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Renaming Street for Deputies Is Resented

Near Palm Springs, folks see drawbacks in a gesture to honor two gunned-down men.

March 10, 2004|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

Riverside County's plan to rename a street after two sheriff's deputies killed trying to subdue a gunman won unanimous approval from the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday -- but still faces virulent opposition from the very neighborhood they died trying to protect.

Verbenia Avenue, near the Whitewater area just north of Palm Springs city limits, will be changed to Haugen-Lehmann Way, an honor that residents argue is too costly and will memorialize their tiny community as a lawless, violent place to live.

Madelaine Barnett Cresswell, who with her husband owns a home and four lots on the road, told the board, "People will think, 'This isn't a safe area. Deputies are getting gunned down here. We're going to Palm Springs. We're going to Desert Hot Springs.' It happened in their line of duty. Why should we have to have their names [on our road]?"

After the board voted 5 to 0 in favor of the name change, Cresswell snarled on her way out at a deputy who was guarding the meeting room door: "You can never win against the [expletive] cops!"

Members of the board and the audience appeared to be appalled by her testimony and the opposition from many of the residents along the street.

"To say that's their job and that's the risk they take is kind of callous," said Sheriff Bob Doyle. "They want to go home to their families at night just like everyone else."

Supervisor John F. Tavaglione said he was disheartened by the opposition.

"I'm not shocked at all by anything people say anymore," Tavaglione said afterward. "Am I unhappy that people would not look a little further into why we're making the name change? Yes. I know we made the right decision."

On Jan. 5, 1997, Deputies Michael Haugen and James Lehmann Jr. were ambushed while responding to a domestic-violence call at Sagebrush Avenue and Chaparral Road. A man with a military rifle was threatening to kill his estranged wife and children.

The two deputies were waiting for backup when they heard a shot and decided that, to rescue the family, they needed to move in by themselves. The gunman, Timothy Russell, fired a dozen shots, striking Lehmann in the head and Haugen in the chest. Russell was later convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

"To date, we have not done anything to memorialize these heroes," Doyle told the board.

Doyle said the department originally looked into naming a nearby portion of Interstate 10 after the deputies but found it was already named in honor of the late Sonny Bono, the entertainer turned Palm Springs mayor and congressman. So the focus turned to Verbenia Avenue, a curving road that exits the interstate and leads to the rural community where the murders occurred.

The county's cost of erecting new signs on the freeway and on the street, and notifying emergency response agencies, utilities and other organizations, will total about $20,000.

"The renaming of a street in the Verbenia neighborhood where these deputies died serving their community is the least we can do," said Supervisor Marion Ashley, who represents the area.

He noted that the new street name might cause some confusion, inconvenience and anger, but said it was well worth it to honor the deputies who gave their lives. Cresswell was the only resident to testify at the hearing, but Ashley said nearly all the homeowners along the street -- roughly a dozen -- opposed the name change.

"No one likes change, but you've got to look at the big picture and what these men did," Ashley said. "They should be remembered."

John Stocker, who has lived on Verbenia since 1988, said renaming the street is going to be costly and a huge hassle.

"I remember the incident. It's very tragic, but my God," he said. "It's like moving to another house. I'll have to change everything.... I'll spend the rest of my life spelling those names for people."

Cresswell said she planned to gather signatures in order to put the matter on the November ballot.

"This is absolutely criminal," she said.

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