CVIndependent

Mon09252017

Last updateFri, 16 Sep 2016 12pm

Brane Jevric

Thanks to the work of the Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy and The Living Desert, there will be no new homes nor condos built on nearly 640 unspoiled acres located off of Highway 74, in the mountains above Palm Desert. None.

Shumway Ranch spreads over a considerable portion of Asbestos Mountain, and also includes large wash areas, as well as a relatively flat section, with views of Deep Canyon and the Coachella Valley floor.

The area is natural habitat for the endangered peninsular desert bighorn sheep.

“This is a major accomplishment for the conservancy,” said Jim Karpiak, the conservancy’s executive director. “The ranch is protected from development in perpetuity through deed restrictions in favor of the state and federal agencies that provided the funds—namely, the conservancy, the (California) Wildlife Conservation Board and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”

Not only is the land beautiful and vital habitat; the ranch has significant historic value as well. In 1938, the land was granted as a homestead to Percy Shumway and Nina Paul Shumway, part of a well-known agricultural family in the Eastern Coachella Valley. Local records indicate that this was the last stock-raising homestead granted in California.

In the early 1960s, the ranch was sold to silent-movie star Irene Rich. Her daughter, noted sculptress Frances Rich, inherited it, and lived and worked there until the 1980s, when she donated the land to The Living Desert.

“The Living Desert, a local nonprofit, contacted us almost three years ago to say it was interested in selling the land for conservation,” Karpiak said. “Under state law, we cannot pay any more than appraised fair market value, and The Living Desert readily agreed to the sales price of $1.565 million.”

According to Allen Monroe, The Living Desert’s president and chief executive officer, the transfer increases the area of federally protected land here in the Coachella Valley. He explained why The Living Desert’s board of directors decided to sell the land to the CV Mountains Conservancy.

“This partnership allows us to further our mission of desert conservation, because the conservancy will create a permanent conservation easement protecting the precious desert habitat,” Monroe said.

The conservancy has a long legacy of acquiring land in key areas of the Coachella Valley; in turn, these acquisitions protect threatened and endangered species.

“As land acquired in compliance with the Coachella Valley Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan, its management follows plan requirements and will be coordinated with adjacent conservation lands through the Coachella Valley Conservation Commission,” Karpiak said.

There are three historic buildings located on about 10 acres of land that make up the Shumway homestead. These structures will be protected, too.

“The conservancy will work to preserve (the homestead) as a historical and public educational site,” Karpiak said. “The Living Desert has pledged a significant contribution to assist in renovation efforts.”

Monroe confirmed The Living Desert has dedicated $40,000 to a trust, managed by the conservancy, for the preservation of the historic buildings.

“It saves an important part of our local history, which likely would have been torn down had the land been purchased by a private owner,” Karpiak said. “We also plan to allow use of the ranch as a base for biological or climate-change researchers in exploring the surrounding conservation land.”

East Vista Chino has claimed another pedestrian’s life—the third since last October.

This time, according to the police report, the deceased was 62-year-old Palm Springs resident John Palladino, who was hit by a car on the night of Sunday, June 18. He was hospitalized and fought for his life until June 23, when he succumbed to the injuries he sustained in what police call a vehicle-versus-pedestrian collision.

“The preliminary investigation revealed a white 2011 Mercedes E-350, driven by a 76-year-old male from Palm Springs, was traveling westbound on East Vista Chino toward the intersection of North Sunrise Way,” said Lt. Mike Kovaleff.

According to Kovaleff, Palladino was walking northbound across Vista Chino, at Sunrise Way, on the east side of the intersection, outside of the crosswalk, against a red light. “The Mercedes entered the intersection with a green light and struck the pedestrian as he walked in the intersection,” Kovaleff said.

Kovaleff said there was no indication that alcohol or drugs were a factor.

Regardless of fault, East Vista Chino has proven yet again to be a deadly street. Less than a mile away, at Via Miraleste, two pedestrians recently lost their lives.

