A low ebb for high desert's Adelanto

Times Staff Writer

Adelanto may mean "progress" in Spanish, but many say this scruffy high desert community -- founded in 1915 by the inventor of the Hotpoint Electric Iron -- is perpetually stuck in a quagmire of corruption and scandal.

Recent accusations of animal cruelty against Kevin Murphy, head of the city's animal control department, have once again fueled notions of a Wild West town operating on the fringes of the law.

Murphy, 36, was charged last week with drowning more than 50 kittens in cages over a four-month period last year. He faces six years in prison if convicted and has been placed on paid leave pending his May 19 arraignment. Fellow animal control officer Patrick Cornell is also on leave but hasn't been charged.

"I have a hunch they were newborn kittens, not cats picked up on the street," former Mayor Mary Scarpa said, quickly adding: "Not that it makes it OK, of course."

Scarpa, 81, is part of Adelanto's old guard. She was mayor in 1997 and knows Murphy personally.

"We haven't had as many problems as the newspapers say we do," she said, relaxing at the town's senior center recently. "We are a growing city, and that sent some people over the edge. I think it's a very unfair charge to say the town is corrupt."

Perhaps. But the town's past is, to say the least, checkered.

Jim Nehmens and his wife were arrested last year and charged with embezzling $20,000 from the local Little League fireworks sale. Nehmens, a former Little League president, denies the charges and has kept his post as Adelanto's mayor after being released on bail.

"It's still just allegations. He hasn't been through the system yet," City Manager James Hart said. "It has nothing to do with the city. Adelanto has no problem with the mayor. Not once, not once since he was charged has a member of the public asked him to step down."

Hart said the city's growth has brought in those who appreciate "good government." "I tell people we have entered a new era," he said.

Nehmens did not respond to numerous calls seeking comment.

He's not the first local official to get into trouble.

Tom Thornburg was appointed mayor in 1994 despite having served a year in prison on federal drug smuggling charges.

Former Police Chief Philip Genaway was sentenced to four years in prison in 1997 for stealing $10,000 from the department's canine unit. Two other officers were jailed for beating a handcuffed suspect and forcing another to lick his blood from the floor. Another officer was convicted of child molestation.

In 1996, the mayor and two council members were recalled after promoting a gold-mining operation in town that would have used deadly cyanide in the leaching process. Cuban-born Zoila Meyer, a City Council member, resigned last year because she wasn't an American citizen. She pleaded no contest to voter fraud.

When Tristan Pelayes became mayor in 2000, he said several council members pulled him into a room and told him that although he was the mayor, they ran the town.

"I was highly offended by that," said Pelayes, a lawyer and former San Bernardino County sheriff's deputy. "I thought at first it was a normal city, but then I realized I got a corrupt council and a corrupt Police Department. Once I began learning more about the town, I was amazed. The first thing I did was disband the Police Department."

It was an ugly fight, and Pelayes said he was targeted with death threats and recall petitions. One police officer, he said, tailed him around town.

Scarpa opposed getting rid of the police.

"I think our old police force did an adequate job," she said. "We didn't have any problems. Well, we had some problems, but not many."

Pelayes said the problems were legion.

"The police used excessive force. They lost drugs. Money was missing," he said. "They would take people's cars and use them for their personal use. You name it and they did it."

Pelayes finally persuaded enough council members to replace the force with San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies. He worked to bring in Adelanto's first supermarket and helped change its motto from "A Film Friendly City" to "City of Unlimited Possibilities."

Pelayes left the job in 2003 with a sense of accomplishment. His replacement, Jim Nehmens, was later indicted -- and now Murphy has been charged with killing kittens.

"For every one step forward, there seems to be five steps back," said Pelayes, an attorney in Riverside.

Hart, the city manager, knows the allegations against Murphy are bad for Adelanto's image -- so bad that he's hired an outside public relations firm to cushion the fallout. But he said he is focused on the future.

"We have a whole new population . . . and the City Council wants to move forward. If these latest charges turn out to be true, then I can't allow that to stop our progress," he said. "We are focusing on economic development. There are 7,000 households in town and one supermarket. The city sees the need to change, and we are focusing on long-term priorities."

Since 2000, Adelanto has grown from about 18,000 residents to more than 27,000. It is home to two prisons, in addition to one at the former George Air Force Base nearby. Housing tracts spread across the flat desert off U.S. 395. Older parts of the city have decayed, with boarded-up homes lining dirt roads.

As Los Angeles residents flock here for cheaper housing, crime has accompanied growth. Local law enforcement now contends with street gangs, methamphetamine abuse and a rash of copper wire thefts.

According to statistics from the Sheriff's Department, Adelanto saw homicides rise by 150%, burglaries by 50% and aggravated assaults by 28% between 2006 and 2007. Total crime rose 8%.

"We used to have crime here 10 years ago but not as much as today," said Irmeline Gomez, who runs a 99 Cents store. "A lot of the people who come in are on welfare and they ask if they can have two things for 99 cents, or they get mad if we charge tax and the price is over 99 cents."

Longtime residents acknowledge the town's problems but say they love it too much to consider leaving.

No one has lived here longer than Charlie Hattendorf, 87, who arrived at age 3 from Pine Bluff, Ark. Back then, he said, Adelanto was full of peach and apple trees. "We used to be surrounded by desert out here and now we are surrounded by houses," he said, waiting for lunch at the senior center just off 395.

Frank Snoddy, 85, and his wife, Kay, 81, moved to Adelanto from Pomona.

"It was the cheapest piece of ground we could find," he said. "We used to drive down 395 and see maybe one or two cars, and it's now bumper-to-bumper. I joined the citizens' patrol. They told us, 'You know the gangs are coming up here,' and we had to be prepared for that and, sure enough, they came."

Former City Councilman John Snyder said Adelanto has been experiencing growing pains.

"This town was founded by E.H. Richardson, the inventor of the Hotpoint Iron," he said. "He came out here for his health and bought the land. There were pears and grapes, and then came the chicken ranches. The pace of development picked up, but we still have 300 miles of unpaved road and a lot of open space."

He denied Adelanto has a checkered past. "And I do not want to comment on the current mayor," he said resolutely.

Kay Snoddy smiled. "My friends ask me, 'What kind of town are you running up there?' " she said.

Local bingo caller Julius Giorgi, 85, watched mischievously from another table. He likes to answer most questions with a sharp "Who the hell knows?," but when it came to City Hall he had a snappy reply. "They're all crooks," he exclaimed. "And they all should be thrown into jail!"

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david.kelly@latimes.com

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