Drug crimes put desert town into vigilante mood

December 24, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

NEWBERRY SPRINGS, Calif. -- Out here in this desert valley where the spirit of the Old West saddles up to historic U.S. Highway 66, the townsfolk are sounding a little trigger-itchy.

With the murders, the break-ins, the robberies and the rapes, they're talking about taking the law into their own hands, and even the lawman up the highway 25 miles away in Barstow is a little concerned about what he's hearing.

"We all have guns. I sleep with one next to my bed, and I've got another one in the living room next to the coffee table," says Jim Ellison, a truck driver-turned-local newspaper publisher.

These independent-styled desert residents are still talking about how, the other day, one of their neighbors scared some people off his property with a blast of his shotgun. Hell, everyone does it. But now they're wondering if straight-shooting vigilantes are next. No names, mind you. No one says he'll be the first to ride shotgun through the community. But they're talking about it.

The aim of their anger: illicit drug manufacturers who hide within the expanse of this huge desert region to cook up their batches of methamphetamine. Some are ma-and-pa bathtub operations. At least one family up here, the locals say, concocts enough of the white powder to supply pushers in Las Vegas. Everyone knows who it is, they say.

The San Bernardino, Calif., Sheriff's Department, which patrols these parts, wonders whether the local folks are exaggerating the problem a tad. Still, they acknowledge the drug problem out here.

"The desert, because of its openness, provides some unique opportunities for those who want to do other than the legal thing," says Sheriff's Capt. Hugh Gonthier, who commands the Barstow substation. "The desert is more susceptible as a place for people to set up [illicit operations]. They can see us coming from a long way off."

San Bernardino sheriff's deputies already have busted about 10 drug labs around Newberry Springs this year, and have executed more than 20 search warrants in their drug investigations.

In one incident, authorities looking for a parolee stumbled across a methamphetamine lab in his camper. In January, a drug task force swept five locations, seizing methamphetamine manufacturing equipment and, at one spot, uncovering a lab capable of producing 2 1/2 pounds of the drug at a time. Officers confiscated a quarter-pound of the drug, with a street value of $13,000. In May, investigators looking for another parolee tracked him down in someone's trailer, where they discovered a working meth lab capable of making up to 4-ounce batches at a time.

By comparison, there were only two drug busts in Newberry Springs in all of 1991, department figures show.

Of the growing crime and drug problem, Mr. Ellison's wife, Sue, gripes, "It's gotten out of control. It used to be, they were just killing each other, and we didn't care. But now they're killing good people."

Like in early December, when four people broke into Lee Ray and Peggy Williams' home in Yermo. Three men and a woman -- all under 21 -- robbed the couple, stole their vehicles, drove the couple out into the desert and shot them.

Lee Ray Williams was killed instantly and his wife -- who works for the San Bernardino County District Attorney's office -- played dead after being shot twice in the face. She managed to walk a mile for help. A sheriff's spokesman says the investigation into the Williams murder is continuing and authorities have not yet determined whether the attack was drug-related.

There's been other crime, too -- the kind you'd expect "down below," the euphemism here for city life and all its evils. Folks say that's why we moved up here, amid the alfalfa fields and the apricot and pistachio orchards, where miners and old chicken ranchers hunker over burgers at the A-frame Bagdad Cafe or hoist a cold one at the Barn, and for maybe the only real excitement, take in the competitive water-ski racing tournaments that even draw ESPN-TV crews each summer.

"Newberry has received a lot of our attention," says Capt. Gonthier of the Barstow substation. His 26 patrol officers and supervisors cover a 10,000-square-mile region that he thinks may well be the largest beat of any law enforcement agency this side of the feds or state.

Not all the crime out here, Capt. Gonthier says, is drug-related. But the residents are convinced that the burglaries, the robberies, the break-ins are caused by druggies needing some quick, easy cash. And they're getting tired of it.

An audit by the Sheriff's Department of crime in Newberry Springs shows this year's pace is ahead of 1991's.

What's a small town to do?

One answer is to install a resident deputy sheriff, a lawman who will live right here, and patrol right here, and be on call virtually 24 hours a day, suggest the Ellisons, who publish the monthly Silver Valley Sentinel.

The Ellisons say they've been told "by a source who knows what's going on" to "watch out" and not make too much of the crime problem. "Now, we are scared," Jim Ellison says. Thus, the shotgun by his pillow, the shotgun by his coffee table.

"This is like the Old West," he says. Adds his wife, "Well, not quite. If it was, then we could do something for ourselves."

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