Four marked Hemet code enforcement trucks were charred late Tuesday night outside a city building, in what authorities are considering another round of related attempts to kill officers.
The vehicle fires were reported about 11:30 p.m. at City Hall on Florida Avenue. City Hall is across the street from the Hemet-San Jacinto Gang Task Force building and the police department where previous attempts to injure officers have been made.
The vehicles were parked in an open city lot and authorities have not yet determined how the four trucks were ignited, Hemet police Lt. Duane Wisehart said.
Police detained one man after he was seen running from the parking lot, Wisehart said, but was released after police determined he arrived after the vehicle fires started.
“When police pulled up he took off running,” Wisehart said, adding that the man’s story that he was just walking by and got scared when the lights and sirens appeared checked out.
While Tuesday night’s incident is not directly connected to ongoing investigations into three attempts to kill officers from the Hemet-San Jacinto Gang Task Force, Wisehart said police are going under the assumption that there may be a connection due to the timing of the incidents.
“If they are related, I would think it’s gang-related. There’s an organization to it.” Wisehart added that if the violence is gang-related, it is most likely not one of the many smaller, unconnected gangs in the area.
“This is a lot more sophisticated than that,” Wisehart said, adding that in the past, dope dealers have been caught who have been connected to larger, dangerous international outfits.
“There’s been some cartelish activity,” Wisehart said, but he added that the dealers or runners caught have been two or three people removed from any bigwigs in the crime business.
The first attempt on officers was on Dec. 31, a gas line on the roof of the task force building was redirected into the building filling it with natural gas, in an attempt to set off an explosion. The second incident on Feb 23, a booby-trap with what officials said was a “home-made zip-gun,” was rigged to go off as an officer from the Hemet-San Jacinto Gang Task Force opened the gate leading to the building. The round narrowly missed the officer and he was not injured. The most recent incident on March 5, a task force member found an explosive device attached to his unmarked patrol car when he pulled into a gas station.
Hemet Police have also received several reports of suspicious packages found throughout the city including Tuesday’s most recent report of a bag on Stetson and Gilbert Avenue. The bag contained gaming equipment including wires. A few days prior to that, two packages were reported on the sidewalk in front of the old Hemet Theater on the 200 block of East Florida Avenue. The package turned out to be a set of empty suitcases.
While suspects have not been identified in any of the attempted attacks against officers, a major gang sweep on March 17 led to the arrests of dozens of members of the Vagos Motorcycle Gang. Officials refuse to say whether investigators believe the Vagos are behind the attacks or whether any suspects were taken into custody during the sweep.
“My confidence that this is related to recent attacks is high,” Hemet Police Chief Richard Dana said this morning in suggesting a link between the vehicle fires and the previous incidents.
But Dana said he did not see evidence that the arson fires are the work of Vagos Motorcycle Club members, who were targeted during a multi-agency crackdown in Riverside County and other locations last week.
“To connect this to the Vagos, I’m not sure I’m ready to do that,” Dana said.
A week ago today, local, state and federal law enforcement agencies conducted a countywide sweep targeting Vagos members, arresting 30 people for weapons and parole violations.
“Operation Everywhere” also led to suspects being rounded up in Arizona, Nevada and Utah, according to the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office.
Officials announced March 18 the reward for information leading to the conviction of those behind the attempts has been raised to $200,000. Officials said they believe someone in the community may know who is behind the attacks and hope the money will help persuade them to come forward.
So far, officials have not received any leads from community members since the reward money was raised.
The money is a combination of funds from the city, county, state, FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Yazmin Alvarez can be reached at email@example.com. You can follow her @SWRNNgov on Twitter!