Hemet police probe suspected arson fire at evidence building

A suspected arson fire that damaged a Hemet Police Department evidence building early Monday morning could be the seventh attack on the law enforcement agency this year

The fire was reported at 2:23 a.m. and severely damaged the building and evidence stored inside. The facility, which is across a parking lot from Hemet’s main police station, stores evidence for pending and past criminal cases, said agency spokesman Lt. Duane Wisehart.

“There’s some pretty significant damage to the roof and other parts of the building,” he said. “Inside, there’s evidence from thousands of cases: homicides, rapes, you name it.”

Firefighters from the Hemet Fire Department quickly extinguished the blaze. Details of how the fire started were not disclosed.

No arrests have been made.

Investigators believe that the fire could be related to a rash of attacks on police in the city. With the department already on edge, Wisehart said, officers are being urged to remain vigilant and to “be aware of their surroundings at all time.”

In January, the Hemet-San Jacinto Valley Gang Task Force discovered that a natural gas line had been diverted into their office, filling it with fumes, although the gas never ignited. A month later, a booby trap — a jerry-built “zip gun” — fired a bullet at an officer when he opened a security gate.

In March, a suspicious device was attached to a gang enforcement officer’s unmarked vehicle, and two weeks later four city code-enforcement trucks were torched in the Hemet City Hall parking lot.

State Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown visited the area that month and, with Riverside County Dist. Atty. Rod Pacheco, offered a $200,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the attacks.

Finally, in June authorities found a vintage military rocket on the roof of a nearby market, pointed in the direction of the police station.

Evidence gathered from the attacks on the police was stored in the building that was charred by the suspicious fire, Wisehart said.

Investigators believe the attacks are tied to a white supremacist gang with roots in the area. In May, police arrested a suspected white supremacist gang member — Patrick Nugent Jr., 40 — on suspicion of possessing an improvised firearm similar to the one used in the booby trap.

Federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were called in to assist with the investigation into the suspected arson. The FBI and Riverside County Sheriff’s Department also are involved with a special task force investigating the attacks.