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Six teens arrested in series of police-impersonation pranks

Six teens arrested in series of police-impersonation pranks
Mason Gonzalez, 18, is accused of being one of a group of Temecula teen pranksters who allegedly impersonated police officers. (Riverside County Sheriff's Department)

Authorities are asking for the public's help in gathering additional evidence against a group of teenagers who allegedly posed as Temecula police officers while staging pranks against their unsuspecting victims.

The first report to police involved two separate incidents on the evening of Dec. 23, but the pranksters may have been involved in other similar acts, according to a statement from the Riverside County Sheriff's Department.

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"The suspects used high-powered flashlights and electronic megaphones to order the victims out of their cars and to lie face down on the pavement," according to  the Sheriff's Department. "The suspects then drove away after the victims complied with their orders."

Authorities have arrested six suspects. They include five minors -- three girls and two boys -- and 18-year-old Mason Gonzalez of Temecula, according to the department.

After the initial reports, investigators were stymied because the victims could not identify the impersonators.

The suspects "used an unknown light source" possibly in addition to the flashlights "to obscure the victims' vision and prevent them from seeing the suspects' vehicle," according to the department. "Each victim believed, however, there were at least two suspects involved. Both victims also believed they were being contacted by law enforcement officers."

The incidents occurred in different parts of the city, according to the department. Investigators got a break when the alleged pranksters made a notable mistake: They started bragging. Video of one incident was posted on a social media site. The arrests quickly followed on Dec. 27.

Investigators learned, apparently from the suspects, that they regarded their actions as pranks and never intended to hurt or rob anyone. Authorities believe the teens were involved in at least another four to five incidents that were not reported.

The episodes prompted local police to issue guidelines on how to tell police impersonators from the real thing. The Sheriff's Department noted that police vehicles generally have recognizable lighting and officers "are required by law to wear identifying insignia, such as a uniform, badge, or other clear markings identifying which agency they represent." The department said a driver who is stopped by law enforcement should remain in the vehicle and wait for the officer to approach.

The Sheriff's Department also recommended that residents should "avoid loitering in dark, isolated areas during night hours" and "if you must remain in your parked vehicle for an extended period of time, try to find a lighted and populated area."

Anyone with additional information regarding these incidents is asked to contact the Temecula Police Department at (951) 696-3000.

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