Calif. police department on alert for deadly traps

Gang prevention unit has narrowly escaped a series of booby traps

Published March 19, 2010 2:25PM (EDT)

Police in this picturesque city in rural Riverside County have been on edge in recent weeks. Someone is trying to kill them.

First, a natural gas pipe was shoved through a hole drilled into the roof of the gang enforcement unit's headquarters. The building filled with flammable vapor but an officer smelled the danger before anyone was hurt.

"It would have taken out half a city block," Capt. Tony Marghis said.

Then, a ballistic contraption was attached to a sliding security fence around the building. An officer opening the black steel gate triggered the mechanism, which sent a bullet within eight inches of his face.

In another attempted booby trap attack, some kind of explosive device was attached to a police officer's unmarked car while he went into a convenience store.

"There's a person or people out there, a bunch of idiots, trying to do damage to us," Hemet Police Chief Richard Dana said. "We can't expect our luck to hold up, we need help."

Since New Year's Eve, there have been several other booby trap attempts to kill officers, Dana said.

"The only reason they haven't killed an officer yet is because we've been observant enough to see devices planted around the station and in cars and different places," he said.

Gang enforcement officers appear to be the target of the assassination attempts, though Dana noted the devices were indiscriminate by nature and could have killed any police or law enforcement officer.

The incidents have shaken a close-knit police department already demoralized by steep budget cuts that last year saw its officer numbers slashed by a quarter to 68. Officers are checking under cars for bombs and scouting for other potential hazards.

"I would call the mood tense," Capt. Marghis said. "Everyone is being very vigilant about their surroundings and the environment."

Dana said officers have seen gang members carrying out counter-surveillance, studying police behavior. He often looks in his rear view mirror when he drives home at night to make sure he is not being followed.

In the attack with a ballistic contraption, the officer only avoided being shot in the head because the wheels on the sliding gate were wonky so he had to angle his body to open it.

"He had to push it to the right, the bullet went by to the left," Dana said.

Hemet, surrounded by the snow-topped San Jacinto Mountains about 90 miles east of Los Angeles, was traditionally known as a quiet retirement community. The population has grown in recent years to about 75,000 but the once-booming housing market has been hit hard by the foreclosure crisis.

Investigators are still trying to determine why officers are being targeted. A prevalent theory is that members of an outlaw motorcycle gang -- the Vagos -- were angered when members of Hemet's anti-gang task force monitored them at a funeral in a church opposite the task force's former headquarters.

A memorial service was held Dec. 29 in the Hemet Christian Assembly church and upward of 100 members of the gang attended, said Riverside County sheriff's Capt. Walter Meyer, who oversees the regional gang task force.

Officers monitored the memorial but did not attend the service. Some of the Vagos members were questioned or followed as they left town.

Two days later, the gang enforcement unit's black shingle roof was drilled through and the single-level house, converted for police use, filled up with gas.

"Which would obviously leave a reasonable person to ask: Are they involved?" Meyer said.

One of the church's pastors, James McKiney, said a group of motorcycling friends mourning the death of a prominent Hemet man asked if he would conduct a memorial service.

"When a family is crying and asking for a service, you don't say no to them," McKiney said. "I said that's no problem, I'll do that."

McKiney declined to discuss the service or if he recalled any gang officers monitoring its attendants.

Authorities said about 30 members of the Vagos, California's largest motorcycle gang, were arrested in Riverside County on Wednesday, as part of a crackdown across the state and in Arizona, Nevada and Utah. Prosecutors don't have a total number of arrests yet.

Meyer said there are about 200 Vagos members in Riverside County. The gang specializes in methamphetamine sales, identity theft and violence, he said.

Law enforcement officials from around the state on Thursday appealed for the public's help in solving the case. Several state, local and national agencies have banded together to put forward a $200,000 reward.

"It is incredible and I think unprecedented that police officers in the line of duty could be subjected to these kind of terrorist attempts on their lives," Attorney General Jerry Brown said.

By Thomas Watkins

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