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Slain Deputy Fit Into the Fabric of Lake L.A.

Stephen Sorensen had become active in the rural community and took an interest in its people, even those he arrested.

August 05, 2003|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

In the remote desert community of Lake Los Angeles, where cell phone service is patchy and the nearest sheriff's station is 25 minutes away, Deputy Stephen Sorensen was the law.

He was the guy who cleaned up graffiti and kept tabs on the teenagers who probably had done it. He drove sick residents to pick up their prescriptions and arrested local drug dealers. He helped plan the annual Lake L.A. Days parade, and he issued speeding tickets to his neighbors when he caught them roaring across the Mojave Desert floor.

Everyone seemed to have his business card, and everybody knew he lived down the road. On Monday, two days after Sorensen was fatally shot while checking out a trespassing complaint in nearby Llano, this community of 11,500 was not just in a painful state of mourning. It was also wondering who would keep this town in working order.

"He was the only one that was cleaning up tagging and making people clean up their yards of all the old cars and stuff," said Nick Bakhus, owner of the Lake L.A. Dairy. "He was one of the best cops that I've ever met."

Pete Cordera, the local chamber of commerce president, asked, "What do we do now?"

Sorensen, 46, came to Lake Los Angeles from Torrance three years ago. He was what Los Angeles Sheriff's Department officials call a resident deputy, one of a handful of officers who work out of their homes, covering some of the far-flung areas of the county.

His 150-square-mile beat included Lake Los Angeles, along with some of the most inaccessible roads in the High Desert, made dangerous by the methamphetamine producers who historically have favored the remote area.

But Cordera said the veteran deputy immediately took a liking to the rural atmosphere and small-town feel of Lake Los Angeles. And it was not long before he seemed to know everybody by name.

Though deputies from the Lancaster station helped him with patrols, the town was his, and he seemed to be everywhere: attending town council meetings and school events, checking on the kids hanging out at the Dairy.

He answered calls 24 hours a day. No one was surprised to hear that Saturday, the day he was killed, had been his day off.

His boss, Lancaster sheriff's station Capt. Carl Deeley, said Sorensen was a throwback to an earlier era of policing.

"He was a social worker, confidant, psychologist, priest -- and he was a cop -- all wrapped up in one package," Deeley said. "This is the old cop on the beat, the guy you used to see in the movies who knew everyone by name and was able to enforce the law without necessarily throwing them in jail."

Others credit Sorensen for maintaining peace and a decent quality of life in Lake Los Angeles, as the growing community faced new urban problems in recent years, including drugs, gangs and graffiti.

It's a community that has had its share of setbacks, such as the draining of its namesake lake in 1981 after residents refused to pay for its upkeep and the devastating effects of recession in the late 1980s and early 1990s that left homes repossessed and abandoned.

But as the economy picked up around the region, the people came back, many of them priced out of Los Angeles' real estate market, making it the county's third-fastest growing community of the 1990s, according to 2000 census figures.

The influx of residents from Los Angeles has made for an interesting mix of rural and urban: On Monday, a sign at the local supermarket asked for help in finding a small lost goat, while across the street at a burger joint, Michael Smith, 18, described how Sorensen had been working on rooting out a local contingent of Los Angeles gang members.

"Sorensen was a cool guy who tried to make a difference out here," said Mike Mandaro, 43, who works with Smith in the construction business.

"But this area's kind of gone downhill. There's a lot more problems than when I first got here. You see a lot of stuff you didn't used to see: people pulling guns, stealing stuff. You used to never see that."

Sorensen addressed these problems head-on, with his wife, Christine, helping to run what amounted to a mini-station out of their home.

He also subscribed to the "broken windows" approach, believing that keeping the city tidy was a key to keeping it safe.

That was not always easy for a deputy patrolling the vast Mojave, where a laissez-faire philosophy often goes hand-in-hand with a propensity for hoarding junk.

Cordera recalled that about two months ago, Sorensen was having trouble with a trash-strewn property on Avenue O. After the residents said they couldn't pay to clean it up, the deputy and a friend came by on Sorensen's day off and did the job themselves.

Even some of the residents he arrested said he was fair. Bobby Bonnelle, 19, said Sorensen arrested him for his involvement in the theft of an off-road vehicle in November, for which he spent five months in county jail.

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