After the city of Maywood made national headlines earlier this year for its embrace of illegal immigrants, Councilman Felipe Aguirre and Mayor Thomas Martin began receiving threats in the mail.
Now, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office and Maywood police are investigating whether the town's deputy city clerk not only sent some of the hate mail but also tried to have Aguirre killed.
Hector Duarte, 29, was arrested last week by Maywood police officers on suspicion of soliciting to commit murder, said Los Angeles County sheriff's spokeswoman Kerri Webb. Bail was initially set at $1 million, but he was released July 5, pending further investigation. He has not been charged him with a crime.
Los Angeles County Sheriff's Capt. Steve Johnson of the department's Major Crimes Unit said his detectives were consulted on the probe within the last month.
Aguirre said Wednesday that Maywood police first learned of a possible plot when they arrested a man a month ago during a drug bust. The man allegedly said that Duarte had inquired about killing the councilman, he said.
Duarte was relieved of his duties by the City Council on Tuesday night. He could not be reached for comment.
But Councilman Sam Pena said he did not think Duarte was capable of sending the death threat, let alone trying to get Aguirre killed.
"Apparently their source is someone who was arrested ... for drugs and is trying to cut a deal," Pena said. "To me it sounds like they have a very bad informant, and they don't have enough evidence. It's all hearsay."
Law enforcement officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said they are investigating a power struggle at City Hall that involves the city's stance on illegal immigration as well as other issues.
The election last fall that brought immigrants-rights activist Aguirre and an ally into power in Maywood, causing a shift in political power, had been a raucous one.
As soon as he got into office, Aguirre and the council majority enacted policies that benefited illegal immigrants.
The city eliminated the Maywood Police Department's Traffic Division after complaints that officers unfairly targeted illegal immigrants. Then the city made it much more difficult for police to tow cars whose owners didn't have driver's licenses, a practice that had affected mostly undocumented people who could not obtain licenses.
In January, the City Council passed a resolution opposing a proposed federal law that would criminalize illegal immigration and make local police enforce immigration law.
In a conversation with The Times earlier this year, Duarte voiced frustration that the city's forging of an identity as a "sanctuary" for illegal immigrants had unleashed a torrent of angry calls, e-mails and letters to City Hall.
"There's been a lot of bad blood," said Pena, a political rival of Aguirre. "They talk about a city of no laws and order, and I think Maywood is becoming that. When you let go of the Traffic Division, which takes care of moving violations in your city, you have a problem."
Aguirre defended the changes in the city. And he said he took the threats seriously.
"In small cities in the southeast there's been a history of a lot of political violence," said Aguirre, referring to the 1999 shooting of South Gate's mayor during a period of political turmoil.
Maywood, south of downtown Los Angeles, is one of the nation's most densely populated cities -- nearly 45,000 people (when illegal immigrants are factored in) live in 1.2 square miles. An estimated 96% of the residents are Latino and more than half are foreign-born.
As Maywood gained publicity for its stance on illegal immigrants, Aguirre appeared on national television talk shows and defended his position.
The details of the death-threat probe remain unclear.
Aguirre said a Maywood detective told him that officers had matched handwriting on some of the threatening letters to Duarte. But neither police nor prosecutors would comment.