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Category: Prisons/Jails

Suspected cocaine trafficking fugitive arrested in Northridge

A suspected cocaine trafficker was scheduled to appear in court Thursday after he was arrested by U.S. marshals in Los Angeles following his alleged escape from a federal holding center in South Carolina.

After nearly two years, Charles Dwight Ransom Jr. was arrested Wednesday in his apartment next to the Cal State Northridge campus.

After escaping federal custody in South Carolina by forcing a fellow inmate to switch identification wristbands with him so he could go free, officials say, Ransom returned to Los Angeles.

Ransom was apparently unaware the federal drug trafficking case against him was based in Los Angeles, the U.S. Marshals Service said in a statement.

His name and photo were still listed on the Drug Enforcement Agency Los Angeles bureau’s Most Wanted List Thursday morning.

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After 13 years in prison, man found to be innocent could be freed

Brian Banks, center, carries petitions calling for the release of Daniel Larsen at a press conference in August 2012. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

A California man could be released Tuesday afternoon after more than 13 years in prison for a crime a federal judge and the California Innocence Project say he didn’t commit.

Daniel Larsen is scheduled to appear in federal court in downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday afternoon, where his attorneys hope he will be released after a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals judge ordered his release in 2010.

Larsen was convicted in 1999 of carrying a concealed knife, a third strike for the twice-convicted burglar. Police claimed he had tossed the 6-inch blade under a car after a brawl in a Northridge bar.

Larsen has maintained his innocence throughout the years and eventually got the California Innocence Project to take up his cause. The organization found several witnesses –- including a former chief of police – who stated that they saw a different man throw away the knife, not Larsen.

Larsen’s defense attorney during his trial never called a witness in his defense. That attorney was eventually disbarred.

The Innocence Project filed an appeal under habeas corpus that eventually reached the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. That judge found Larsen to be “actually innocent,” a legal term that allows Larsen to be released from prison while his case works its way through the courts.

The judge found Larsen was not given an adequate defense. The state Attorney General’s office is fighting Larsen’s release on technicalities related to the filing of his appeals and maintains he is guilty.

Tuesday could be Larsen’s first taste of freedom since his conviction in 1999.

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-- Joseph Serna

Photo: Brian Banks, center, carries petitions calling for the release of Daniel Larsen at a press conference in August 2012. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

Gavin Smith had relationship with drug dealer's wife, police say

Missing Fox movie executive Gavin Smith had a relationship with the wife of a convicted drug dealer who is now a person of interest in Smith’s disappearance, Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials say.

Smith, 57, has been missing since May 2012. At a press conference Thursday, Lt. Dave Dolson said Smith had a relationship with Chandrika Creech, the wife of John Creech, who is serving eight years in Los Angeles County’s Men’s Central Jail.

Smith and Chandrika Creech apparently met in rehab. Sheriff’s officials would not comment on the nature of their relationship and said only that Creech’s husband is a person of interest in Smith’s disappearance. John Creech has not spoken with detectives.

Authorities now believe Smith was murdered. Investigators found Smith’s Mercedes-Benz last month in a Simi Valley storage facility. Officials said evidence found inside the car, along with witness statements, lead them to believe Smith is dead.

No arrests have been made and the investigation is ongoing, a department official said Friday.

Chandrika Creech has spoken to investigations on many occasions, Dolson said. He declined to say what information she provided.

In the months after Smith was last seen, officials insisted the case remained a missing-person investigation, even as Creech’s home and vehicle were searched.

Smith, a former UCLA basketball player who worked in Fox's movie distribution department, left a friend's home in Ventura County's Oak Park neighborhood the night of May 1. Wearing purple athletic pants belonging to one of his sons, Smith drove away in his Mercedes, leaving behind his cellphone charger, shaving kit and other items.

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LAUSD to pay Miramonte victims $30 million; teacher due in court

Now that the Los Angeles Unified School District has agreed to a $30-million settlement in the Miramonte Elementary School case, the teacher accused of lewd acts against dozens of children is set to appear in court next month.

