Trucks burned in possible threat to Calif. police
LOS ANGELES (AP) – Four municipal trucks were set ablaze in a rural Riverside County town plagued by bizarre booby trap attempts to kill police officers, and authorities said Wednesday the fire may be linked to the earlier attacks.
“Everyone is worried, everyone is being careful,” Hemet police Lt. Duane Wisehart said. “You get scared a little bit and then you get angry. It keeps happening.”
Someone called police around 11:10 p.m. Tuesday to report a fire in the parking lot at Hemet City Hall, located within two blocks of the police department, Police Chief Richard Dana said. No one was hurt.
Police were working with state and federal investigators to determine the cause of the blaze, which sent flames several feet above the trucks in the cab and hood area. The white trucks were for use by code enforcement officers.
Early indications were that some kind of flammable substance was used and not an explosive, Dana said.
Hemet, a traditionally quiet retirement city about 90 miles southeast of Los Angeles, has been rocked by a series of booby trap attacks against police officers in recent weeks.
“We are operating under the theory (the fire) is connected to the other assaults,” Dana said.
On Dec. 31, a natural gas pipe was rerouted into the headquarters of a gang task force. The building filled with flammable vapor, but an officer smelled the danger before anyone was hurt.
In a second attack, some kind of ballistic device rigged to a security fence at the same building went off when an officer opened the gate, but the bullet missed.
The third attack involved a deadly device found under a police officer’s unmarked car after the officer drove to a convenience store.
Dana said there has been at least one other booby trap uncovered, but he declined to release details. In the past week or so, officers have received threats daily, either on their non-emergency telephone lines or via e-mail.
“They say things like, ‘It’s too bad they missed, the next one’s gonna get you,”‘ Dana said.
Investigators believe the attacks are the work of more than one individual, partly because of the sheer volume of activity.
Wisehart said a confidential informant last week overheard two people talking about how they were going to blow up a Hemet police car over the weekend. The informant told the Riverside County Sheriff’s deputies, who notified Hemet authorities.
Agents were working to determine if all the trucks in Tuesday’s fire were set ablaze at once or if the fire had gone from one vehicle to the next, said Keith Krolczyk, resident agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Riverside. He said the vehicles were “severely damaged.”
Police initially suspected the Vagos, California’s largest outlaw motorcycle gang, may be involved in the booby trap attacks. Authorities last week arrested 35 members of the Vagos in Riverside County as part of a crackdown across the state and in Arizona, Nevada and Utah. The district attorney’s office was still reviewing cases and did not immediately know how many people had been charged.
Gang enforcement officers monitored a group of gang members at a funeral two days before the first attack, leading investigators to wonder if the gang felt affronted.
But Dana on Wednesday distanced himself from the theory.
“We have since started looking at other things” he said. “They are a group that is on the investigation list but there are other groups, too.”
A $200,000 reward has been offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the attacks.