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Sheriff Lowers the Boom on Lakewood’s Fireworks

Times Staff Writers

Blasting off fireworks on the Fourth of July is something of a birthright in Lakewood, a suburb north of Long Beach known for miles of tract homes and a passion for youth sports.

But in March, a massive explosion set off by fireworks raised a house off its foundation and shook homes two miles away.

“That was a wake-up call,” said Donald Waldie, the city’s spokesman.

So this summer, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is cracking down on the use of illegal fireworks and in the process is trying to change part of the city’s culture.

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Deputies established a special unit to handle tips from residents, which resulted in a handful of arrests. They also placed advertisements in local publications pretending to be interested in buying fireworks. The ploy led to several arrests last week.

On Monday, sheriff’s deputies showed off the wares they confiscated from an arrest made Sunday.

Fireworks were piled in front of a patrol car in the rear lot of a Lakewood library. From “Killer Alligators” to “Bamboo Bangers” to “Smoke-N-Mirrors,” the fireworks are branded illegal in California for their potential to hit houses, businesses or injure people, officials said. (Legal fireworks have a seal showing them to be safe for use in California because they don’t explode, move on the ground or fire into the air, Waldie said.)

The house explosion came amid growing concerns about fireworks in Lakewood. Some residents have long complained about the noise, and neighboring fire departments have expressed concern about the dangers.

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Lakewood is one of a small group of cities in Los Angeles County that allows fireworks sales, with the proceeds going to various community groups such as baseball leagues, youth service clubs and scholarship funds. Because fireworks represent the main fundraising tool for some of these groups, previous attempts to ban sales have been met with strong opposition.

The sheriff’s efforts appear to be working, according to Mayor Larry Van Nostran.

“We’re not hearing it like we did in the past,” he said. Officials aren’t cracking down on legal fireworks, “which everyone should have the right to enjoy. We’re cracking down on illegal fireworks that aren’t even supposed to be in the state.”

Although fireworks have long been controversial in Lakewood, it was the March 5 explosion at a house in the 6100 block of Dunrobin Avenue that drew the most outside attention. In the aftermath, some neighbors complained that the city ignored earlier complaints about fireworks going off at the house. One resident said she once found bottle rockets embedded in her roof.

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Last year, the City Council voted to increase penalties for the illegal use of fireworks, imposing fines of up to $1,000 and adding the possibility of 12 months in jail.

The city has succeeded in reducing the number of booths selling fireworks from 36 in 2002 to 28, Waldie said.

The city will have nearly 50 deputies deployed today dedicated to cracking down on illegal fireworks.

Meanwhile, detectives remain on the case, searching for more illegal fireworks.

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Sheriff’s Lt. Terry Benjestorf said an anonymous tip led undercover deputies to seize nearly 400 pounds of illegal fireworks -- estimated to be worth $8,000 to $10,000 -- from a Garden Grove resident Sunday evening.

The informant, a Lakewood resident, said he was approached by the suspect, Jayweed Sharabi, 35, in front of a liquor store in Anaheim. The informant gave Sharabi’s name and phone number to officials.

Undercover deputies arranged to meet the suspect in Garden Grove, discovering the illegal fireworks in Sharabi’s pickup truck and the home of Sharabi’s sister, who lives in Garden Grove.

The city had encouraged residents to attend a fireworks show and community festival Saturday at the local mall.

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“It really gives people the hometown feeling,” Van Nostran said of the event.

Residents such as Saren Ortiz, 17, say this year’s parties will be toned down because of police control.

But she’s happy authorities are taking charge.

“It’s a positive thing because so many people won’t get as hurt,” the high school senior said.

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