Mark Berndt, 61, faces 23 felony counts of lewd conduct involving the alleged spoon-feeding of semen to students that were blindfolded and the placement of cockroaches on their faces.

Berndt has been in custody since his arrest in February 2012 and is being held in lieu of $23 million bail. Detectives had been investigating the alleged abuse for more than a year after a drugstore photo processor showed police disturbing images of blindfolded and gagged children being spoon-fed a liquid.

FULL COVERAGE: Teacher sex-abuse investigations

The alleged victims were boys and girls between 7 and 10 years old. Berndt had been teaching in the district since 1979 and was respected by parents of former students. Nearly 200 legal claims have been filed against the Los Angeles Unified School District by parents in the wake of Berndt’s arrest.

On Tuesday, lawyers representing parents in 58 of those claims announced a $30-million settlement with LAUSD. The mediation lasted about six months and involved more than a dozen law firms.

Attorneys said they wanted to spare children painful litigation and testimony.

PHOTOS: Parent uproar over sex-abuse claims

The settlements are the first in a case that rocked the nation's second-largest school system and prompted a flurry of new policies to better protect students. Each of the alleged victims will receive about $470,000 under the preliminary deal. It is the largest payout in a case involving a single teacher in the district.

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Orange County authorities searching for inmate who may have escaped

Authorities are searching for an inmate who may have escaped early Friday from Orange County’s largest jail.

Saith Na, 26, did not turn up during the daily 10 a.m. body count at the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange, said Lt. Jim England, of the Orange County Sheriff's Department. Authorities immediately placed the facility on lockdown, ran a search of the perimeter and continue to scour the entire premises looking for signs of escape.

Na, of Cambodian descent, has black hair and brown eyes. He is 5 foot 8 and weighs 160 pounds, and bears a number of distinctive tattoos, officials say: “Sar Rors” on the front lower chest, “Dragons” on the left upper arm and “Koi Fish” on the left lower arm. 

Na had been booked into the county’s jail system Aug. 26 by the Santa Ana Police Department on suspicion of robbery, narcotics, weapons possession and criminal street terrorism.

Anyone with information about Na is asked to call the Orange County Sheriff’s Department at (714) 647-7000 or the anonymous tip line at (855) TIP-OCCS.

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Antonovich wants details on prisoner monitoring

Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich on Tuesday asked for a report detailing the number of local ex-convicts who have been placed under electronic monitoring and how many of them had illegally removed or disabled the devices.

Antonovich said he was reacting to a Times story that found that thousands of paroled sex offenders are removing their monitoring bracelets and have gone on to commit serious new crimes, including sexual battery and kidnapping.

State officials used to monitor parole violators, but a recent law known as "realignment" shifted that responsibility to local law enforcement agencies. 

Antonovich, who has been a staunch critic of realignment, asked county probation and Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department officials to present the report to the board during its March 5 meeting.

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-- Jason Song at the County Hall of Administration

Paroled sex offenders removing tracking devices

Rithy MamThousands of paroled child molesters, rapists and other high-risk sex offenders in California are removing or disarming their court-ordered GPS tracking devices, a Times investigation has found, and some have been charged with new crimes, including sexual battery, kidnapping and attempted manslaughter.

The offenders have discovered that they can disable the monitors, often with little risk of serving time for it, the investigation found. The jails are too full to hold them.

"It's a huge problem," said Fresno parole agent Matt Hill. "If the public knew, they'd be shocked."

More than 3,400 arrest warrants for GPS tamperers have been issued since October 2011, when the state began referring parole violators to county jails instead of returning them to its packed prisons. Warrants increased 28% in 2012 compared with the 12 months before the change in custody began.

Nearly all the warrants were for sex offenders, who are the vast majority of convicts with monitors, and many were for repeat violations.

The custody shift is part of Gov. Jerry Brown's and the Legislature's "realignment" program, to comply with court orders to reduce overcrowding in state prisons. But many counties have been under their own court orders to ease crowding in their jails.

