Leak Keeps Wheels of Justice Stuck : Courts: With building closed a second day by sewage backup, backlog of cases is growing.

TIMES STAFF WRITER; Times staff writer Hector Tobar contributed to this story

The flood was not exactly of Mississippi River proportions. And the fact that a skeleton crew of prosecutors who volunteered to enter their offices had to answer their own phones was not necessarily a peek at life to come under Los Angeles County's austere 1993-94 budget.

But with the 19-floor Criminal Courts Building closed for business for a second day because of a massive sewage leak, the nation's largest court system was forced to cope with a logistics nightmare Wednesday as thousands of defendants, jurors and judicial officers were rerouted to other courthouses or sent back home or to jail. The situation could further deteriorate today when the building is scheduled to remain closed, frustrated court officers said.

"It's lonely in here and it stinks," said Assistant Dist. Atty. Frank Sunstedt, one of a handful of prosecutors who sought to keep the system moving by staffing the D.A.'s 18th-floor offices.

Of particular concern to the prosecutor's office were Municipal Court felony arraignments and preliminary hearings, some of which had to be held Wednesday due to time constraints imposed to protect jailed defendants' right to a speedy trial. Some hearings were transferred to the nearby county civil courthouse, others to an arraignment court next to the Los Angeles County Jail, and still others were heard right in the lockup at the Parker Center headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Felony trials scheduled for the 35 Superior Court courtrooms in the Criminal Courts Building were postponed.

The great judicial clog-up began Tuesday morning when toilets backed up on the first floor of the courthouse, flooding the main lobby, administrative offices, underground holding cells and a judges' parking garage.

Much of the mess had been cleaned up by early Wednesday, but county workers who ran a 130-foot snake through the building's sewage system were unable to repair the damage and were forced to shut off the building's water supply for the day.

"We dragged out some jail clothing, but nothing else was coming out except for some tree roots and mud," said Hildo Hernandez, general manager for operations of the county's Internal Services Department.

Concluding that the problem was a break in an 8-inch clay pipe running between the court building and a main sewer line on Temple Street that also serves City Hall, officials hired a private contractor from Norwalk to break up the asphalt with jackhammers and a backhoe.

Fifteen feet down and six hours later, the Doty Bros. crew had failed to reach the pipe. Instead, they hit another layer of asphalt.

"Why that's there I don't know," county plumbing supervisor Charles Bradford said Wednesday afternoon. "Who knows what they were thinking when they did it 30 years ago."

"Yes, it's frustrating," echoed his supervisor, Hernandez. "I want this done yesterday."

Indeed, frustration was the byword of the day for denizens of the legal system.

"It's a real problem without transportation," said defendant William Jackson, 21, who, after taking a bus downtown for a hearing in his drug-trafficking case, was informed that he would have to walk a couple miles to another courthouse adjoining the Los Angeles County Jail.

At that courthouse, Ares Vega, 37, was waiting to be arraigned on charges of illegally firing a handgun.

"We went to the other building and everything was confused, there was no information," Vega said. "People were walking around in circles."

Vega said he spent much of Tuesday afternoon in a holding cell in the Criminal Courts Building, exposed to the noxious odors. "We used the toilet and it didn't work," Vega said in Spanish. "The guys started yelling 'We need water, we want water.' Everybody started coughing because of the smell."

Court officers seemed no happier with the situation.

"Logically, you'd think they could fix the building within five or six hours," huffed one municipal court judge, who asked that his name not be used.

"Didn't they get the World Trade Center back into shape in just a few days?" said a veteran prosecutor as he headed to a nearby office building for a soft drink.

Late Wednesday afternoon, state Supreme Court Acting Chief Justice Joyce Kennard, acting at the request of Superior Court Supervising Judge Mills, signed an emergency order that allows the court an extra 10 days to hear cases that were scheduled from Tuesday through Friday this week. The order is intended to avoid any speedy trial questions arising from delays in Superior Court cases.

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