Booby Traps: Death by Trick or Device

In recent years, attacks against police officers have increasingly become sneaky ambushes rather than direct confrontations. They may involve improvised destructive devices. A few punk gang members or conspiracy nuts armed with the "Anarchist Cookbook" can cause a very bad day for law enforcement.

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Photo: Richard Valdemar.Photo: Richard Valdemar.
The popular night spot sat along the beach in downtown Nha Trang, and like most of the important buildings, it was surrounded by a six-foot whitewashed wall. Nha Trang, Vietnam was a beautiful French Colonial beach city. The view from the club front gates looked out on Highway One and the South China Sea. Blue-green waves washed on the shore, and palm trees dotted the silver beach. It was 1967, and we were at war.

A grenade suddenly bounced onto one of the tables inside the crowded club and exploded in a bright flash. Tables and chairs and other shrapnel took out the patrons closest to the flash, including one Vietnamese waiter. I was on patrol close enough to hear the blast. I was with Company A, 504th Military Police and I pulled up to the club in my Jeep as smoke billowed from the building. Behind the six-foot wall, the mixed crowd of GIs and locals were running out of the club in a panic toward the front gate of the wall.

I got out of the Jeep and radioed my location to the Provost Marshall's Office (PMO). I had remembered my military training. I thought, "I must stop the crowd from running out onto the exposed street." Terrorists often explode the first charge to draw the victims into the secondary "kill zone" where major explosives would be detonated.

I was standing on the street on the driver's side of the Jeep still talking on the radio, when I saw the approaching small motorcycle on Highway One. The driver was crouched down but his rear passenger sat upright. As the bike sped past me, I watched in slow motion as two Chi-Com grenades fell toward me and struck the pavement.

The first exploded immediately as it hit the roadway; the concussion slammed me like a 4x4 in the chest (with flak vest), knocking me through the open Jeep and into the wall. That probably saved my life because the second grenade peppered my Jeep and the wall with deadly shrapnel, but the Jeep shielded my unconscious body.

I awoke to a huge third explosion! My ears rang, but I was unable to hear the screams of the wounded and dying victims coming out of the club. Like diabolical sheep herders, the Viet Cong had started the victims stampeding toward the street with the first small explosion. The second and third grenades were meant to take out the first responders and drive the stampeding sheep back into the club (the real kill zone).

After the first explosion, the VC had climbed onto the roof of the night club and cut a hole in the ceiling. Using a Claymore mine, they set it with a carefully measured trip wire. When the second set of grenades drove the victims back inside the club, the VC dropped the Claymore, which fell through the hole in the ceiling to about tabletop level. With its directional-shaped charge, the mine exploded directly into the stampede. Hundreds of steel ball bearings tore through the crowd. We had become pawns in a perfectly orchestrated ambush trap.

During the Vietnam War, most of our more than 300,000 U.S. dead and wounded were not gunshot victims. They were victims of explosions, shell fragmentation, and shrapnel. U.S. soldiers and Marines walking across those Southeast Asian rice paddies and jungle trails mostly feared the ambush (which normally was initiated with a grenade, mortar, or mine exploding) and the booby trap.

That was then, and this is now.

The Hemet-San Jacinto Valley Gang Task Force (GTF) is a multijurisdictional task force for Region 3 of Riverside County, Calif., which includes the Hemet Police Department. Once known for its mix of dairy farms, mobile home parks, and quiet retirement housing tracts, this community has experienced in recent years an influx of illegal aliens and criminal undesirables moving out of Los Angeles, Orange, and San Bernardino counties. Especially troublesome are the gang members.

The GTF's tactic of aggressively targeting all gangs has resulted in police identifying about 100 active gangs and 2,000 gang members in the Hemet and San Jacinto area. However, the most active gang in this area is the Vagos Motorcycle Club, which investigators believe is an outlaw motorcycle gang. A history had developed over the years of confrontations between the Hemet-San Jack GTF and this band of bikers.

The Vagos members, in particular, were upset because of the Hemet-San Jack Task Force's aggressive anti-gang program. These bikers have repeatedly resisted and assaulted police officers in the past. They were reportedly especially angry when Vagos members observed police surveillance at a Vagos funeral.

