RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Two men were charged Wednesday with attempted murder after a seven-month string of failed assassination tries against police officers in a small Southern California town.
Nicholas John Smit, 39, engaged in an elaborate plot to try to kill a detective with the Hemet Police Department after the officer arrested him for trying to grow marijuana, authorities said.
Smit believed that if the detective were killed or injured, the case against him would disappear, Riverside County District Attorney Rod Pacheco said.
The attacks dovetailed with the dates of Smit's court hearings in the marijuana case, according to court records. His sentencing was scheduled next week.
Smit was joined in the attempts by Steven Hansen, 36, a convicted arsonist who was freed from state prison in March after a parole violation, Pacheco alleged.
Both suspects have also been charged with conspiracy to commit murder and using an ignition device to attempt a murder. Smit faces additional counts of assembling a booby trap and possession of a zip gun.
The investigation indicates the two associated with white supremacists, although they did not belong to any specific gang.
The charges related to three attacks on officers between February and June but did not cover several other incidents that authorities suspect were committed by Smit. Prosecutors did not feel they had enough evidence to file charges in those cases, but an investigation was continuing.
It wasn't immediately clear if the two defendants, who were expected to make their first court appearance Thursday, had retained attorneys. They were arrested Friday after raids at several locations.
After six months of investigation, DNA evidence collected from a recent attack implicated one of the defendants and "brought everything to a head," the district attorney said.
Pacheco said raids conducted earlier this year against the Vagos motorcycle gang played a role as well, but he declined to be specific.
The amount of surveillance Smit and Hansen undertook to target the detective in the marijuana case was chilling, Pacheco said.
"I've never seen in my 25 years as a prosecutor the kind of surveillance done on a law enforcement officer as I have seen here," Pacheco said. "It's unbelievable."
Smit knew the detective's home address, the make and model of his car, his routines, and when and where he traveled. The defendants were almost as familiar with the movements and plans of the Hemet Police Department as the officers themselves, the district attorney said.
At one point, Smit was spotted watching the department but was not identified.
Police Chief Richard Dana said he still wasn't convinced his officers were safe and asked them not to let down their guard. He said detectives had noted several individuals — not just Smit and Hansen — watching them in the past months.
The chief said he had not traveled more than 50 miles from Hemet or turned off his cell phone in seven months because of the danger in the city about 90 miles southeast of Los Angeles.
"Every time the phone rings, your heart starts beating and you start wondering, 'What's happened now? Is somebody hurt? Is everything OK?'" Dana said.
Smit might have faced anywhere from probation to three years in state prison in the marijuana case but could now be subject to life in prison without parole if convicted of the new charges.
The arrest was a relief for the tiny Police Department, which has recently lost a third of its officers to budget cuts and been on heightened alert since December, when the first attack occurred.
In that instance, someone left a crude device known as a punji trap on the front porch of the detective's home. The weapon was made from a series of wooden boards pierced by dozens of upward-pointing nails.
In another attack, a natural gas pipe was pushed into a hole drilled through the roof of the gang enforcement unit's headquarters. The building filled with flammable vapor, but the gas was detected before anyone was hurt.
The detective was again targeted March 4 when an explosive device that did not detonate was left on his car.
The ATF got involved in the case on Feb. 23 after a handmade gun was attached to a sliding gate at the Police Department's gang enforcement building sent a bullet whizzing past another officer's face as he entered.
On March 23, a structure at a police shooting range was burned, and on June 3 someone attempted to launch a military-style rocket from the top of a market near the police station. The attempt started a small fire on top of the market's roof, said John Hall, a spokesman for the district attorney.
On June 30, a fire was lit at a police evidence building.
On Tuesday, police found a hazardous device stuck to the bottom of a police car. The car had not been driven in some time and the device was believed to have been there for up to 60 days, authorities said
Smit was charged in the Feb. 23, March 4 and June 3 attacks, while Hansen was charged with the June 3 rocket launch.