Two men were arrested on suspicion of launching a fireworks-like projectile that exploded below a formation of helicopters spraying malathion over the Norwalk area, authorities said Saturday.
No injuries were reported and none of the five helicopters in the low-flying formation were damaged in the incident, which occurred at about 9:45 p.m. Friday.
The two men arrested, both 21, were identified by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department as Patrick D. Gilmour of Lakewood and Charles W. Rockwell of Fullerton. Both were booked at the sheriff's Norwalk jail on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon and held on $7,000 bail each.
Los Angeles County's agriculture commissioner, Leon Spaugy, dismissed Friday's episode as an "isolated incident," but opponents of malathion spraying suggested that it may signal a growing frustration over the controversial spraying. In recent weeks, opposition to the malathion treatments has been mounting among citizen groups and municipal officials concerned about possible harmful effects from the pesticide.
Since the discovery of a single Mediterranean fruit fly in Elysian Park last July 20, about 50 cities in Los Angeles County have been aerially sprayed with malathion, some as many as four times. A dozen cities in Orange County also have been sprayed.
Under the state-run program, affected areas are sprayed every 21 days, but that is due to increase to every 15 days in April, and then every seven days in June if the infestation continues. State officials, who insist the pesticide is not harmful, are projecting that some cities may be sprayed as many as 12 times by the end of June.
Deputy Patrick Hunter, a sheriff's spokesman, said Friday's arrests came about after deputies received a telephone call from a state official who reported having watched two men launch an "object" into the night sky from the corner of Crestbrook Street and Studebaker Road.
The state official, who was not identified, was on the ground in radio communication with the helicopters at the time, and was less than 100 feet away from Gilmour and Rockwell when the object "skyrocketed" toward the choppers, Hunter said.
The helicopters, according to Hunter, were flying about 500 feet above the ground when the object exploded about 200 feet directly below them and between the third and fourth helicopters in the formation.
A sheriff's spokesman said the evidence indicated that the projectile was a "skyrocket or bottle rocket."
No evasive action was taken and the formation continued its aerial spraying over Norwalk as scheduled, authorities said.
Gilmour's mother, Jene Lopez, said that her son and Rockwell, who are boyhood friends, were visiting her Friday evening at her home on Crestbrook Street, along with other guests, when the two men stepped outside to smoke.
"The next thing I know," Lopez said, "here comes the police."
Lopez said her son is an unemployed store clerk who lives with his wife and their 6-month-old son. She said she could not recall him ever expressing an opinion on malathion spraying.
"I remember we got sprayed a few weeks ago and he was going to stand outside and watch (the helicopters) with the neighborhood kids," Lopez said, "One kid was telling him, 'C'mon, all it does is make your hair sticky,' but I made them all come in the house."
She said deputies searched the house Friday night for fireworks after her son was arrested, but found none.
"If he did it, then it was an irresponsible thing to do," Lopez said. "But I don't think he would do something like that. He's a good kid."
One of Lopez's neighbors, Irene Wilson, said the helicopters were making their second pass over the neighborhood Friday night when she heard "somebody yell something and then I heard some fireworks."
"I didn't think much about it," she said, "and then, a few minutes later, I looked out the window and the whole half of our street was lined with police cars. I thought maybe there was a mass murderer out there."
Wilson noted that the Norwalk area has been sprayed every three weeks by the helicopters since the beginning of the year "and I'm really tired of it."
Virginia Johannessen, a member of the Coalition Against Urban Spraying, which has joined in a lawsuit against the state to stop the spraying, said Friday's incident is reminiscent of episodes in the early 1980s, when helicopter spraying in other areas of California was sometimes met by ground fire.
While her coalition is committed to ending the spraying by "legal and nonviolent means," Johannessen said, "it doesn't surprise me that other people are becoming increasingly frustrated with what's going on."
Spaugy, the county's agriculture commissioner, acknowledged that there are people in the community frustrated by the spraying, but "I would think that this is an isolated incident . . . which is not representative of the community."