Tyson Baker's fellow cop wore wire, helped FBI make case
VIDEO Baker surveilance
When the FBI and the state Attorney General's Office decided to look deeper into their "concerns" about then-Fairview Township Police Officer Tyson Baker, they reached out to one of his co-workers for help.
Fairview Township Police Sgt. Michael Bennage, on the force for a decade, was first on the witness stand as Baker's federal trial started Monday, Sept. 11, in Harrisburg.
It was Bennage who helped the FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office make a case against Baker, who is accused of destruction or removal of property to prevent seizure; destruction, alteration or falsification of records in federal investigations; and taking federal money.
"They had some concerns with Tyson and asked me to sort of keep my ear to the ground," Bennage told jurors, adding that was in spring 2015. "I felt I had to but didn't really want to."
He said he ultimately agreed "out of a sense of doing the right thing."
Wired: By summer 2015, the FBI had given Bennage recording equipment he could conceal in his clothing, according to Bennage, because Baker had spoken about stealing cash from drug traffickers.
"He said we had to start ripping off drug dealers as a means to deal with (our financial issues)," he testified.
Bennage told jurors he felt "very uneasy, very uncomfortable" and scared at the idea of wearing a recording device but again agreed.
On Sept. 4, 2015, Bennage told Baker he'd received information from a prostitute about a drug dealer who drove through Fairview Township with large amounts of cash, he said.
VIDEO: Baker Confession
"I didn't suggest anything ... just mentioned it," he testified, adding it was a lie. "(Baker) was happy and said it sounds like a straight-up rip(off). We would stop the car, take the money and let the guy go."
'Straight-up rip': Jurors heard the recording of the conversation, in which a voice Bennage said was Baker's says, "That sounds like a rip to me — a straight-up rip."
On Nov. 15, 2015, Bennage used Narcan, the opioid antidote, to revive a heroin overdose victim at a local fast-food place, after which he held the man's property, including his cash, when the man was taken to the hospital. That included about $150 cash, he said.
"Tyson sent me a text and asked me where his cut was," Bennage testified, adding he stalled by saying he was being watched by another officer and didn't have a chance to take the man's money.
Five days later, on Nov. 20, 2015, Fairview Township Police received an anonymous call about a strong odor of marijuana coming from a home in the Green Lane Manor development. Bennage said he went out in plain clothes and was able to smell pot from the sidewalk.
He said he typed up a search warrant, had a judge sign it and then he and five or six other officers from his and nearby departments raided the house.
Stash of cash: Inside the garage they found a drug dealer named Christopher Witmer, who was known to them, Bennage said. In the trunk of Witmer's car they found 7 pounds of pot and nearly $15,000 cash, he said.
Baker worked later but caught wind of the raid and reached out to Bennage, the witness said.
"He told me, 'Tonight's the night. Don't get greedy. Be smart,'" Bennage told jurors.
Back at the station, Baker kept asking Bennage about the money, according to Bennage, who testified he eventually took $2,000 of the cash at Baker's direction and left half of it inside Baker's private vehicle in the police parking lot.
The other thousand he turned over to the FBI, with whom he was in regular communication, he said.
Baker filled out the department's property/evidence form for the raid and listed the total amount of cash recovered as $12,902, when in fact the total amount was $14,902, according to Bennage.
Headphones taken: Baker also stole a set of pricey Bose headphones from Witmer's seized property and gave them to Bennage, apparently because Bennage had admired them, the witness testified. The headphones also didn't get listed on the property form, which was shown in open court.
Throughout that night, Baker kept trying to position Bennage so the officer was alone with Witmer's cash, according to Bennage.
Recorded that night was Baker on tape asking Bennage, "Did I buy you enough time?" Jurors heard that recording as well.
Bennage said Baker was asking whether Bennage had enough time to take the cash.
Bennage said Baker later explained to him the idea of "plausible deniability."
Baker said he couldn't help it if $1,000 shows up in his possession and that if they got caught, it was Bennage's career on the line, according to Bennage.
The FBI sting: Bennage also testified about the FBI sting operation that led to Baker's arrest, in which Bennage pulled over a purported drug trafficker — really an FBI agent — in Fairview Township on Dec. 16, 2015.
The "dealer" had a federal warrant issued by the FBI, which then reached out to Bennage and Baker and repeatedly instructed them not to search the dealer's SUV, Bennage testified.
While Bennage drove the "dealer" down to York City, where the man's fellow FBI agents picked him up, Baker had the SUV towed to his department's secure impound building, Bennage said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney William Behe told jurors that Baker searched the car in defiance of FBI instructions, stealing $3,000 in cash and a camera system that had been set up to catch him in the act.
Bennage testified that later, he and Baker returned to the impound area together, which is when Baker showed him the camera system. Baker also pointed out a duffel bag full of pills and cash, Bennage said.
Flushed, sweating: Baker was flushed and sweating — staring at the camera, then staring at Bennage, then staring at the camera again, Bennage testified.
"In my mind ... he was figuring out what was going on," the sergeant told jurors. "I actually unholstered my gun in case there was going to be a gunfight."
But Baker hadn't figured out he was the real FBI target or that Bennage was working with the feds.
And a short time later, he made a cryptic statement, according to Bennage: "He looked at me and smiled and winked and said, 'Merry Christmas.'"
Baker later gave Bennage $1,000 of the $3,000 he took from the FBI sting car, according to Bennage, who said he turned that over to the FBI, along with the Bose headphones.
Opening statements: During his opening statement, Behe told jurors the Baker case is about abuse of power and abuse of trust by a man who swore to uphold the law, not break it.
Baker, who was a Fairview Township officer for 17 years, initially denied taking the cash when he was called into the FBI office in Harrisburg on Dec. 18, 2015 — but eventually confessed on tape, Behe said.
Behe told jurors they will hear Baker say, "I embarrassed myself, and I am an embarrassment to my profession."
'Human tragedy': But Philadelphia-based defense attorney Jack McMahon told jurors during his opening that Baker was a decorated police officer who'd received a number of commendations and awards, including police officer of the year.
But Baker felt "enormous pressure" after his wife, Shannon Baker, was diagnosed with breast cancer and they found themselves struggling to pay $20,000 in medical bills while raising two children.
"It's a human tragedy," McMahon said, because the FBI "knew this man was at a breaking point" and preyed on his desperation with temptation.
McMahon acknowledged that what Baker did was wrong and that his subsequent firing is what should have happened. He's been disgraced, the attorney told jurors.
"But did he commit a federal crime? No," McMahon said. "He didn't intend to keep that (money) forever."
Like a payday loan: McMahon said Baker intended to pay back the cash — that in his "tortured mind," Baker saw it as a kind of payday loan
In fact, the attorney claimed, the $1,000 Baker gave to Bennage from the FBI sting-car cash seizure in December was Baker's way of paying back the $1,000 Bennage had given him from the November theft of Witmer's property, according to the defense attorney.
"There was never an intent to impede any investigation," McMahon said, and Baker lacked the requisite intent needed to have committed the crime.
Bennage's testimony is expected to resume at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 12.
— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.