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Friday, 18 February 2011

White supremacist was early focus of police attack probe (Hemet, USA)

 Midway through the investigation into a series of attacks on Hemet police last year, detectives were focused on violent white supremacist gangs as suspects, according to newly released search warrants.

Police were serving search warrants to investigate several members of a prison-based neo-Nazi gang, including the alleged "shot caller" of the Hemet chapter, according to the documents police filed to obtain those warrants.

The documents were released this week after attorneys for The Press-Enterprise filed a request last year that multiple search warrants be unsealed.

Though several of those mentioned in the March and April search warrants were arrested as part of an April raid, police did not find evidence to link members of the gangs to any of the attacks.

By June, suspicion turned to two other men, Nicholas Smit and Steven Hansen. Based on a tip to police and DNA evidence, they were arrested in July on suspicion of targeting Hemet Detective Chuck Johnson with attacks that started in December 2009. Authorities have said the motive was to stop Johnson from testifying against Smit in a marijuana case.

Smit has been charged in five attacks and Hansen is charged with assisting him in one attack -- aiming a rocket at the Hemet Police Department in June.

Police have not said whether either man had ties to any white supremacist gangs. The district attorney's office has not filed gang charges against them.

The initial suspect in the case was Joseph Matthew Zito, who police thought was "bent on revenge" against officers who had arrested him, detectives said in the unsealed documents.

Zito was sentenced last month to eight years in prison for a weapons charge related to the April raid but unrelated to the attacks.

In late 2009, Zito was released from prison after Johnson had arrested him for possession of tear gas. He went to the Hemet Police Department and told detectives that authorities in a previous weapons case against him "bore false witness" and that "he had a moral and religious right to 'bring sinners to justice,' " the warrants say.

Zito was described in the warrants as the leader or "shot caller" for the Hemet region of a white supremacist gang called Public Enemy No. 1. Formed in Orange County, it is a sect of the Aryan Brotherhood, police said.

Part of the reason Hemet police suspected white supremacist involvement was that an investigator found instructions on how to make some of the devices used in the attacks in an online white supremacist manual.

One such device was a homemade gun rigged to the gate around the Hemet-San Jacinto Gang Task Force building February 2010, which fired when an officer opened the gate, narrowly missing him.

The next day, as task force members moved out of the building, police found Zito staking out the building, according to the warrants.

Detectives began a surveillance operation in March on Zito and his gang associates. The warrants state Zito was never found at the scene of any of the attacks but was thought to have been orchestrating them.

Video surveillance was conducted on Johnson's home, where a similar homemade gun was attached to his car on March 4.

While the gun found on Johnson's car was being defused by the bomb squad, an associate of Zito's was seen staking out the officers.

When the Hemet police firing range was burned down April 12, police believed it was retribution for the arrest of another gang member hours earlier.

Detectives eventually ruled out Zito's involvement due to a lack of evidence.