Hemet, Calif., police on heightened alert following threat to blow up a police car

By Thomas Watkins, AP
Saturday, March 20, 2010

New threat rankles Hemet, Calif., police

HEMET, Calif. — A Southern California police department plagued by booby trap attacks against its officers went on heightened alert Friday following yet another threat.

An unidentified person called a 911 operator at about 5:45 p.m. and said a police car would be blown up in the Hemet-San Jacinto area in the next 24 to 48 hours, Hemet Police Chief Richard Dana said. The caller said the attack would be in retaliation for the law enforcement sweep against the Vagos Motorcycle Club earlier this week.

A Riverside County sheriff’s spokeswoman said the department has not been able to confirm the threat.

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. The gang specializes in methamphetamine sales, identity theft and violence, Riverside County sheriff’s Capt. Walter Meyer said.

Dana told the Riverside Press-Enterprise that someone he believes may have been a gang member was unsuccessful in efforts to get into a news conference Thursday at the district attorney’s office in Riverside.

Dana, along with District Attorney Rod Pacheco, state Attorney General Jerry Brown and others, urged the public at the news conference to help with identifying and capturing the person or persons responsible for the Hemet-area booby traps aimed at officers in recent weeks. Several state, local and national agencies have banded together to put forward a $200,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible.

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.

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.

Investigators are still trying to determine why officers are being targeted. A prevalent theory is that Vagos members 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 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 natural gas incident occurred.

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

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. Tony Marghis said. “Everyone is being very vigilant about their surroundings and the environment.”

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