Police officers in this retirement town in rural California 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 a police officer smelled the danger before anyone was hurt.
“It would have taken out half a city block,” Captain 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 20cm 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 police 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,” Captain 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 is a working-class city surrounded by the snow-topped San Jacinto Mountains about 145km southeast of Los Angeles. Its main street is dotted with real estate offices, tax offices and auto repair stores, and it has traditionally been known as a quiet retirement community.
The town’s population grew 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 on Dec. 29 in the Hemet Christian Assembly church and upward of 100 members of the gang attended, said Riverside County sheriff’s Captain 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.