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D.A. Pacheco lists his priorities

The environmental crimes and public integrity units will get a boost. Gangs and sexual predators also top the list of targets.

January 03, 2007|Maeve Reston | Times Staff Writer

Riverside County Dist. Atty. Rod Pacheco was sworn in Tuesday afternoon, taking over from Grover Trask, who oversaw the rapid expansion of the office for more than two decades and made Riverside County's conviction rate among the highest in California.

At a ceremony on the steps of the Riverside County courthouse, Trask said Pacheco -- a former deputy -- had the competence, track record and integrity to take over one of the largest district attorney's offices in the nation.

Trask joked that even in their first interview, when Pacheco was fresh out of the University of San Diego law school, "he was bright, very enthusiastic and a great advocate for himself."

Pacheco served for 12 years in the Riverside County district attorney's office before leaving in 1996 -- against Trask's advice -- to serve what would become three terms in the Assembly, including a brief stint as GOP leader. Pacheco rejoined the prosecutor's office in 2002.

In hindsight, Trask said Tuesday, the people of the county and state were well served by Pacheco's tenure in Sacramento.

"Rod never forgot about the crime victim, he never forgot about the cop on the street, and he never forgot about the prosecutor in the courtroom," said Trask, who is retiring from public office.

"Rod Pacheco was our public safety torch in Sacramento."

Pacheco, who ran unopposed for the district attorney's office, said Trask's example had guided his career.

Pacheco said that although the two differ in style -- Pacheco doesn't shy from the spotlight or confrontation -- he and Trask had similar goals and philosophies.

On Tuesday, he said he would build on Trask's vision for the office and dedicate his service to the county's victims.

"I can still remember today the many victims I have met and known," Pacheco said. "I was encouraged by their strength and I hear them today as I stand before you. They will not be forgotten."

As he takes the helm in one of the nation's fastest-growing counties, with a population exceeding 2 million, Pacheco said he planned to expand both the environmental crimes and public integrity units. He noted that the county recently settled a civil suit with Shell Oil Co. and a gas station operator for $6.5 million after the two were accused of ignoring reports that their underground storage tanks were leaking gasoline.

Pacheco said he would also focus on prosecuting gang members and sexual predators, two groups he considers the county's greatest threats.

Pacheco spent much of his early career prosecuting gang crimes, and up until a few years ago, he said, the county had failed to recognize how pervasive gang violence had become.

When he began supervising the gang unit in the western division office after returning to the office in 2002, he worked with the Riverside County sheriff's and probation departments to form a regional gang task force, which included investigators from his office as well as state and federal officials.

He hopes the task force will help deter crime and hopes to expand the gang unit, which continues to stagger under its caseload, he said.

"The [gang] threat is increasing in size and scope and becoming larger and more severe," Pacheco said in an interview last week. "We are holding the line right now."

Pacheco also worked in 2006 with the sheriff's office and state officials to set up six Sexual Assault Felony Enforcement teams, which will track and monitor the 3,400 sexual predators living in Riverside County, to shore up what Pacheco viewed as an overwhelmed and inadequate monitoring system.

The teams, set up in conjunction with the California attorney general's office, are similar to those already operating in Los Angeles and other counties.

"These folks are extremely dangerous.... They will never be cured," Pacheco said. "The bottom line is they should live somewhere else. If they're violating the law in any way, we're going to prosecute them. "

In the immediate future, one of Pacheco's highest-profile cases will be the prosecution of Raymond Lee Oyler, the Beaumont man accused of lighting the 40,000-acre Esperanza fire west of Palm Springs in late October that killed five federal firefighters.

Pacheco looks back fondly on his three terms in the Legislature as a helpful interlude in his career as a prosecutor. As the first Latino to lead Republicans in the Assembly, he successfully pushed for an expansion of the Cal Grant system, the state's main financial aid program for needy and middle-income students; school accountability measures; and state testing standards.

But his primary focus was on crime. He wrote a series of bills tightening sentencing guidelines, including a ballot initiative that prohibited the possibility of parole for those who murder a peace officer, which was approved overwhelmingly by voters in 1998.

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