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Courthouse Records Go Up in Flames : $600,000 Blaze Guts 2 Offices in East L.A.

Times Staff Writer

A two-alarm fire gutted the court clerk and record offices at the East Los Angeles Municipal Court building Monday morning, destroying valuable documents and clerical equipment and causing about $600,000 damage, a Los Angeles County Fire Department spokesman said.

The blaze, which broke out about 1:15 a.m. in the court administrator’s office at the north end of the complex, resulted from arson, Fire Department Inspector Elvin Miranda said. He said a two-gallon gasoline canister was found in the office.

An unidentified witness was being questioned about the blaze, but no one is in custody, Miranda said.

The blaze took firefighters 40 minutes to extinguish. No one was injured, but clerks and attorneys said damage to the one-story building and documents will create an immense backlog.

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Work Harder

“The clerk’s office is going to have to work extra hard to process the information that was lost,” said Gustavo Bermudez, 33, an attorney in the public defender’s office. “They’re going to have to work hard to move things off of the computer to hard copies. A lot of records are burned to a crisp.”

However, a supervisor who works in the burned wing of the courthouse said that duplicates of the court records lost in the fire are also housed in a central records office in Downey.

“No information is really lost,” said Peggy Brooks, the supervisor of the criminal division of the clerk’s office. “The equipment is what was really lost. The copy machines, fax machines, computers, typewriters, telephones--all of that was melted down.”

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But Bermudez said some suspected traffic and other civil violators could still benefit from the blaze.

“Some people could slip through the cracks to a certain extent,” Bermudez said. “We get a lot of (drunk driving cases), and whenever there’s a prior conviction, the court has to have the docket information.

“Some of that information, as well as the judge entries, may be lost forever. I don’t know if we’d have that anywhere else. But the people with pending cases will still have to stand trial for those cases.”

Defense attorney Carol Peterson said prosecutors must be able to show that violators are on probation--something that will be hard to prove without probation records that may have been lost in the fire.

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Bermudez added that data housed in the offices was often used to resolve discrepancies between records kept by prosecutors and defense attorneys.

“The prosecutor has his own files, and the defense attorney has his, but whenever you have disputes, you go to the files,” Bermudez said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Closed for Day

Judge Richard Romero declared the building’s six courtrooms closed for the day, although the court rooms were not damaged in the fire. Bermudez said the judge’s order will force violators currently in jail awaiting hearings to remain behind bars until court sessions resume.

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Even as Bermudez spoke, the signs of backlog were beginning to surface.

“I need to show them my registration, that’s all,” said Michael Davis, 36, a San Gabriel man who was awaiting a hearing on a citation for driving without an auto registration.

Davis wanted to show officials that he had his registration but found that “I can’t get in.”

“This is a fairly simple, straightforward procedure, but now it’s complicated. Once they get things going again, you’ll probably have a line from the courthouse to the freeway,” he said.

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Nineteen-year-old Luis Serrano said he came to the courthouse to receive an extension on the deadline for payment of a traffic fine.

“I guess I’ll just have to wait and see what happens,” Serrano said. “I’ll either go home or go to work. I called in sick at work just to pay this ticket. Oh, well.”


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