Half-awake and barefoot, Maria Elena Hernandez hurried toward the loud banging on her front door.
It was before sunrise, and she hoped the noise wouldn’t wake her 14-month-old granddaughter. As she cracked open the door, dressed in a sheer nightgown, Hernandez, 62, saw six California Department of Insurance officers staring back at her.
“Are you Maria Hernandez?” one of them shouted.
Yes, she answered. A female officer yanked her arm, twisted it behind her back and tightened handcuffs around her wrists.
“Why? Why? Why?” she asked. “Let me go. You’re arresting the wrong person.”
It would take more than two months before authorities realized they had, indeed, arrested the wrong person.
Incarcerations of innocent people mistaken for wanted criminals represent a tiny fraction of the roughly 16,700 people locked up in L.A. County, and they have declined sharply from a decade ago. But, from May through July, records show, at least six people were released from jail in Los Angeles County after authorities determined they had arrested the wrong person. (That does not include people, such as Hernandez, who bailed out before authorities realized the error.)
Officials introduced reforms to reduce the problem after a 2011 Times investigation found such cases had occurred nearly 1,500 times in five years. The mistakes usually involved the victims of identity theft or people who shared the same name as suspects listed on outstanding arrest warrants. The problems were compounded when police agencies and jailers failed to properly check that the fingerprints of people arrested matched those of the accused criminals.
But extra checks by the jail would not have helped Hernandez.
Her arrest warrant was issued after the California Department of Insurance confused her with an insurance fraud suspect, who had used a false date of birth as well as a first and a last name that matched Hernandez’s. Last month, the district attorney’s office asked a judge to dismiss the fraud case, and an insurance department spokeswoman said officials have tried to reach out to Hernandez to apologize.
“The department deeply regrets the error,” spokeswoman Nancy Kincaid said.
Hernandez spent nearly two days in the county’s jail in Lynwood before her family managed to bail her out. Her family now owes $2,000 to a bail bonds company. And Hernandez, who cleaned homes for years but is now retired, faces another bill of $1,470 for a medical exam conducted at the direction of jail staff.
The events that led to her arrest began in the summer of 2013, when a woman made a phone call to Access General Insurance saying she’d been the driver of a car involved in an accident. She identified herself as Maria Mercedes Hernandez, according to investigative records.
An insurance investigator had a hard time tracking the woman down, but when he finally found her at her South Park home, she verbally confirmed that her name was Maria Mercedes Hernandez and said her birthday was May 2, 1954, though she did not produce proof of her identification. After prodding from the investigator, the records show, the woman admitted that she hadn’t actually been in an accident. She’d agreed to say she had been, she explained, after meeting a man at a nightclub who promised to give her a cut of the insurance money.
Before leaving the home, the insurance investigator took the woman’s photo.
When Department of Insurance detectives interviewed the woman at her home a year later, they said they recognized her from the photo in the case file and said that she, again, identified herself as Maria Hernandez. Greg Risling, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, said she had given a fake name and birth date. The spokesman said it was unclear if the woman had picked the name and date of birth at random or if she had deliberately used the arrested woman’s identity.
Exactly how insurance investigators mistook her for Maria Elena Hernandez is unclear.
The Department of Insurance spokeswoman declined to explain, citing an internal investigation being conducted by the agency. The district attorney’s office also declined to detail what led to the mix-up or comment on whether detectives know the suspect’s real identity but said the auto insurance fraud investigation is ongoing.
Hernandez’s daughter, Roxanne, criticized the mistake. Investigators, she noted, had the real suspect’s photo. And although “Maria Hernandez” is a common name — there are 1,300 registered to vote in Los Angeles County — her mother has a different middle name and address. Investigators arrested Hernandez at her Mid-Wilshire home, which is seven miles from the neighborhood where detectives had previously interviewed the fraud suspect.
“It’s just shocking how they confused this person with my mother,” Roxanne said.
So much of the arrest is still unbelievable to Hernandez. When her 25-year-old son stepped toward the detectives to ask for official paperwork justifying the arrest, an officer pointed a gun at his head, Hernandez and her daughter recounted.
"If this had happened in a different area — say Beverly Hills — it wouldn't have happened like this,” Hernandez said. “These people were harsh to me and my family. No one deserves what I went through."
Kincaid, the Department of Insurance spokeswoman, said law enforcement officers are trained to have their weapons drawn from their holsters “until entry has been made and the residence or individuals have been secured in a safe manner.”
As Hernandez was led away in handcuffs, she recalled, tears filled her eyes and she felt like she needed to scream. She tried to encourage her children using a common Spanish phrase: “He who owes nothing fears nothing.”
As the officers drove toward the jail, she pleaded for answers. If this is an auto insurance fraud case, she explained, it can’t be me. “I don’t even know how to drive,” she told them. Maybe it’s a case of stolen identity, she suggested.
At the women’s jail in Lynwood, things only got worse.
She was too frail to climb into the top bunk bed and gave the lower bed to a woman who had just given birth, she said. Hernandez ended up sleeping on the floor.
She felt her faith in the concept that she had used a couple days earlier to reassure her children – owe not, fear not – start to shrivel.
“I thought, ‘I will die here,’ ” she said.
Finally, someone called her name.
“Maria Hernandez. You’re going to leave.”
She learned that family members and friends had scraped together the $500 deposit needed to hire a bail bond company to post bond. Her daughter said she visited the bail bond company recently and was told the family had to pay what was still owed under the contract she signed.
Hernandez is also behind on hospital bills stemming from the arrest. After arriving at the jail, but before she was officially booked, she explained that she has high blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as circulation problems. Jail staff decided to have her taken to Coast Plaza Hospital.
She had her finger pricked for testing and got her blood pressure taken. When she peeked at the machine, her systolic rate was in the upper 170s, nearing crisis hypertensive levels.
Hernandez said she was shocked when – not long after her release – a hospital bill came in the mail.
"I've suffered and paid, and am still paying,” she said.
Times researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.
Follow me on Twitter: @marisagerber