Engineers Plead Guilty to Illegally Shutting Down Traffic Signals

LOS ANGELES -- Two Los Angeles city transportation engineers pleaded guilty Wednesday to a felony count of illegally accessing a city computer that controls traffic lights before an August 2006 job action.

Gabriel Murillo, 39, and Kartik Patel, 36, are due back in Los Angeles Superior Court for sentencing next November.

The two must pay full restitution to be determined at a later hearing, serve 120 days in jail or complete 240 hours of Caltrans or similar structured service, and have their computers at home and work monitored, according to the District Attorney's Office.

If Murillo and Patel pay the restitution and complete jail time or community service, they can petition to have the felony count reduced to a misdemeanor at sentencing.

Murillo's attorney, James Blatt, said he "felt strongly that Mr. Murillo could be exonerated," but said his client decided to enter the plea because he has a young family and wants to get on with his life.

"It was a difficult decision for Mr. Murillo to make," Blatt said of his client, who is on unpaid leave from the city.

Patel's attorney, Alan Eisner, said he also thought the case against Patel was "very defensible."

"I do believe in his innocence, but he needed to put the matter behind him," Eisner said, adding that he thinks the issue should have been handled in the workplace and "should not have been criminalized."

Patel is still employed by the city, but not in the same capacity, his lawyer said.

Both attorneys said the two men could eventually ask to have the case dismissed.

Prosecutors said the men illegally accessed the city's Automated Traffic Surveillance Center between 9:10 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. on Aug. 21, 2006, and sent computer commands that disconnected four signal control boxes at critical intersections from the system.

Traffic signals were disconnected at four intersections -- Sky and World ways at Los Angeles International Airport; Coldwater Canyon and Riverside Drive in Sherman Oaks; Alvarado Street and Glendale Boulevard at Berkeley Avenue; and First and Alameda streets.

No accidents were reported, but it took four days to get the city's traffic control system fully operational, according to prosecutors.

The illegal access occurred hours before a job action by members of the Engineers and Architects Association, which represents the engineers who run and maintain the city's traffic center.

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