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Lawsuit brought by Wiccan inmates revived by appeals court

Chowchilla women's facility
A lawsuit by female prisoners who contend the California prison system is violating their rights by refusing to hire a full-time Wiccan chaplain has been revived by a federal appeals court.

A district court rejected the inmates' suit, but a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that the inmates may have a valid claim.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation hires chaplains for five faiths: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Native American. Inmates of other religions are permitted to worship with those chaplains or with volunteer chaplains.

In their lawsuits, inmates at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla contend the prison policy favors mainstream religions in violation of the establishment clause of the 1st Amendment. The inmates said there were more Wiccans at the women's prison than there were Jewish, Muslim or Catholic prisoners.

Wicca is a pagan religion that involves witchcraft.

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Photo: At the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, inmates are contending in a lawsuit that California prison policy favors mainstream religions in violation of the establishment clause of the 1st Amendment. Credit: Los Angeles Times.

Court revives lawsuit seeking Wiccan chaplains in women's prisons

Chowchilla
A federal appeals court revived a lawsuit Tuesday by female prisoners who contend the California state prison system is violating their rights by refusing to hire a full-time Wiccan chaplain.

A district court had rejected the inmates’ suit, but a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the inmates may have a valid claim.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation hires chaplains for five faiths: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Native American. Inmates of other religions are permitted to worship with those chaplains or with volunteer chaplains.

In their lawsuits, inmates at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla contend the prison policy favors mainstream religions in violation of the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution's 1st Amendment. The inmates said there were more Wiccans at women's prison than there were Jewish, Muslim or Catholic prisoners.

Wicca is a pagan religion that involves witchcraft. If the inmates’ allegations are true, the appeals court said, “the prison administration has created staff chaplain positions for five conventional faiths, but fails to employ any neutral criteria in evaluating whether a growing membership in minority religions warrants a reallocation of resources.”

The court stressed it was not suggesting that the lawsuit should succeed. A lower court must now evaluate the evidence, including a survey of the religious affiliations of inmates at the prison, the panel said.

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Photo: File shot of Building 513 at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla. Credit: Los Angeles Times

Two more charged in fatal shooting of Westlake church deacon

Iglesia Principe de Paz at Beverly Boulevard and Reno Street, where one church member was killed and another was wounded in a confrontation with a tagger. Credit: Katie Falkenberg / For The Times

Los Angeles County prosecutors have charged two more people in the fatal shooting of a Westlake man outside a church, they said Thursday.

Pedro Martinez, 24, and Ivy Navarrete, 31, are scheduled to be arraigned on charges of murder, attempted murder and vandalism Thursday in the Nov. 4 killing of Adres Ordonez outside Iglesia Principe de Paz.

The two join Janeth Lopez, 22, in facing murder charges in the case.

According to prosecutors, Lopez was spray-painting the walls of the Principe de Paz, which means “Prince of Peace,” at about 6:30 p.m. when she was confronted by a parishioners, including Ordonez.

During the confrontation, Martinez emerged from a waiting car and started shooting, fatally wounding Ordonez and wounding one other person, according to authorities. Navarrete was behind the wheel and helped Martinez escape, prosecutors said.

Martinez, Navarette and Lopez all face additional charges for allegedly being gang members.

Ordonez was a cook, church deacon and father of a 1-year-old boy with another child on the way. He had been attending the church since he was 10, the Times reported.

Lopez pleaded not guilty at her arraignment and is due back in court Feb. 19.

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Photo: Iglesia Principe de Paz at Beverly Boulevard and Reno Street, where one church member was killed and another was wounded in a confrontation with a tagger. Credit: Katie Falkenberg / For The Times

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L.A. Now is the Los Angeles Times’ breaking news section for Southern California. It is produced by more than 80 reporters and editors in The Times’ Metro section, reporting from the paper’s downtown Los Angeles headquarters as well as bureaus in Costa Mesa, Long Beach, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, Riverside, Ventura and West Los Angeles.
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