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Grand jury asks the $5,000 question

L.A. County panel wants to know how an accused hit man could have so much in jail.

June 24, 2008|Garrett Therolf | Times Staff Writer

How could an accused Mafia "hit man" grow his jail-maintained bank account by more than $5,000 while sitting behind bars?

That's the question the Los Angeles County Civil Grand Jury asked in a report released Monday criticizing the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department policy that allowed inmates to engage in large cash transactions at the in-house bank with no questions asked.

The bank collects any cash a person possesses at the time of booking and allows them to use the money to buy snacks, phone cards and other necessities at the jail store. But the grand jury said the system for additional deposits and withdrawals has been exploited by some inmates, including the unidentified hit man, robbery suspects and others.

Outsiders have been allowed to come to the jail to make unlimited deposits in inmates' accounts with no questions asked.

And inmates have been able to disburse the money to people outside the jail as they see fit.

"Although we appreciate that those inmates, who have large quantities of money in their accounts . . . represent a very small percentage of the jail population, we also recognize that those at the top of the inmate pecking order, the most powerful and dangerously well-connected, are likewise a very small percentage of the jail population," the jury wrote.

The grand jury report did not accuse jail officials of mismanaging the money or malfeasance. But citing cases like the alleged hit man, the panel said it raises troubling questions about how the inmates could have collected so much money in their jail accounts.

"Certain possibilities come to mind, including bribery, money-laundering and violence for hire," the jurors said.

After the jury began asking questions, Sheriff's Department officials who operate the jails imposed a $900 cap on the money an inmate may maintain in his or her account, and set a limit of $300 per week on the amount the inmate may release to a third party from outside the jail.

The jury recommended that the sheriff impose even stricter caps on deposits and withdrawals, noting that an inmate is able to spend only $135 a week at the jail store.

"We are certainly reviewing the grand jury report and will make a decision about its recommendations," said Steve Whitmore, the department's spokesman. "We have no evidence that a murder-for-hire situation has occurred, and the sheriff has compassion for inmate families, who may need to be reimbursed for gas or other financial needs."

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garrett.therolf@latimes.com

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