Jana Ploss, 64, a longtime Palm Springs resident, was struck by a car while crossing Vista Chino at Via Miraleste on Nov. 14 of last year. Only six weeks prior, on Oct. 6, James Harper, also 64, was hit by a car and killed at that same intersection. (See “A Perilous Crossing,” posted Dec. 19, 2016.)

Ploss, who lived at the Riviera Gardens condo complex, had crossed Vista Chino at Via Miraleste daily for years to visit her sister, who owns a house nearby on Chia Road. Yet around 6:13 p.m. on Nov. 14, according to the police report, Ploss was hit and killed by a car headed eastbound on Vista Chino.

The speed limit at that critical portion of Vista Chino is 45 mph, but traffic often goes faster, and nighttime visibility is pretty low.

Vista Chino is actually a state highway—it’s State Route 111—and therefore is controlled by Caltrans. After the deaths of Ploss and Harper, Caltrans looked into the matter.

“Caltrans did conduct an investigation at the intersection of State Route 111 and Via Miraleste earlier this year after the two pedestrian fatalities,” said John Bulinski, Caltrans’ District 8 director. “As a result of that traffic investigation, the city of Palm Springs and Caltrans will install a signal at that intersection.”

Bulinski also said that Caltrans is working with the city of Palm Springs, the California Highway Patrol, Lamar Advertising, the Coachella Valley Association of Governments and other organizations on a pedestrian-safety campaign—leading to the installation of several billboard advertisements around the valley.

Jana Ploss’ sibling, Roxann Ploss, has taken the issue a step further.

“I am currently working on wording for a bill to be presented to the state Assembly, and no ‘state highways’ would be built or allowed through highly congested residential areas when another route is possible,” Ploss said.

Ploss said it may take up to 18 months for the traffic signal at the intersection where her sister lost her life to be installed.

Meanwhile, Lt. Kovaleff offers some pedestrian safety tips: Any street that has a high volume of traffic and is dark poses a risk to pedestrians, and drivers, bicyclists and walkers need to be conscious and follow the rules of the road. Pedestrians and bicyclists should utilize lighting and bright clothing, and cross streets only where it is safe.

Judy Deertrack and Robert Stone—both of whom have declared their intent to run for the Palm Springs City Council—recently disclosed that they were informants to the FBI regarding the Palm Springs City Hall corruption case.

The case has resulted in bribery charges in connection with downtown development against former Mayor Steve Pougnet and developers John Wessman and Richard Meaney.

In total, Deertrack, who is an urban lawyer, and Stone, a real estate broker and author, say they invested about 7,000 hours into collecting more than 10,000 pages of documentation.

According to Stone, he called the U.S. Attorney on the morning of April 10, 2015.

“That afternoon, I received a return phone call from Joseph Widman, U.S. attorney for Riverside County,” Stone said. “He informed me that a supervisory FBI agent, Colin Schmitt, was also on the line.”

Widman and Schmitt were intrigued by what they heard, Deertrack and Stone said, and an in-person interview was set up to be held about 20 days later.

“Judy and I spent 90 minutes discussing the case with Widman, Schmitt, Jorge Chavez from the DA’s office and three field agents,” Stone said. “The last words Schmitt said to us were: ‘You have the full attention of the federal government at the highest level.’”

Deertrack explained what they found that led them to contact the authorities.

“Robert researched the mayor’s income and found a defunct corporation making payments to Pougnet,” she said. “Over three years, I testified to the City Council on 22 projects that appeared suspect. Eighteen of those projects are now in the indictments.”

According to sources, Pougnet and Wessman hated each other, so Meaney was brought in to handle the alleged payments, because he was the mayor’s friend. One of the investigators at one point called the trio “the dumbest criminals ever” because of the way the alleged incriminating payments were made—and there is a possibility that one of the three suspects might cooperate with the DA in return for immunity or a lighter sentence.

