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Murder suspect mistakenly released from L.A. County jail is captured

A murder suspect who has been on the lam since being mistakenly freed from jail in Los Angeles County was captured Monday in Boulder City, Nev., Sheriff's Department officials announced.

Steven Lawrence Wright was arrested at a hotel Monday morning before noon, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said in a statement. He will be sent back to California pending an extradition hearing.

Sheriff's investigators developed information that Wright might have been hiding in a Boulder City hotel on Monday morning, the agency said. He was captured by agents from the FBI and local police.

Wright was taken into custody without incident and no additional charges will be filed against him, the department said.

It was not immediately clear how long Wright was hiding in Nevada, according to Cmdr. Keith Swensson, a Sheriff's Department spokesman.

Police have not been able to determine a timeline of his movements since a series of paperwork errors allowed Wright to walk out of the downtown Inmate Reception Center on Jan. 30. The 37-year-old suspected gang member was awaiting trial in a 2011 Pasadena slaying. He was convicted of attempted murder last year, and was awaiting sentencing in that case.

Wright had been sentenced to five days in jail for contempt of court when he refused to testify last month in the murder trial of two defendants charged in a 1997 killing. Paperwork linked to Wright's release shows a court clerk listed the docket number for the contempt charge, rather than his murder case, next to details of his sentence.

The error was compounded as three other jail staff members failed to notice the error, and Wright was released from the downtown Inmate Reception Center on the assumption he had satisfied his sentence for the contempt charge.

The Sheriff’s Department has launched a critical incident review focusing on Wright’s mistaken release. A three-person panel will meet Wednesday to discuss the review's preliminary recommendations, Swensson said. 

The department will consider using a new automated system for court records and inmate processing. Currently, sheriff's deputies rely on records written by hand. 

Two employees involved in Wright's release have been reassigned, Swensson. There was not enough information about the third employee’s involvement to justify action, he said.

The panel will also discuss creating a joint training group between court and Inmate Reception Center personnel to develop best training practices, Swensson said. Inmates’ files, which are color-coded to reflect the level of violent charges they’re facing, could also be audited and updated by a specialized records task force, Swensson said.

Wright's release came just hours after police in the Bay Area captured two men wanted in a daring escape from the Central Men's Jail in Santa Ana last month.

That jail break had prompted an eight-day manhunt and drew national attention after Hossein Nayeri, Jonathan Tieu and Bac Duong allegedly cut their way through several layers of metal, steel and rebar and rappelled down from the roof of the facility. 

Duong surrendered to police in Santa Ana on Jan 29. Nayeri and Tieu were captured in San Francisco around 9 a.m. Jan. 30, a few hours before Wright slipped out of custody in Los Angeles County.

Wright was being held on suspicion of killing Donnell Taylor, 47, in 2011. At trial, his former girlfriend told the court that Wright was a high-ranking member of the Altadena Blocc set of the Crips street gang, and went by the street name Trey Mac.

He was convicted of the murder charge in 2014, but the conviction was overturned on appeal after a judge ruled prosecutors failed to provide evidence that could have challenged the credibility of Wright's ex-girlfriend as a witness.

The Inmate Reception Center, part of the downtown jail complex where Wright was held on the contempt charge, processes more than 100,000 releases annually, and only a small fraction of inmates have been allowed to leave by mistake, Swensson said.

In 2013, deputies accidentally released 24 inmates early, he said. In 2014 the number fell to 21, and last year that was cut to six, he added.

Johnny Mata, who was being held on suspicion of murder in a slaying in Baldwin Park, was among those released by accident in 2013. He managed to avoid law enforcement for nearly a year, before he was eventually captured in Mexico.

"That was really the last one that was significant," Swensson said last week.

Still, Swensson said, the system for processing about 1,000 inmates a day from 42 courtrooms needs modernizing.

Though inmate records are eventually entered into a database, there's no electronic path for communications from the court, he said.

"We believe there should be an automated system between the court and the jail that would prevent human errors," he said.

Follow @JamesQueallyLAT and @cindychangLA for crime and police news in Southern California.

Times staff writer Joseph Serna contributed to this report.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

2:32 p.m.: This story was updated with additional information about the arrest of Wright.

The article was originally published at 2:26 p.m.

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