Tyson Baker guilty of stealing cash, covering it up
A federal jury has convicted fired Fairview Township Police Officer Tyson Baker of stealing cash and falsifying documents to cover it up.
Jurors took 3½ hours Thursday, Sept. 14, to convict him of five of six federal counts against him — for twice stealing cash, for impeding federal investigations by stealing the money, for knowingly falsifying a police document in one of those thefts to impede a federal investigation and for willfully or knowingly making false statements to the FBI.
Baker was acquitted of falsifying a police document in the second theft. He declined comment after the verdict.
The 43-year-old Fairview Township man remains free pending his sentencing hearing. That date has not yet been set.
Assistant U.S. Attorney William Behe said in court he doesn't believe Baker poses a flight risk and or needs to be remanded to prison.
"I understand the verdict completely," Philadelphia-based defense attorney Jack McMahon said, adding he thought Behe's willingness to let Baker go home to his family "was a classy move."
'Ugly thoughts': Baker took the stand in his own defense Thursday and told jurors he had "ugly, ugly thoughts" about taking drug dealers' cash as a "temporary fix" to solve his own financial problems.
He choked up on the witness stand as he told the jury that he, his wife and his wife's parents together built a large home in Fairview Township and intended to pay for it, and other regular living bills, together, as well as live there together.
Baker said the foursome agreed his in-laws would babysit his two children, and that he and his wife would care for her parents as they aged. But the plan crumbled when his parents-in-law died of cancer in 2013 and 2014. His wife, Shannon, also developed cancer in 2014; she survived.
Now saddled with all the bills, the Bakers contemplated selling the home, he said. The house is more than 4,000 square feet inside, sits on 8 acres and is valued at more than $500,000, according to Trulia.com and Zillow.com.
"We were struggling badly," he testified.
So the idea of stealing a drug trafficker's cash?
"It makes you think," Baker told jurors.
'I was tired': Asked by his attorney why he would decide to take cash, Baker said he was "tired mentally" and likened it to a line from one of the Rocky movies:
"I was getting punched in the face, and I was tired," he testified.
Baker indicated to jurors that his former co-worker, Fairview Township Police Sgt. Mike Bennage, would "make comments in passing" about stealing money.
He didn't know Bennage had already been reluctantly recruited by the FBI and the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office to keep an eye on Baker after those agencies expressed "concerns" about Baker. Bennage has testified he shared those concerns but said he'd hoped the FBI was wrong and agreed to work with them because it was the right thing to do.
Jurors weren't told what those concerns entailed or how long state and federal agencies shared them.
But Baker conceded stealing the cash only made things worse.
"It destroyed my credibility and my reputation," he testified.
The background: Baker stole $1,000 of a township drug dealer's cash after the man was arrested by Bennage on Nov. 20, 2015, during a drug raid.
The raid was unrelated to the FBI's investigation of Baker, although Bennage was by that time working with the feds. Bennage testified earlier this week that Baker told him in spring 2015 they needed to start ripping off drug dealers to help the two cops pay their bills.
Bennage also told jurors he helped carry out a Dec. 16, 2015, sting of Baker that led to Baker's arrest two days later.
During the sting, the FBI had Bennage pull over a Lincoln Navigator with New York plates, then call Baker for backup.
The Navigator was really an undercover FBI vehicle and the driver an undercover FBI agent with a created drug-trafficking "warrant" from the FBI that the officers would find when they ran the agent's assumed name through a national warrant database.
Ordered not to search: FBI Special Agent Geoff Ford testified Tuesday that both officers were repeatedly told by the FBI not to search the vehicle — merely to have it towed to a secure impound area, testimony revealed.
It was Baker, alone, who oversaw having the Navigator towed.
One of two surveillance camera systems hidden inside the SUV showed Baker searching through the trunk of the Navigator, including through a brown paper bag that had been zipped into a duffel bag by the FBI.
Inside the paper bag was $15,000 in marked bills and several hundred inert, or fake, narcotics pills.
He took $3,000 of the cash and later gave $1,000 of it to Bennage, who turned over his "cut" to the FBI.
Baker also found one of the camera surveillance systems and, brow furrowed, ripped it out of the Navigator and took it.
Under questioning by the FBI on Dec. 18, 2015, Baker repeatedly denied taking any money ever, from any investigation. Jurors saw the taped confession Tuesday.
But after being told he was on camera doing so, he confessed in fits and starts, and said he had a number of outstanding bills.
Head swimming: Asked by his attorney Thursday why he initially lied to the FBI during his interview, Baker indicated he was overwhelmed.
"Talk about having a hundred million things going through your head," he told jurors.
On cross-examination by Behe, Baker repeatedly insisted he intended to somehow return the cash he'd stolen, even after Behe indicated that would be nearly impossible, considering the evidence had already been officially logged.
"I hadn't completely figured that part out," Baker testified.
Baker was forced to admit that the $2,000 he kept of the FBI sting money wasn't spent on bills. Rather, he bought beer and paid off a layaway bill for a custom-made knife at a local tactical store.
Baker also insisted he didn't tear out the camera surveillance system in the FBI sting Navigator because he feared he was under investigation.
He told jurors he intended to run the camera's serial number to see if it was stolen.
Closing arguments: McMahon argued fiercely to jurors during his closing argument that they needed to bring empathy, compassion, caring and understanding to their deliberations.
"Justice isn't vengeance," he said. "Justice has empathy. Justice has understanding. ... You are, today, the conscience of justice — of what's our better angels."
McMahon told jurors that Baker is a good man who didn't try to impede a federal investigation.
"I'm not naive ... and you know what I'm asking you for," the attorney said. "Well, today we will find out if that's in your hearts."
Jury nullification: But Behe told jurors McMahon was asking them to commit what's known as jury nullification, in which a jury disregards doing its legal duty and instead does "whatever your heart tells you."
"That's what you're being invited to do in this case," Behe said. "That is not justice."
Baker spent 17 years as a Fairview Township Police officer but was fired after being charged.
— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.