting, for instance, Art put his pal Lee Baca on speaker phone so we all could hear his half-joking demand, “When am I going to get my fuckin’ helicopter?”

L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca

Good God, I wondered, is it really that simple?

Kassel didn’t skip a beat. “Relax! You’ll get your chopper; it’s being handled.” He muted the phone and said to the room, “He’s pissed the boys have only one air unit.”

Then he clicked back to Baca and countered, “Can you green light the silent auction ride or not?” He was referring to a proposed airborne ride-along in the unit the department did have at the time; I don’t recall if the ride actually made it into the event’s auction, but apparently it really is that simple.

Now, if you’re aware that this blog also serves as an information point for Where Excuses Go to Die, my chronicle of the four years I spent in the California prison system, you’re probably wondering how I got to this point. During that helicopter exchange and others like it, I wondered the same damn thing. See, when I was a pre-trial inmate in L.A. County custody, I was sent to the notorious 3rd floor modules of Men’s Central Jail and left to fend for myself for a while. For many months, I wasn’t asked who I was, what I was doing there, or when my next scheduled court appearance would be. My efforts to alert the Deputies went ignored, because most jail-duty Deputies hate prisoners who “think they’re special.” Trying to speak to them is special.

Men's Central Jail
Sheriff Lee Baca’s Town Hall Meeting

My dad’s inquiries went ignored as well, and MCJ became the place where I survived my first fights, the barbarity of the “9000 Block,” and the stopgap housing known as the “3-thousand Floor”cell modules. I also got my ass kicked by several Deputies for alerting them to a body I found in a cell. But through it all I discovered a voice within me that seemed worth protecting, which is basically what Where Excuses Go to Die is about.

So in those moments in Art Kassel’s house – one containing easily a thousand or more framed photos of him and every tough-on-crime VIP out there – with him sitting next to me wearing that gun, with his twin Crown Vics outside, and with current L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca suddenly asking what I’d written for him, I felt electrified, duplicitous, and grateful.

LASDAll these years later, as the FBI demonstrates to the world that Baca’s jail and the Deputies who run it are everything they have been accused of being for decades; as the Sheriff is forced to hold televised Town Hall Q&As with inmates inside the dungeon itself, Baca has got to be asking himself the same thing I was back then: How the hell did I get here? '03 Gold Star Awards

But on the night of the Gold Star Awards ceremony, a red carpet entrance let hired photographers play like hungry paparazzi. Celebrity presenters, recipients, and seat-fillers included Honorary Event Chairs Gena & Chuck Norris, and Ketel One hosted a popular vodka ice bar. Dueling silent and live auctions filled the coffers of the OC Reserves. Shaq showed up wearing his newly issued L.A. Port Authority uniform, and the ballroom was decorated so patrio-tastically you’d have thought the Japanese had just surrendered. Holier-than-thou super-honkies and their weird-boned, carved-face wives paraded around with so much glowing orange skin you were tempted to hold out a sack for candy and ask, trick or treat?

'03 Gold Star Awards
(from back left) Art Kassel, Bernard Kerik, Shaquille O’Neal, Lee Baca

The best part was watching an almost giddy Lee Baca come back down the stage ramp after his presentation, shaking hands and chatting. When he got to me, he squinted at my laminate, then wrapped me in a giant bear hug. Holy shit! I thought. I wonder what he’d do if he knew who he was hugging! I almost thanked him for his Department’s “hospitality” but decided to enjoy the professional accomplishment instead.

'03 Gold Star Awards

As for that question of how I got to this point, the short answer is that someone thought I was worth a shot at the work. So she rewarded me by feeding me to Arthur Kassel. That April ’03 gala was actually the third gold-plated show I’d written for Kassel and Sterling and even former Sheriff Lee Baca. Talk about surreal.

What’s even more surreal is that, in the years since, I’ve had numerous occasions to marvel at just how similar cops and criminals can be.



Want more? Here’s a virtual salad of links and deeper reading recommendations on the post-show fates of presenters, recipients, and sponsors of the 2nd Annual California Gold Star Awards:

'03 Gold Star Awards
Former Assistant Sheriff Don Haidl