- Associated Press - Friday, June 13, 2014

CLEVELAND (AP) - Young members of a vicious prison and street gang overwhelmed the county’s juvenile detention center for months, assaulting and extorting other youths, vandalizing the facility and attacking adult guards because they knew there would be no consequences for their actions, county officials say.

The Cleveland-based Heartless Felons, many of whose members awaited charges on serious crimes ranging from robbery to murder, were unafraid of the misdemeanor charges that might result from their gang activity inside the detention center, according to prosecutors and a court official.

Videos released by prosecutors show gang members attacking other youths and a gang member punching a guard in the head.

Juvenile Court and its detention center were unable to cope with members of the gang, Cuyahoga County assistant prosecutor Kevin Filatraut said.

“We saw a pattern here, and the more digging we did it became apparent there was a control problem,” Filatraut said Friday.

Six months ago, prosecutors launched an investigation that culminated Thursday in juvenile complaints being filed against 43 gang members accused of racketeering and belonging to a violent gang. Prosecutors say Heartless Felons virtually took over control of the Cuyahoga County detention center.

About 80 percent of the incidents were recorded, prosecutors said, but few incidents were reported to them.

The gang, which began in 2000 in an Ohio youth prison, created huge problems in the new detention center after it opened in late 2011, Juvenile Court Administrative Judge Kristin Sweeney said.

Juvenile Court officials have been working closely with prosecutors and the county sheriff’s department to make the detention center safer, she said. But the court has been hindered by state mandates that anyone under the age of 21 be held in a juvenile detention center instead of jail even while awaiting trial on adult charges, including murder, Sweeney said.

Court officials have been working closely with prosecutors to move some of those defendants out of the detention center. Sweeney said she hoped the situation would improve with the hiring of new guards in the coming weeks. She said current guards, meanwhile, have been receiving additional self-defense training.

Prosecutors want the 43 gang members, ranging in age from 15 to 17 years old, tried in adult court. They will ask a juvenile court judge to have all 437 counts bound over to a grand jury.

The head of the county prosecutors’ juvenile division, Duane Deskins, said he was aware of only three other instances in the U.S. in which racketeering charges were presented in juvenile court. In Ohio, a conviction for a first-degree felony prosecuted under the racketeering statute calls for a minimum prison sentence of 10 years.

The Heartless Felons is now one of the most prominent gangs in Ohio’s adult prisons, said D.J. Norris, a Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections gang expert. Norris said prison officials first noticed Heartless Felons in the adult system around 2005. A recent survey showed there were 606 members of the Heartless Felons in adult prisons across the state, making it Ohio’s second-largest prison gang behind white supremacists.

Although Heartless Felons is largely composed of members from Cleveland, the gang has been recruiting other Northeast Ohio cities. Most of the imprisoned members are in their mid-20s, Norris said.

Heartless Felons has spread to the streets of Cleveland and other northeast Ohio cities, including Lorain, Ashtabula and Lake counties, Filatraut said.

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