Calif. man convicted in booby trap police attacks

A Southern California jury on Monday convicted a man of attempted murder in a string of bizarre attacks on police that included improvised booby traps and the firing of a World War II-era bazooka at a police station.

Nicholas John Smit, 41, of San Jacinto, was found guilty of four counts of attempted murder of a police officer, all of them for orchestrating attacks against the same Hemet police detective who had arrested him on a drug charge, Riverside County district attorney's spokesman John Hall said.

In one instance, natural gas was rerouted into the office of a gang task force and rigged to explode. In the bazooka attack, a training rocket was fired from the roof of a nearby market and started a small fire.

"He's almost like a movie-type villain, who's just very, very flawed," Deputy District Attorney Daniel DeLimon told The Associated Press after the verdict.

The bold attacks began in late 2009, putting police officers on edge and unsettling the desert community of Hemet, about 80 miles southeast of Los Angeles. At first, a motorcycle gang was blamed, but its members were cleared.

DeLimon called the attacks "anonymous and frightening."

"It was a very difficult time for the Hemet Police Department," he said.

The attacks stemmed from Smit's anger at Detective Chuck Johnson, who had arrested him earlier in 2009, prosecutors said.

On Dec. 7, 2009, Johnson discovered a booby trap outside his Hemet home. It consisted of a board lined with nails connected to a trip wire that led to his unmarked police cruiser. The nails were barbed and smeared with fecal matter.

Over the next six months, members of the Hemet-San Jacinto Valley Gang Task Force — of which Johnson was a member — were targeted in eight more suspicious incidents, including arsons and attempted shootings.

"Mr. Smit was very angry about being arrested and made repeated efforts to target and eliminate Detective Johnson," DeLimon told the jury during the trial.

Smit's attorney, Bob Gazley, said his client was incapable of launching sophisticated attacks against the detective, calling the attacks and the community outrage a "perfect storm of coincidence" that left Smit wrongly accused.

Jurors deliberated for five days after a five-week trial in Murrieta. They convicted Smit of 11 felonies, including conspiracy and assembling a booby trap. He faces multiple life terms in prison at his sentencing, scheduled for Dec. 2.

The jury was deadlocked on a 12th charge — the attempted murder of a different detective, in which Smit was alleged to have placed a homemade gun on a police entry gate that fired but missed when the detective opened it.

When the jury told Judge Mark Mandio of the impasse, he made the rare move of allowing each side to argue its case again for 10 minutes each, and had the jury continue deliberations, but they still couldn't reach a verdict.

Prosecutors would decide whether to retry Smit on the charge, Hall said.