Beyond taking credit as whistleblowers, Deertrack and Stone said they couldn’t comment on many specifics, as the case is still under investigation. However, they were obviously able to comment on what they’d do if elected to the Palm Springs City Council come November, when two seats will be up for grabs.

“We need to have a two-term limit,” Stone said. “Eight years for the mayor, and that’s it, because an absolute power corrupts.”

It is worth noting that Pougnet was on the City Council from 2003 to 2007, when he was elected mayor. He served two terms and was apparently going to run for a third before deciding against it when the scandal erupted in 2015.

As for Deertrack, she said her first initiative would be to protect the city from what she called further legal and financial troubles by asking for more state and federal help.

“My very first response would be a motion for the City Council to immediately contact the FBI, U.S. attorney general and state attorney general to confer and identify any ongoing threats to funding, projects or infrastructure as a result of the 18 or so projects that appear in the indictments, and partner with these agencies on remediation,” she said. She referred to the scandal that rocked the city of Bell, and said that city’s remediation actions saved Bell up to $100 million.

Both said they may lose votes as a result of their reputations as whistle-blowers and frequent city-government critics. They also said that they don’t fear for their safety in the wake of their criticisms.

“The intense public scrutiny is its own protection,” Deertrack said. “That does not mean our role was without risk. We were cautioned at times by law enforcement to be careful.”

On a lighter note, Stone, who has authored four books so far, hinted that he may write about the city corruption case one day.

“It’s such a book,” he said.

John Wessman was a mighty developer, known for his lucrative deals across the Coachella Valley—and his significant influence at Palm Springs City Hall.

The high point of his career was supposed to be the Palm Springs downtown revitalization project, currently estimated by experts at $350 million in value.

Today, however, Wessman is better known for being indicted on numerous counts of alleged bribery involving former Mayor Steve Pougnet—and involving that downtown development project.

Wessman effectively retired upon the indictment and is not talking to the media. So, in an attempt to find out the latest news regarding the downtown development project—which has benefitted from millions of dollars from Palm Springs taxpayers via Measure J—we reached out to city officials, all of whom still publically support the downtown project. We started by trying to talk to Mayor Robert Moon.

We received this response from Amy Blaisdell, the city’s communications director: “Mayor Moon asked me to reach out to you regarding your request for an interview. He and the other councilmembers along with the city manager will not be granting interviews at this time regarding the investigation and recent indictments.”

This was a lie: Three weeks later, Robert Moon, City Manager David Ready and City Councilman J.R. Roberts sat down for a chat with KMIR.

In any case, we reached out to Judy Deertrack, a local urban lawyer and activist. She is a land and government-affairs consultant, and a legal specialist in land-use law. She is a Palm Springs resident and has lived and worked in the Coachella Valley since 2004. Here’s an edited version of our chat.

Let’s dig in from scratch: When did the trouble start brewing with the Palm Springs downtown project?

The problem with the downtown plan is that it was processed as … a relatively modest redevelopment project for the Desert Fashion Plaza that involved demolition and renovation.

How was Measure J entangled with the downtown project?

In early 2012, the state of California (ended cities’) redevelopment powers and financing, but the city went on to enlarge this project anyway, and financed it with a municipal bond issuance for $47 million that is paid back through Measure J funds at $3.3 million per year for about 25 years.

What was Wessman’s cut in the whole deal?

Since the original release of $47 million in 2012, change orders, (the) purchase of the event center lot, and its proposed approvals have added about another $20 million. Wessman has also gotten an additional $150 million in hotel subsidies coming to him through a bed-tax rebate. This project originally did not anticipate hotels. That is inching toward a quarter-billion in subsidies.

Has the $47 million been spent by Wessman, and has it been spent solely on capital improvements?

No one knows, but $32 million went into a private escrow account owned by Wessman for this project, and the city claims it has no access to know the status of that account currently.

How did the city of Palm Springs end up in such a mess?

