Emotions ran high in a downtown courtroom in what has to be one of the lengthiest arraignments in San Diego County’s history.
District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis announced charges on Wednesday against dozens of people in what she said was the culmination of a 10-month investigation called Operation Bank Gig.
One by one, 40 people charged in the elaborate check cashing scheme were being arraigned Thursday.
There are so many defendants in the case; the arraignments will be spread out over two sessions. Arraignments are court proceedings in which charges are formally read against defendants, who then enter a plea to the charges.
The courtroom was packed with family members and friends of the defendants.
At one point, the mother of one of the defendants stood up and screamed "my baby, my baby!" She was escorted out of the courtroom by bailiffs.
So far, every defendant has pleaded not guilty to the charges. The judge, however, is keeping all of them jailed pending review hearings in the coming days and weeks.
About 30 of the people charged are members of the Lincoln Park street gang, according to prosecutors.
Also arrested were five active-duty military members and other people with accounts at the Navy Federal Credit Union.
District attorney's office spokesman Paul Levikow said three Marines, a sailor and a soldier were part of the scam, and that two of the five are in custody, including one person who is being held in quarantine at Camp Pendleton with a case of swine flu.
Dozens of the suspects were arrested early Tuesday morning and taken to be processed at Qualcomm Stadium, where hundreds of officers were watching over the proceedings.
Here's how prosecutors say the scam worked: Gang members would recruit account holders from Navy Federal, then convince them to deposit a fraudulent check into their account and withdraw the money from an ATM before the bank became aware of the fraud. Some of the account holders would take out as much as $25,000 a week, according to prosecutors. They would keep a small portion of the money and give the rest would to the gang.
Investigators said the gang members favored ATMs at Barona Casino because those machines allow for higher withdraw amounts.
Prosecutors believe the crimes started in 2005 and went on until the end of 2008 netting the gang a total of around $500,000, which police say was spent on a lavish lifestyle for the gang members including several cars.
District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said this is the first time in state history that a violent street gang has been targeted for its involvement in complex bank fraud.
"As gangs move from street-corner drug dealing and pimping to complex fraud, it's more important than ever that law enforcement from all levels continue to work together," said Dumanis.