A dragnet for a rape suspect in which 44 law officers swept through a rural neighborhood and detained nearly 90 Latino men for questioning generated stinging criticism Wednesday of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department.
But sheriff's officials defended the detaining and questioning of the Latino men as a measured and appropriate response to the crime, given the general description of the suspect and the assumption that he is a transient. A department spokesman also said a number of residents had praised the deputies for their action.
At issue is the follow-up investigation into the rape of a 15-year-old Poway girl who said she was forced off her horse behind a small market by a group of eight men and a woman and then attacked by one of the men about 7:15 p.m. Sunday.
Gave a Description
The girl described the rapist as between 5-foot-2 and 5-foot-4, 120 pounds, with dark hair, dark eyes and in his 20s, said Lt. Jerry Lipscomb of the Poway sheriff's station.
Based on that description, Lipscomb organized a sweep Monday that brought 27 sheriff's deputies--including 17 members of the department's special enforcement SWAT team--and 12 U.S. Border Patrol agents to the northern San Diego County neighborhood of older homes, scattered businesses and scrub-oak fields where, Lipscomb said, illegal aliens are known to live.
"When you see 15 or so guys running around with M-16 rifles and wearing fatigues and combat boots and jungle hats grabbing everyone who looked Hispanic, that's scary," said Robert Winkler, who operates an upholstery business in the area. "It may have been a professional operation from their standpoint, but to me it looked like a police state."
Held for Questioning
In all, 83 men were taken to the Poway sheriff'b station for questioning on Monday--and more were questioned in the neighborhood and released on the spot, Lipscomb said. Another six were questioned Tuesday and Wednesday, he said. About half were turned over to the Border Patrol after being unable to show proper identification.
"We've come up with another witness who didn't articulate observing the rape but did confirm the (girl's) description of the suspect," Lipscomb said Wednesday. The identity of the suspect still isn't known and "we're still looking," he said.
Lipscomb said the Sheriff's Department's quick response and sweep of the area brought kudos from area residents who have said they were concerned by the growing presence of migrant farm workers in their neighborhood. "We've gotten tremendous positive feedback from the community," he said.
Indeed, Winkler and a neighboring businessman, Ron Gurnee, said they have sought Border Patrol sweeps of their neighborhood in the past because of the growing numbers of Latino men loitering in the area.
"I don't like to see any group discriminated against . . . but this (sweep) should have happened a long time ago," Gurnee said. "Nobody complains about the guys who are hard-working and just trying to make a living. But there are some scuzzballs around here too."
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Chicano rights group Coalition for Law and Justice complained about the sweep.
Mark Snyder, an electrical contractor, said one of his employees, about 50 years old, was aggressively grabbed by three SWAT officers and forced face down in the dirt while he had his wrists tied. He was taken away for questioning. Snyder hasn't seen him since and believes he was deported, even though he said the man had proper documentation to be working in this country.
Roberto Martinez, co-chairman of the Coalition for Law and Justice, said his office has received calls from "Mexican families who live in Poway and are very concerned that anytime something goes wrong, they're going to be picked up for questioning."
"The Sheriff's Department is looking for one suspect but is picking up everyone in sight that fits that description--and it fits half the Hispanic population in San Diego," he said. "If it was a white suspect, would they have detained 85 white men? That's ridiculous. They wouldn't have."
Perhaps deputies would have, Lipscomb said.
"If a rape victim came to us, and there was a railroad track going through the middle of town, and she said a half-dozen hobos with long hair and who smelled badly had raped her, we would do the same darn thing," Lipscomb said.
"If we have a curfew problem--which we've had--or if we have a truancy problem--which we've had--or if we have a drunk-driving problem, we'd do the same thing--and we have," Lipscomb said.
"When we see a problem, we react to it, and that's exactly what we did in this situation."