California Desert Town Plagued by Less Than Wholesome Image
Mayor Tom Thornburg unfolds his latest letter from the public. “You and your city attorney are as crooked as there are 24 hours in a day,” he reads aloud.
The mayor is not pleased. “We think the city is pretty clean,” says Thornburg, 67, who’s also a criminal defense attorney and a convicted felon.
Adelanto boasts a minor league baseball team, but it’s not known for that. For years, this desert outpost of 13,000 has suffered the infamous reputation of a Wild West town.
In the last year, a former police chief and two former officers have gone to prison. The chief stole from the department’s dog fund; the officers beat two handcuffed suspects and forced one to lick his blood off the police station floor.
Years of questionable spending pushed Adelanto to the brink of bankruptcy, prompting a recall election and criminal investigations by the San Bernardino County grand jury and the district attorney. The grand jury issued a scathing 1993 report, citing possible misuse of public funds and allegations of election fraud. No charges were filed.
“Strange things have gone on around here,” says former mayor and local business owner Charlotte Foster.
And they remain so, many residents say, despite a 1996 City Council recall election and the appointments of a new city manager, police chief and city attorney.
“This is one of the most crooked places on Earth,” said 20-year resident Roger Ayers, who led the recall drive. “Nothing has changed.”
Adelanto sits 90 miles east of Los Angeles in the Victor Valley, next to the runway of George Air Force Base. The installation closed in 1992, taking 5,000 area jobs and $15 million in annual revenues. Hardest hit was Adelanto, which now looks like a ghost town.
Boarded-up homes, apartment buildings and businesses are everywhere. But George’s closure is only part of the economic woes here.
Adelanto spent an estimated $11 million--more than twice its annual budget--suing its neighbors for complete control of the shuttered base, on which Adelanto ambitiously--some say unrealistically--planned to construct an international passenger airport.
The five-year legal battle prompted widespread accusations of political wrongdoing and frightened off major commercial tenants such as Japan Air Lines, which could have filled the economic void.
The grand jury report questioned the legality of Adelanto’s spending redevelopment funds to file lawsuits affecting land neither in the redevelopment zone nor the city limits.
The report also detailed overspending and “inappropriate” behavior by city officials, but stopped short of calling the acts illegal. A subsequent investigation by the district attorney’s office produced no charges.
“The city suffered from extreme mismanagement and poor judgment,” said District Attorney Dennis Stout. “But we were unable to find any evidence of criminal conduct.”
Adelanto’s latest bid for economic revival also appears to have failed. The Da Zhong Hua Wholesale Town went belly-up last year after promising badly needed revenue and jobs.
Adelanto officials, including Thornburg, twice flew to China at taxpayer expense to solicit occupants for a planned wholesale outlet offering Chinese-made consumer goods. But it exists only as bare scaffolding erected in the desert. The builder recently declared bankruptcy under an avalanche of lawsuits by subcontractors who say they haven’t been paid.
“I don’t want to say that I’m ashamed of Adelanto, but sometimes I am,” says Foster, who’s lived here 37 years. She served on the City Council from 1978 to 1990 and won a seat in the recall election.
Eight months later, she lost the general election by 17 votes.
“I think this council has done nothing to make the city better,” Foster said.
There is a bingo parlor in Adelanto, and a bar with exotic dancers, but no supermarket, pharmacy or sit-down restaurant. “You can’t even buy a pair of panties in this town,” Foster said.
Garage owner Arnold Loubet, a member of the local business association, claims greedy city officials have driven out local shopkeepers.
Loubet alleges police dropped his towing service after he refused to bid $140,000 for an exclusive contract to tow impounded vehicles.
“I don’t see how any business can survive here,” Loubet said.
Police Chief Jim Kuntz, who took over the department last year, denied Loubet’s claims.
Mayor Thornburg, elected to the City Council in 1994, says he knows of no wrongdoing by any city officials. Adelanto’s problems, he says, were caused by his predecessors.
In the last year, the city experienced these events:
* Former Police Chief Philip Genaway was sentenced to four years in state prison for stealing nearly $10,000 from the canine unit.
* Two former officers were sentenced to federal prison after pleading guilty in the beating of two suspects.
* Federal and county law enforcement officials have questioned the opening of J.J. Ammo Inc., a bullet factory with connections to China. A principal in the firm, Wah Nien “Johnny” Chiang, is a Taiwan native who authorities say is tied to Asian organized crime.
“We’re well aware of Johnny Chiang and that he’s making ammunition out in Adelanto. We’re not sure why,” said Sgt. Tom Budds, who heads the Asian organized crime unit of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Federal law enforcement officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity said Chiang was investigated, but not charged, in connection with organized crime and international arms smuggling.
Chiang owns the Turning Point nightclub located in San Gabriel, whose address is listed on state incorporation records as the headquarters of J.J. Ammo. The club, Budds said, is known to authorities as a hangout for international crime figures.
Messages left for Chiang at the Turning Point and J.J. Ammo were not returned.
In 1993, Chiang pleaded guilty to charges of assault with a deadly weapon after using a candlestick to break the nose and cheekbone of a Turning Point patron who disputed an $800 bar bill.
The charges were dismissed after Chiang completed probation and anger counseling, said Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Tamia Hope.
Mayor Thornburg, Police Chief Kuntz and City Manager Mike Sakamoto say they haven’t met Chiang and suspect nothing illegal at his bullet factory.
Some residents say they are more bothered by the criminal records of Thornburg and his longtime associate, City Attorney Mike Ewaniszyk.
Thornburg was convicted of federal drug smuggling and conspiracy charges in 1973 for participating in a scheme to ship a load of marijuana by speedboat from St. Martin Island to Puerto Rico, state bar records show. He served one year in prison. In 1977, the California Supreme Court ordered Thornburg’s law license suspended for three years because of the convictions.
Asked about it, Thornburg replied: “If I’ve managed to keep my mouth pretty well shut for the last 25 years, I’m certainly not going to open it now.”
He also declined to discuss his recent investigation for alleged drug trafficking by San Bernardino sheriff’s deputies. No charges were filed.
Ewaniszyk began working as a clerk at Thornburg’s Hesperia law firm in 1986. Two years before, Ewaniszyk’s law license was suspended over felony convictions in Northern California for stealing $11,100 from clients, state bar records show. In 1990, Ewaniszyk was disbarred.
Ewaniszyk’s law license was reinstated in 1995 after attorneys including Thornburg, his boss, testified to Ewaniszyk’s recovery from alcohol and drug addiction.
One year later, the Adelanto council appointed him city attorney, said member Esau Awabdy. Thornburg said Ewaniszyk no longer worked for him.
“We need to be a little more careful how we pick officials,” said Awabdy, elected 16 months ago. “What I have seen here is not very satisfactory to me. But I still have hope.”
So do others.
“Talk to anyone on the street,” Ayres said. “There are 13,000 people here who want to live in a decent town.”
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.