Monday, November 30, 2015 • 05:30

A night in the life of a Valley Center Sheriff

March 12, 2014
Valley Center's a pretty quiet place, right? Well, not always, as the occasional car chase and drug bust testifies, but the sheriffs at the Valley Center substation of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department work round the clock to keep the valley as orderly as possible.

Although Sergeant Ricardo Lopez was only promoted to the substation two months ago, he already has an appreciation for the challenges and benefits of a compact rural police department. The Valley Roadrunner decided to follow his journey over the night of March 6 to gain a better understanding of what the local sheriffs have to deal with.

"On patrol, you have no idea what's about to come across the radio. That's what makes it so interesting," said Lopez. "When it's busy, this place is very busy."

The night started around 6 p.m. with all the deputies gathering at the substation for a recount of the day's events and a briefing of the night ahead. One thing unique about the Valley Center substation is an "overlap" day sheriff who stays late to personally brief the night shift deputies.

Earlier in the day on Thursday, sheriff's deputies responded to calls of a stolen wallet and cell phone, a sale of marijuana at Valley Center High School, and a fatal bee stinging incident. Lopez listened to the reports of the other deputies before everyone mounted up for a twelve-hour shift on patrol.

"It's a huge beat," said Lopez. The Valley Center sheriffs are responsible for covering everything north of Escondido all the way to the San Diego county line. That includes Pala, Lake Henshaw, Palomar Mountain, Pauma Valley, and of course, Valley Center. There are typically four to five deputies on patrol at a time.

"We could definitely use more guys. It's without a doubt," said Lopez. However, by making sure there is usually a deputy on the main thoroughfares, the sheriffs make do with what they've got.

After prowling Lake Wohlford Road, Lopez looped back through the main part of town to check major visibility areas, such as the businesses along Valley Center Road and the Harvest Farms Village on Lilac Road.

He soon spotted a suspicious sports car and immediately radioed the license plate into dispatch. Within five seconds Lopez received the driver's address, criminal history, and vehicle information back. The car proved clean and Lopez drove on into Pauma Valley.

"My biggest fear driving at night is all the head-on collisions that occur because of drunk drivers," said Lopez. "Drunk driving is kind of a big one up here."

Possession of drugs is another common crime in Valley Center, both by residents and visitors. Speeding, especially along Valley Center Road, and recovery of stolen vehicles also occur frequently.

After stopping a car for a burnt-out light over the rear license plate — let off with a warning — Lopez received his first call of the night: a trailer fire on the La Jolla Reservation. He hopped in the Ford Expedition that is standard issue for the Valley Center Sheriffs and sped off down Route 76.

"Usually we're there before the fire department just because we're out and about," said Lopez. However, when Lopez arrived on the scene of the trailer fire, crews from Cal Fire, the Rincon Fire Department, and the La Jolla Fire Department were already on the scene subduing the blaze.

"What I've noticed out here is all the fire departments work really well together," said Lopez.

Two occupants of the building, a man and a woman, both made it out safely. As the firefighters worked for several hours to extinguish the flames, Lopez interviewed the occupants to explore the possibility of arson.

After finishing his work at the scene of the fire, Lopez received two calls, one for a panic button that had gone off in someone's home and another from the CHP for an incident on Interstate 15. He took the CHP call and sent the K-9 unit to the other call.

Before coming to Valley Center, Lopez worked on the North County Gang Regional Task Force in San Marcos for eight years. He has experience working in jails as well as undercover. He is one of five sergeants assigned to the Valley Center substation — one for each shift as well as an administrative sergeant — and he is excited to be back supervising patrol in Valley Center.

"I have to keep track of everybody and what everyone's doing," said Lopez. Being on patrol is an intense exercise in multi-tasking with the combination of typing on the computerized dispatch program, listening to fellow deputies on the earpiece, and watching everything outside the car.

The call on the I-15 turned out to be nothing, but another call came through for a mentally-challenged man boarding the bus at Harrah's Rincon Hotel & Casino. Casino security contacted the sheriffs because they didn't feel the man could take care of himself. Lopez and other deputies arrived on the scene, discovered the man was a missing person from the city of Torrance, and took him into custody for a mental evaluation.

"We work well with the casinos, they take care of their own issues," said Lopez. "Only when it's out of their control do they call us."

The final call of the night came from security at Valley View Casino & Hotel around 3:50 a.m. with a report of two children sleeping in the back of a car in the parking garage.

"We went over there and sure enough, found two kids, wide-awake in the back seat, and found the male passed out in the driver's seat with a bunch of beer cans strewn out all over the front," said Lopez. "At first it looked really bad, but he was not drunk. He was their uncle."

Apparently, it was the children's mother who had been drinking, and the uncle didn't want her driving herself to the casino. There was no one left to watch the kids at home, so they had to come too. The uncle and kids had been camped out in the car for the past six hours. Lopez sent a referral to child protective services for bad parenting.

Compared to his time in San Marcos, Lopez is still adjusting to the occasional recreational gunshot in the area, the enormous distance he must cover, and the frequency of car chases.

"We do have a lot of car chases up here," said Lopez. However, with a K-9 unit on every shift, the sheriffs are well-equipped for the chase. "Especially if you're from Valley Center and you know some of the back roads, you think you can get away. But once you get a K-9 behind you, a helicopter above, it's very difficult to get away."

Lopez finished his shift at 6 a.m. as the sun came up. Just as he's begun to adjust to being on the night-shift, Lopez will be switched to daytime duty in the next month or two. Although the hot days will make his 12-hour patrol a bit tougher, he's looking forward to seeing his beat in the daylight and not having to worry about where to get coffee at 2 in the morning.

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