FILLMORE — It didn't seem so important at the time.
But as Sheriff's Det. Taurino Almazan looks back, he credits part of Fillmore's stunning 49% drop in crime this year to a burglar who cut himself during a January break-in, left a DNA trail on a bloody sheet, then apparently fled for the border.
Getting that 21-year-old convicted burglar out of town broke the back of a ring of young thieves, Almazan said. And it helped to finally bring Fillmore's crime problem under control.
"Once he fled, we talked to the other suspects, and their little ring just fizzled," the detective said. "They knew that we knew they were involved."
For most of the 1990s, Fillmore defied the trend. Every local city got much safer. Fillmore didn't.
At least until 1999. Then for the first six months of the year, this farm community of 13,000 saw crime plummet beyond all expectations: Overall, serious offenses declined from 251 to 128, with burglaries down two-thirds to 32 and thefts down one-half to 66. Violence was down sharply too.
Deputies say there are many authors of this success.
After one last embarrassment--a disclosure the Sheriff's Department was attempting to fire three Fillmore patrolmen for allegedly having sex with women while on duty--top brass sent Capt. Chris Godfrey in to shake things up in February 1998.
Godfrey's mandate, Sheriff Bob Brooks said Friday, was twofold. He needed to hammer gang members, in part by rousting them in their homes with probation searches, then recruit Fillmore's large Latino majority as allies in the war against crime.
As part of the gang crackdown, Godfrey brought in two new detectives, Almazan and veteran Jim Popp. He also recruited Sgt. Fred Bustillos, a narcotics expert who reemphasized the link between drugs and burglaries, and several other veterans of the narcotics unit.
Godfrey hired a group of aggressive young patrol officers, who colleagues say distinguish themselves with how thoroughly they investigate a crime scene for fingerprints and blood evidence.
"A lot of our patrol officers are very young," Popp said, "but they're very aggressive and take that extra effort to fully process a crime scene [for evidence]. People know they're not just out there to appease them, that we're out there to solve their case."
And as more cases are solved quickly, detectives say they have more time to work on new ones. That puts law enforcement ahead of the curve, Popp said.
To kick down the walls between Fillmore's Latino immigrants--many who come here with a distrust of police--Godfrey hired more officers who can speak Spanish. Of the 40 officers in the Fillmore station when Godfrey showed up, two spoke Spanish, as did a cadet. Now, six officers, one cadet and three reserves speak Spanish, officials said.
Godfrey also started a Community Law Enforcement Academy modeled after the sheriff's successes in Thousand Oaks. Officers now teach residents in English and Spanish that police are on their side and how they can help fight crime.
So far, 100 residents have cycled through four academies, learning through 12 three-hour sessions the ins and outs of the justice system.
"Chris went out there with a specific mission, and he accomplished it," Brooks said. "I wouldn't call it housecleaning. We just reorganized to put in the kind of aggressive team we thought the situation required. It wasn't just youth we were looking for, we wanted productivity."
Homemaker Nifa Carillo, 49, a native of Mexico and the wife of a Fillmore farm worker, attended the first Fillmore citizen academy last year. She said it changed her mind completely about officers.
"Before, all I thought about police was the worst thing," she said. "When you need them, they don't have time. Now I learned a lot of things. And when I see something that's against the law, I go straight to the police to cooperate."
Deputy Max Pena, 55, a Fillmore officer for 28 years, runs the citizen academies out of his storefront office at Lemon and 3rd streets. He chooses 25 residents at a time for instruction that includes tours of the jail and county courthouse in Ventura, a trip to the department's firearms training simulator in Camarillo, and briefings by experts on everything from drugs to gangs to hostage situations.
"Let's face it, most times when people view a police officer he's on the street writing a ticket or making an arrest. That's viewed as negative," Pena said.
Many Latinos who graduate from the academy volunteer their time. One helps with office work at department headquarters. Others are helping organize a Sept. 16 festival to celebrate Mexican independence from Spain.
"I think all of these things are making a difference," Pena said. "It's the academy, the storefront, the patrol officers. It's a combined effort."
Residents have noticed.
"The guys [deputies] we have out here now really try. They're into this community," said Ken Tallent, 38, a disabled aerospace inspector. "They get out of their cars and they communicate. It's kind of like Mayberry RFD."
Teenagers say they have seen a change too.
"When I was a kid there used to be all kinds of gangs," said Antonio Recendez, 16. "Now you can just go out and kick back without worrying about anything."