Desert Hot Springs is fighting for its life

For years, Donna Lozano badgered the Desert Hot Springs Police, public officials and anyone else who would listen, trying to get information about her son's killer.

Henry Lozano, a popular 20-year-old ex-Marine, had been shot dead by a suspected gang member in December 2001 while driving near his home. He was dating the man's former girlfriend and had received threats to stay away.

"I wanted answers. The police never called. The officer in charge of the case had never done a murder investigation," said Lozano, 65. "I said my son is dead, and I have no information."

She eventually reached Riverside County Dist. Atty. Rod Pacheco, who knew little about the city but vowed to find the killer. And when he did, he found something else too: a town utterly besieged by criminals.

He responded with the largest police operation in Riverside County history.

Hundreds of law enforcement officers backed by armored cars and Black Hawk helicopters swept into the city a few months ago in a massive show of force that stunned the gangs, parolees and street thugs who had terrorized the community for years.

"We are not going away," Pacheco vowed. "We will not allow a city to fall like this again."

Surrounded by desert and isolated from its well-heeled neighbors by the 10 Freeway, Desert Hot Springs is best known for its spas, award-winning drinking water and eclectic architecture. But it has a darker, seamier side, a side some call Desperate Hot Springs.

For years the town of some 25,000 has stood as one of the poorest and most crime-ridden communities of its size in the Inland Empire, and in 2006 it topped the list as the region's most dangerous city among those with populations of less than 100,000. There were 2,047 serious crimes that year, including 200 assaults, 713 burglaries, 19 rapes and 375 auto thefts.

Seven gangs with up to 250 members call the place home, and at one point it had 65% of all parolees in the Coachella Valley despite having just 5% of the population.

But Desert Hot Springs may be turning a corner.

Massive paramilitary operations have swept gang members and drug dealers off the streets at least temporarily. Local police have boosted their ranks from 13 to 30. Efforts are underway to revitalize the town, and authorities say violent crime has dropped by 30%.

"We will clean up this mess with every resource we have, because people are entitled to feel safe in their own homes," said City Manager Rick Daniels. "I can't get businesses to come here or middle-class people to move here if we don't break this cycle of violence."

When Daniels arrived two years ago, he found an understaffed police force battling brazen criminals in a blighted town. The department had become a revolving door for chiefs, including a convicted felon and one charged with perjury.

Criminals streamed in, courtesy of cheap housing and the town's reputation as a haven for lawbreakers. More than 400 parolees lived here.

"Our police chief had half as many cops as he should have, and they were taking no preventive measures because they were responding to crime," Daniels said.

A major cause of the problems, officials say, was the city's rapid growth. The population had more than doubled since 1990, overwhelming officials and straining already meager services.

Meanwhile, violence escalated. A new park meant to stabilize a marginal neighborhood swiftly became home to the West Drive Locos, the city's biggest gang. Shootouts soon followed. Last year gang members fired on two California Highway Patrol officers, and a Riverside County sheriff's deputy was shot in the face.

"The situation was untenable," said Police Chief Patrick Williams, who took over in 2007.

The result was Operation Falling Sun.

In March, 700 officers from 35 agencies, including the FBI, police SWAT teams, sheriff's deputies and agents from the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement swarmed dozens of gang neighborhoods, arresting 135 people.

On June 30, just after dawn, the second phase began with officers busting through the heavily fortified houses of the city's top drug dealers and taking them away.

The arrests may be the easy part; keeping criminals out and new ones from forming could be tougher.

"We have to redirect the youth to alternative choices," said Police Cmdr. Edwin Smith. "We are rallying all of our resources toward rebuilding the town. We have to re-educate the community on how to live."

The police have taken over code enforcement and launched large-scale clean-up efforts. Graffiti, which once blighted entire city blocks, has been largely eradicated.

City boosters are busy touting Desert Hot Springs' advantages over ritzier neighbors like Palm Springs and Palm Desert. They note the magnificent mountain views, cooler temperatures and the fact that nearly 80% of the town is undeveloped. And there is that vast pool of hot water lying just beneath the sand that feeds the spas.

"There is a vibe here, maybe it's the vortex we are sitting on," said Jeffrey Bowman, relaxing at his clothing optional Living Waters Spa. "You have heat above, heat below, mountain ranges, clean air, and it has a wonderful power."

But poverty remains. Unemployment stands at 18.5%, and in July 1,544 homes -- 7.2% of all housing units -- were in foreclosure, more than twice the state average, according to Realty Track, which monitors foreclosure rates. Aside from spas and a few restaurants, there is little local industry, and some 7,000 people a day commute out of town for work, officials say.

The city hopes to win a $1-million federal grant to begin refurbishing its infrastructure, create jobs and start intervention programs for at-risk youth.

"All the kids coming in here are at risk," said Jeanette Jaime-Quinonez, who runs a life skills program at the cramped Boys and Girls Club. "Most come from domestic violence, drug abuse or from broken families."

As she spoke, Ron and John Lange walked through the door.

The 14-year-old twins hung out with a rough crowd until their friend, Luis Lopez Jr., 16, was gunned down by gang members two years ago. Seeing his body at the funeral shook them up and set them both on a different path.

They worked on their soccer skills and were recruited for a team that recently played in Guadalajara, Mexico. Now they hope to turn professional.

Jaime-Quinonez, a former gang member paralyzed in a drive-by shooting, said they are the exceptions.

"What really happens to kids like this is they end up in jail," she said.

In addition to gangs, parolees attracted by cheap rents remain a concern.

"Gov. [Arnold] Schwarzenegger says he is going to release 43,000 prisoners, and when they get out they'll be coming right out here," said Jesse Sanchez, pastor of Living Word in the Desert Church in Indio who runs half-way houses for parolees in and around Desert Hot Springs. "They send them to the streets rather than to programs like ours."

Sanchez, 34, has a personal stake in ridding the area of crime. When he was 14, he said, he and some friends started the Brownstown gang, the oldest in Desert Hot Springs.

"I feel like I have blood on my hands. I made all this trouble, but the gang keeps going and going," he said. "That's why I feel so passionately about helping."

He knows many of those arrested in Operation Falling Sun.

"The D.A. took in people who had jobs and were trying to change their lives," he said. "He should have been more strategic and gone after the big dogs. The gangs will lay low for a few months and strategize. You can't kill a gang, you have to change the way they think."

But most residents applaud the crackdown as a watershed moment when a beleaguered town stood up to bullies and won -- for now.

"They arrested a lot of people and intimidated a lot more," said John Furbee, 79, who has lived in Desert Hot Springs since 1969. "I think the tide has now turned. Everyone is on the same page. It's the criminals against us, and us is bigger."

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david.kelly@latimes.com

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