Gang members, like terrorist and guerilla units, don't abide by the rule of law, the Geneva Convention, or even a sense of fair play. They fight by any means they deem necessary. If the gang cannot win a "fair fight," they might resort to death by trick or device.

As the Hemet-San Jack task force members arrived at their off-site gang offices in Hemet the morning of Dec. 31, 2009, one of the team members noticed a strong smell emanating from the interior. He recognized it as the odor of natural gas. The task force discovered that a gas line had been cut and redirected back into their offices during the night. The slightest spark (such as turning on an electrical switch) would have reduced the building to rubble and killed anyone nearby. This was no kid's prank; it was a real attempt to take them out.

As the investigation and the speculation about who could have done this continued for several months, nothing else happened. On Feb. 23, 2010, a task force member exited his vehicle at the task force building when he heard what sounded like a shot. Someone had booby-trapped the gate to set off a zip gun that fired and luckily just missed the officer.

On March 5, 2010, one of the task force officers stopped his unmarked patrol car at the pumps in a filling station. While performing his preventive maintenance, he discovered an unexploded improvised explosive device had been rigged to his vehicle.

Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of any person/persons responsible for these attacks. By March 17, the reward had reached $200,000 when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and the city of Hemet increased the reward offer.

The terrorist attacks continued. A unanimous 911 caller threatened that a police car would be blown up within the next 48 hours, and on March 23, four city code enforcement vehicles were damaged in arson attacks. Someone shot a hole in Hemet Chief Richard Dana's mailbox, leaving a reminder that no one was safe.

In the minds of most citizens and many city, county, state, and federal officials, members of the Vagos were "persons of interest" if not the major suspects. By mid-March, 33 members of the Vagos had been arrested as part of a coordinated law enforcement take-down of the alleged gang in Riverside County, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona. On April 20, 2010, 23 members and associates of the Vagos were arrested when more than 200 law enforcement officers raided 35 locations in Riverside County.

On April 12, 2010, unknown suspects set fire to the portable classroom building used for police training and firearms instruction by Hemet PD.

"We have caught people watching the station from the library parking lot. We have had offices followed by known bad guys," Chief Dana told the Los Angeles Times. "We question them, but it's not illegal to sit in a parking lot."

If this next incident doesn't get your attention, you better check your pulse.

At about 10 p.m. on June 3 (a Thursday night), fire units were dispatched to Los Altos Market at 126 N. Carmelita St. When the fire department arrived, they found the wooden pallets stored next to the building on fire. Tracing the source, they followed it up a tree which hung over the market roof. The fire had obviously started on the roof.

On the roof, they found a smoking M29A2, 3.5-inch Bazooka Rocket. The rocket was an old 9-pound practice round that had misfired. The back blast and the burning rocket engine had set the tree on fire. Someone had been on the roof and, judging from the view and trajectory, it was obvious that the Hemet Police Station was the intended target.

Two men were arrested July 2. Nicholas Smit, 40, was arrested for making a booby trap, assault with intent to murder a police officer, and possession of a firearm while on bail. Steve Hanson, 36, was arrested as a parolee in possession of a firearm. At least two additional male suspects were reportedly being sought.

Investigators believed the two arrested suspects had ties to white supremacy groups and the Vagos. It is believed that the suspects were part of a drug ring and had previously been arrested by members of the task force. Their alleged motive was to prevent the officers from making a court appearance and testifying against them.

The Vagos have complained that they had been wrongly targeted and had no part in the attacks against the Hemet-San Jacinto Gang Task Force.

Earlier this year, Beverly Hills attorney Joseph Yanny sued Riverside County law enforcement for defaming the Vagos and linking officers to the Hemet attacks.

In recent years, attacks against police officers have increasingly become sneaky ambushes rather than direct confrontations. They may involve improvised destructive devices. A few punk gang members or conspiracy nuts armed with the "Anarchist Cookbook" can cause a very bad day for law enforcement.

Look for those potential ambush and kill zones in every situation, and practice escape drills. Never ignore a suspect's threat.


Duty Dangers: Booby Traps

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Sergeant (Ret.)
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