Dozens of alleged gang members arrested in a massive west Santa Ana police sweep pleaded not guilty Friday to charges ranging from dealing drugs to stealing autos, illegally selling guns and participating in gang crimes.
Fifty-eight suspects taken into custody Wednesday during "Operation Orion" appeared in Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana in a peculiar arraignment session that lasted all afternoon. There were so many defendants that the hearings took place in shifts behind a bulletproof holding cell inside the courtroom.
Prosecutor Jeff Ferguson said most of the suspects have criminal records. Bail was set at up to $1 million for several defendants who are repeat offenders, or face more serious charges. If convicted, those defendants face up to 25 years to life in prison.
Defendants held on less serious offenses had their bail set at around $100,000, and face possible prison terms of up to 5 years. Those who post bail must first prove the money did not come from an illegal source.
Neighborhood residents praised the sweep, saying they have lived in fear of the gangs and drug activity for too long. The elation was tempered, though, by the knowledge that gangs have flourished in west Santa Ana for generations and that a single sweep will not eliminate gangs.
The Santa Ana police raid was the result of a seven-month investigation and was aided by a former gang member with a criminal history.
During that time, the informant gained the trust of alleged neighborhood drug dealers and helped police in videotaping illegal activities, police said. The tapes' subjects were identified during secret grand jury proceedings and indicted this year.
The latest crackdown resembled 1994's "Operation Roundup," which yielded 117 arrests. It too relied on videotape to record alleged illegal activities, but authorities were forced to release four suspects because they were not properly identified on tape.
This time, though, prosecutors said they believe that better quality videotape and the use of the informant will prevent a repeat of past mistakes.
"It's a big operation, and we used many different police officers, but we do have these things in place," Ferguson said.
Representatives from the Orange County Public Defender's Office--which is handling the defense for most of the suspects--did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Ferguson expects to arraign the remaining suspects in custody over the next two weeks. About 40 suspects remain at large.
Most of those arraigned Friday will appear in court again March 24 and 31, officials said.