The two men charged in a series of violent attacks against the Hemet Police Department, including rigging a rocket launcher to fire at the main police station, were targeting a single detective who had arrested one of the suspects on drug charges last year, authorities said.
Riverside County Dist. Atty. Rod Pacheco, who Wednesday announced attempted murder charges filed against the two men, said he had never seen such an intense campaign of "domestic terrorism" waged against a local law enforcement agency.
One of the suspects, Nicholas John Smit, 39, stalked Hemet Police Det. Charles Johnson for months: He identified the police car Johnson drove, where he lived and where he worked, Pacheco said. Johnson had arrested Smit in June 2009 on suspicion of marijuana cultivation and gun possession.
"It is pretty clear to us that it was part of a larger conspiracy to target that officer, as well as other officers," Pacheco said at a news conference in downtown Riverside. "I've never seen it like this where an entire police department and, quite frankly, an entire city, were targeted."
Both suspects have "extensive contacts" with white supremacists in the Hemet area as well as the Vagos motorcycle gang, although no gang-related charges have been filed against them, Pacheco said. The district attorney said the investigation is ongoing, but declined to say if there are more suspects.
Smit was charged with nine felonies, including three charges of attempted murder of a police officer, assembling a booby trap and possessing a "zip gun.'' He faces multiple life sentences if convicted of all charges.
Steven Hansen, 36, of Homeland was charged with three felonies, including one count of attempted murder of a police officer as well as conspiracy to murder a police officer. A conviction could result in a sentence of up to 30 years in prison.
Hemet Police Chief Richard Dana said that police and the city have been on edge since the attacks began and that he wants everyone to remain vigilant in case other suspects remain at large.
"There's some bad guys in jail. We're happy about that," Dana said. "I've just spent the last seven months not being willing to go more than 50 miles from my city. Not being able to put my phone down and turn it off, because every time your phone rings, your heart starts beating again and you start wondering: What happened now, is somebody hurt?"
DNA evidence collected from the failed rocket attack was one of the critical pieces of evidence that led to the arrests, Pacheco said.
Most of the eight attacks on Hemet authorities coincided with Smit's scheduled court appearances on the drug charges.
"It was the first time Mr. Smit was looking at state prison," Pacheco said. "You can ensure that you don't go to state prison if you murder the officer who's responsible for your case and your arrest."
The two are suspected of being involved in the attacks on Hemet police that started more than six months ago, including arson fires and a booby-trapped zip gun rigged to shoot Johnson.
The arrests came less than a week after a fire believed to have been set by an arsonist damaged a Hemet Police Department building that housed evidence gathered from those attacks and for thousands of pending and past criminal cases.
In January, the Hemet-San Jacinto Valley Gang Task Force discovered that a natural gas line had been diverted into their office, filling it with fumes. The gas did not ignite. A month later, a booby-trapped zip gun fired a bullet that whizzed by Hemet Sgt. Matthew Hess when he opened a security gate, according to the prosecutor's office.
In March, another zip gun was found attached to Johnson's unmarked police car, and two weeks later four city code-enforcement trucks were torched in the Hemet City Hall parking lot. In April, an early morning fire damaged the Police Department's shooting range.
Finally, in June, authorities found a vintage military rocket on the roof of a nearby market, pointed in the direction of the police station office where Johnson worked.
A special task force consisting of personnel from the Hemet Police Department, Riverside County Sheriff's Department, FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was formed to investigate the attacks.