Hemet police Lt. Duane Wisehart stands at the site where a bullet fired by… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Hemet — Roadblocks have gone up behind the Hemet Police Department. Sidewalks outside have closed, blast-proof glass is going in, and $155,000 in barricades and fences are being installed. Linger out front too long and expect a visit from an officer monitoring surveillance cameras.
Such is the new reality for police here, where life has increasingly taken on the feel of a war zone.
Over the last few months, police have been stalked and attacked by what investigators believe is a gang eager to avenge the department's aggressive efforts to crack down on it.
"We have a gang that is focused on doing violence to the Police Department, and it has to end here or it will spread to Nebraska, Kansas and beyond," said Police Chief Richard Dana during an interview in his office Thursday. "We are going to make this ground zero for stopping this kind of violence."
For decades, Hemet was best known as a sleepy retirement community where dairy cows lolled in green fields and sprawling mobile home parks lined the streets. Elderly folks piloting oversized cars at 20 mph were considered more of a problem than gangsters and thugs.
As the years went by, the gracious old homes with stately shade trees gave way to cookie-cutter tract houses and strip malls. Young families searching for affordable housing flocked here, swelling the population to more than 70,000.
Some of the newcomers have included gang members seeking fertile ground for criminal enterprises.
"The violence in this town is getting out of control," said Hilary Wilkinson, 28, a home-loan consultant who moved to Hemet from Orange County 10 years ago. "I have police helicopters flying over my house all the time. There are drugs, gangs... I am getting out of here. This is no place for kids."
Curtis Dufek, 29, says things have changed dramatically.
"When I was a kid you used to walk around and feel safe. Now, when you walk around and someone asks where you are from -- and if you give the wrong answer, they beat you down."
He displayed scars on his leg, which he said was broken by a skinhead who confronted him at a party because he thought his name sounded Jewish.
"A lot of gang members have moved here from L.A. or Moreno Valley or Perris," Dufek said. "Some really want to start a new life, but a lot want to start a new gang."
Local police have fought back aggressively, identifying about 2,000 gang members and 100 gangs in Hemet and theSan Jacinto Valley and working hard to deny them sanctuary.
But at least one gang appears to be turning the tables on them, engaging police in a shadow war of potentially deadly booby traps, vandalism and harassment.
Since December, police have been targeted in at least four attacks. The first happened when someone redirected a natural gas pipeline at the headquarters of the Hemet-San Jacinto Gang Task Force, filling the office with fumes. Police said a single spark could have leveled the entire building.
In February, a homemade gun was planted on the gate outside the task force office. When an officer tried to open it, the weapon fired a single shot that missed his head only because the gate didn't open correctly.
"I was getting out of my car, and halfway to the office I heard a gunshot. I froze and thought, 'What the hell was that?' " recalled receptionist Laurie Ogilvie, who works about 100 yards from where the incident occurred. "I didn't realize that the bullet had just whizzed past me. To see these things done so blatantly is unsettling."
On March 5, a suspicious device was found attached to the unmarked car of a gang task force member. Dana declined to give specifics, but said the device was deadly.
"It could have easily resulted in the deaths of every occupant in the car," he said.
And Tuesday night, in an attack police believe is related to the others, someone torched four code-enforcement pickup trucks in the City Hall parking lot two blocks from police headquarters. There have also been threats to blow up a police car.
"We have caught people watching the station from the library parking lot. We have had officers followed by known bad guys," Dana said. "We can question them, but it's not illegal to sit in a parking lot."
Someone also fired a bullet through Dana's mailbox.
"You are walking around trying to protect people and the whole time you have a target on your back," he said. "You can call us about an emergency and then shoot us when we show up. They want to kill a police officer, but they don't want to take any risks, so they are using booby traps."
Last week, California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown and Riverside County Dist. Atty. Rod Pacheco announced a $200,000 reward for the capture of those engaged in what they described as urban terrorism in Hemet.
A day earlier, there was a massive crackdown on the Vagos motorcycle gang in Riverside County, Utah, Arizona and Nevada.
The gang has a history of violence toward police, but gang members were not named as suspects in these attacks.