Reporting from Hemet and Los Angeles
Residents in Hemet have long known that there is a skinhead element in their city.
They said they have occasionally seen groups of tattooed young men with shaved heads in combat boots and fatigues protesting against illegal immigration.
But authorities now are investigating something far more serious: whether white supremacists are behind a series of attacks on Police Department facilities in the Riverside County city.
More than 150 law enforcement officials raided various sites in the area Tuesday, arresting 23 people. Investigators believe the attacks — including a booby trap at a police office — were the work of a white supremacist gang with roots in the area.
Law enforcement officials have been cracking down on such gangs in recent years. Experts who study hate groups said Hemet and surrounding communities are particularly fertile ground for white supremacists. They estimated that there are at least a dozen groups operating in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino, said there have been several hate incidents as well as leaflet distributions by white supremacist groups in Riverside County in the last two years, including several believed tied to the election of President Obama.
“There is a significant concentration of hate groups in the Inland Empire, unlike anywhere else in the nation, from the National Socialist Movement to the Hammerskins to” the Comrades of our Racist Struggle, he said.
Ten days after the 2008 presidential election, a 19-year Latino man was beaten by a group of white men in Hemet. Seven members and associates of the Comrades group were arrested by Hemet police, and four were prosecuted. Their trial begins next month. Another member of the gang was recently convicted of witness tampering in the case.
The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department last year arrested members of the Inland Empire Skinheads gang in connection with several home-invasion robberies and an attempted murder case.
Hemet authorities, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the case was ongoing, declined to say what groups were under investigation.
The attacks began last year when a booby trap was set at the headquarters of the Hemet-San Jacinto Valley Gang Task Force, officials said. In December, a utility line was redirected to fill the offices with gas. Officials said a spark could have triggered a devastating explosion.
In February, a “zip gun” was hidden by the gate to the task force office and rigged to fire. When a gang officer opened the gate, the weapon went off, and the bullet narrowly missed him, authorities said. In early March, police said, a “dangerous” device was found near the unmarked car of a task force member. That was followed by an arson attack on four city code-enforcement trucks March 23.
There have been many theories over the months about who was responsible for the attacks.
Last month, authorities arrested 33 alleged members of the Vagos motorcycle gang. After the operation, Riverside County Dist. Atty. Rod Pacheco said in an interview that the Vagos were “an extreme threat to law enforcement.” But authorities have never formally said that the gang was involved.
Tracie Long, 38, a Hemet sales clerk, said she has seen skinheads in the city but said she’s had no dealings with them. She said dozens of skinheads recently congregated on a major street corner to protest pending immigration legislation.
Long said she was skeptical that Tuesday’s arrests would solve the mystery of the attacks.
“Until they can prove it, no one knows for sure,” she said.
Hemet Police Department Capt. Dave Brown said authorities are being methodical in the case and would not release many details. None of those arrested have yet been charged with crimes related to the case, but Brown said he was “optimistic” they will be soon. The arrests have also produced new leads, he said.
Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, said demographic change in the Inland Empire has helped fuel some white hate groups.
“You have seen a great deal of migration to the Inland Empire and a huge demographic change. And with that change we have seen a lot of conflict,” he said.