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Protesters claim innocent among those arrested in Merced gang sweep

SUN-STAR PHOTO BY MARCI STENBERG
Several protesters carrying signs out in front of the Merced County Superior Court of California,stating that of the 16 people being arraigned in Superior Court on Wednesday, May 27, 2009, 5 of them are not gang members.
SUN-STAR PHOTO BY MARCI STENBERG Several protesters carrying signs out in front of the Merced County Superior Court of California,stating that of the 16 people being arraigned in Superior Court on Wednesday, May 27, 2009, 5 of them are not gang members. Merced Sun-Star

Fifteen people busted in a Merced Multi-Agency Gang Task Force operation appeared in Merced County Superior Court on Wednesday.

Then a judge postponed the hearing until next week.

Meanwhile, outside the courthouse, dozens of the defendants' family members held signs protesting their arrests.

The suspects -- 14 men and one woman -- were taken into custody on a variety of conspiracy, weapons and drugs charges last week, as part of a five-month investigation.

Agents said the investigation targeted the Merced Gangster Crips gang -- the same gang associated with the 2004 shooting death of Merced Police Officer Stephan Gray.

Judge David Minier postponed the arraignment hearing until Tuesday to allow time to determine which attorneys represent them.

Most of the protesters, mainly women, claimed that at least five of the defendants have no gang ties whatsoever. Others accused investigators of trumped-up charges.

Dedra Jaso, a 36-year-old Oakland resident, stood in front of the courthouse in support of her brother, 30-year-old Jaray Jaso.

She held up a sign which read: "All five boys have never been in a gang."

The sign included the name of her brother, and four other defendants.

Dedra Jaso said she's particularly concerned that her brother will be prosecuted with gang enhancement charges, which can carry stiff penalties.

Isabel Saenz, 50, said her son, 24-year-old Jose Ascencio Magana, doesn't even know any of the defendants, but is still being associated with the Merced Gangster Crips.

"I've never seen him going out and doing things that he shouldn't be. I should know -- I'm his mother," Saenz said.

Despite the protests, prosecutors say they've established a solid case against all 15 defendants.

Merced County Chief Deputy District Attorney Mark Bacciarini said even though all of the defendants may not be documented Crips, at the very least, they all committed crimes associated with, or for the benefit of, the gang.

"(The protesters) have every right to say what they want. The facts will prove differently," Bacciarini said, when asked about the protesters' claims that the suspects are being targeted unjustly.

The task force's operation began five months ago after Merced police learned that one of their officers was the target of a hit organized by the Merced Gangster Crips, according to prosecutors.

During the operation, an undercover officer posed as a drug dealer from the Bay Area, buying handguns, marijuana, cocaine and Ecstasy from members of the gang, according to investigators.

Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.

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