Drug Raid Leaves Vista Family Shaken : Police: Officers hold a man and his wife, their four daughters and mother-in-law at gunpoint while looking for criminal evidence against a suspect who the family says had moved out six months ago.
An early-morning drug raid by Hemet police officers at a Vista home Tuesday left family members traumatized, and the father has charged officers with hitting the wrong house.
Mario Balcazar Suarez, 39, said about eight or 10 officers, some in uniform, broke down the front door of his home in the 800 block of North Citrus Avenue at 5:25 a.m., pointing guns at his four daughters and invalid mother-in-law, and throwing some family members on the floor.
“We were traumatized and humiliated. My two older daughters went to school afterward, but they were both crying and very upset,” said Balcazar, a native of Mexico who speaks limited English.
Hemet Police Sgt. Randall Christianson, whose officers were looking for criminal evidence against a Vista man arrested in the Riverside County city, acknowledged that officers broke down the door, but said he was surprised that Balcazar was complaining about the incident.
“We went out of our way to be nice to these people. Once we explained why we were there, they seemed to be very happy and understanding of the situation,” Christianson insisted.
“I don’t think they have a complaint, to tell you the truth. We did do some damage . . . but the law allows us to break and enter. We thought it was the safest route at that point, based on the circumstances.”
However, Balcazar said he and his family were anything but joyful over the incident. He said no drugs were found in his home.
Christianson acknowledged that no drugs were found at the Balcazar house, adding that there was also “no evidence of a drug conspiracy.”
The Hemet officers, accompanied by members of the North County Narcotics Task Force, hit three other homes in the North County area Tuesday, Christianson said. Officers recovered 11 pounds of methamphetamine, he added.
Search warrants for the raids were authorized Monday night by San Diego Municipal Judge Rafael Arreola. Arreola authorized the warrants over the telephone, after hearing sworn statements from the officers.
According to Balcazar, the officers arrived at his duplex home and began pounding loudly at the door. Moments later, they broke down the door, yelling and pointing weapons at him and his family.
Christianson said the search of the Balcazar home was prompted by the arrest Monday of Abel Sotelo, who used to be one of Balcazar’s tenants. Sotelo was among several people arrested in Hemet and charged with possessing 5 pounds of methamphetamine, Christianson said.
“He and his accomplices delivered 5 pounds of methamphetamine to Hemet, which we don’t particularly care for,” Christianson said.
Hemet police said Sotelo’s driver’s license showed Balcazar’s Vista address. However, Balcazar said, Sotelo moved out about six months ago. During the time Sotelo lived there, he worked as a framer for a construction company, Balcazar said, adding that he had no knowledge of Sotelo’s selling drugs.
Ismael Ortiz, 42, who said he is a Mormon missionary, told The Times that he has lived in the room previously occupied by Sotelo for five months and has never seen or met him.
The pre-dawn incident happened after Balcazar’s wife, Ernestina, 37, left for work at a local food company, and while his daughters, Yadira, 17, and Yesenesia, 14, were watching television.
Balcazar said his daughters were waiting to be picked up so they could participate in their Mormon church’s youth ministry before going to school.
Two younger daughters, Rosa, 6, and Norma, 5, were asleep in another bedroom.
But the fact that the two teen-agers were up and dressed at 5:25 a.m. was suspicious in itself to Hemet police. It was another indication to police that they were justified in breaking into the house, Christianson said.
“It was unusual that they were up at that time of the morning,” he said.
In a telephone interview, Balcazar said he was awakened by his daughters’ screams and the sound of someone breaking the door.
“I ran out the bedroom and saw several men with handguns that they were pointing at my daughters. . . . I tried to grab one of the guns and they knocked me down and handcuffed me. My oldest daughter asked them in English what was going on, and they threw her to the floor and told her to shut up,” Balcazar said.
At that point, the officers had not identified themselves, and he thought they were robbers, Balcazar said.
Christianson chuckled when told Balcazar said the officers threw his daughter to the floor.
“I don’t think she was shoved. She may have been guided to the floor or directed. Directed, that’s a better word,” Christianson said.
Balcazar’s invalid mother-in-law, Sabina Jimenez, 67, was taken from her bedroom at gunpoint and shoved toward the living room floor, where the rest of the family was being held, Balcazar said.
“She was crying and confused. She’s still very traumatized,” Balcazar said.
Christianson said Jimenez “became excited.” He added that “she just completely overreacted to me.”
“Initially, there probably was a reason for concern, but she continued on,” he added.
The police search completely upended the house, Balcazar said. He said Bibles and other religious literature were thrown on the floor by officers.
Late Tuesday afternoon, San Diego County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Dan Greenblat said Hemet police asked that his department send a Spanish-speaking employee to the Balcazar home and apologize on behalf of Hemet police.
“At the request of Hemet police, a bilingual staffer was asked to go to the residence and apologize and give them instructions on how to file a claim (with the Hemet City Council) for repair of the damages,” Greenblat said.
Christianson heatedly denied Greenblat’s statement.
“In my opinion, the cost should be borne by them. . . . We were basically just doing our job,” Christianson said. “It’s unfortunate that these people were associated with this gentleman who sells drugs. It’s too bad that more people aren’t understanding with our position. People have to understand that there’s a reason for the police.”
According to Balcazar, as the officers were leaving, they were asked who was going to pay for the damages.
“They said to talk to Abel Sotelo,” Balcazar said.
Greenblat said Hemet police officials told San Diego County sheriff’s deputies that Sotelo had lived at the Balcazar home as late as Sunday, but was kicked out for failing to pay his rent.
This was angrily denied by Balcazar’s tenant, Ortiz.
“That’s impossible,” Ortiz said. “That’s a lie, and we can prove it. I’ve lived in the room previously occupied by Sotelo for five months and have never met him.”
Ortiz added that at least two officers burst into his room, which he shares with another man, while he was asleep.
“I had no idea who they were. They shined a flashlight in my face, and I instinctively put my hands above my head. . . . Then one of the officers kicked me in the stomach, and a Spanish-speaking officer came into the room and told us to lie on the floor,” Ortiz said.
Christianson said “nobody said anything to me about anybody being kicked.”
In addition to Balcazar’s home, the raiding officers also broke into the adjoining duplex, where his brother, Ruben, and his wife and five daughters live. Balcazar said officers also damaged his brother’s front door.
Ruben Balcazar could not be reached for comment. But Mario Balcazar said his brother’s family was asleep when officers broke down the door, and the ensuing search also left the house a shambles.