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Sheriff probes snafu that sent reputed gang members to wrong court

March 19, 2013 | 11:43 am

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is investigating a snafu that sent a dozen reputed MS-13 gang members charged by a grand jury with extorting food truck operators to the wrong courthouse and a downtown jail facility before their after-hours arraignment late Monday.

The defendants, who were among 20 people named in a series of grand jury indictments unsealed Monday, were arrested Thursday morning and had to be arraigned Monday or risked being released if authorities missed the criminal filing deadline, according to law enforcement sources.

Steve Whitmore, spokesman for Sheriff Lee Baca, said "there was no chance" of the defendants being released but noted that the department is investigating how the dozen defendants ended up at the Van Nuys Courthouse and then were transported to the Inmate Reception Center downtown before facing charges at the downtown criminal courts building.

The violent reputation of MS-13 is well documented, and in recent years has captured the attention of authorities across the country. In October, federal officials designated Mara Salvatrucha as a "transnational criminal organization."

“We are looking at this and we want to find out exactly what happened,” Whitmore said.

The snafu delayed the formal arraignments of the 20 defendants before Los Angeles Superior Judge Charlaine Olmedo. It began around 4:15 p.m. and lasted until around 6:30 p.m., well after the normal close of business for the court, requiring overtime for court employees and about a dozen deputies assigned to provide security in the courtroom.

It was not clear how much the mistake cost the court system in overtime. It comes as the court system announced widespread closures of courthouses due to budget cuts.

The defendants were charged with extortion or conspiracy to commit extortion. The victims of the alleged organized shakedown were food truck operators who served blue-collar workers at construction sites, according to several law enforcement sources familiar with the case.

Most of the arrests took place early Thursday within the LAPD's Hollywood Patrol Division and were the culmination of a yearlong investigation involving more than 200 officers that yielded weapons and narcotics, the sources said.

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-- Andrew Blankstein

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