I can’t in a few words give an exact story of what happened. Suffice to say, the permits started going through as project finance agreements rather than engineered diagrams. The city and Wessman kept the conceptual plans fairly private and vague enough that the dimensions could be changed at will, and there was no clear planning process in sight. A lot of this bypassed public hearings, except for the hotels.

So Wessman was also given a lot of freedom?

There appeared to be no upper limits … because the city used and abused the planned development permit (PDD). The specific plan set limits on height… and setbacks, and bulk, and floor-area ratio. Then the PDD took those limits away.

Is it possible the city violated any significant regulations and laws?

California’s environmental-review laws say that when cities set limits in their general plan and specific plan, it creates an environmental threshold for impacts, and when they build in excess of those limits, violating the threshold is a “significant environmental effect” that creates the need for further data, evaluation, public hearings and mitigation of project impacts.

How exactly did the city get away with such inconsistencies?

Palm Springs exceeded the limits of its plan on downtown, and then concluded there was no significant environmental effect of doing so—and made what I consider to be false findings that the project “was consistent and in conformity” with the general plan and specific plan, when, in fact, using the PDD and the project finance agreements to set the project development standards and requirements was a violation of those mechanisms.

The resulting “inconsistency” between the project and the specific plan is why in January 2016, the new City Council went back in and re-did about 50 percent of the wording of the specific plan to eliminate all of the outstanding inconsistencies. It was a major cleanup—but is not allowed in the state of California. A plan cannot be later amended to conform to illegal approvals that violate the plan.

It appears that the whole downtown affair is far from over.

Well, the original specific plan is lost to time and many, many changes. All of this occurred during an alleged racketeering scheme between the mayor (Pougnet) and the developer where the mayor, in the words of District Attorney (Michael) Hestrin, was paid to influence the vote of a majority of the sitting City Council. And no matter what was happening, and how illegal the permit processing became, there was always a majority vote—and tremendous pressure put on the architectural and planning commission boards to pass this project up and along, not on evidence, but on influence.

There were some attempts by the city to clean up the mess, correct?

That awful specific plan cleanup … in January 2016 was the tail wagging the dog! … The city over time absolutely bastardized the development restrictions on this project, and now City Hall is bragging they have cut the size by 49 percent. How unique! This sounds like a retail fire sale where the prices are increased 100 percent, and then cut back 50 percent, and we are told we just got a bargain.

What can be done to remedy this downtown quagmire?

This city and its citizens should be demanding change—a lot of change—and a lot of explanation for what has happened. Instead, we are allowing ourselves to be bullied and hoodwinked. The citizens of Palm Springs have been far too compliant with this outrage. Part of the problem is that no one is demanding information. Virtually no one is challenging the inconsistencies and untruths that abound on the public record. Just a few have stood up—too few!

If you were on the City Council, what would you do?

It is an obligation of the sitting City Council to first order a full accounting of expenditures and funds from Wessman on the project to date. Then, audit all accounts, and confer with the state of California on compromised public funds, such as municipal bonds or subsidies. Identify notification responsibilities to the bond-holders. The city has not acknowledged these obligations to date.

On a cold January day, Jane Garrison stood in front of Ralph’s in the Smoke Tree Village Shopping Center. Her goal: to get shoppers in the busy plaza to sign the petition to save Oswit Canyon, a popular hiking area nearby in south Palm Springs.

The rain started drizzling—but Garrison didn’t give up. Signature by signature, she rallied support to protect the alluvial fan canyon from the grip of developers.

Garrison is a member of the Save Oswit Canyon Coalition, a group of some 2,000 Palm Springs residents who are backing the initiative. She volunteered her time to stand out in the rain as part of an effort to collect 5,000 signatures. The citizens’ initiative to protect Oswit Canyon was filled with the city of Palm Springs on Nov. 14.

“My husband and I have enjoyed hiking in Oswit Canyon and the Lykken Trail for several years,” Garrison said. “I was horrified by the thought of a pristine alluvial-fan canyon being destroyed by an out-of-town developer for more houses. Our beautiful canyons are some of the many things that make Palm Springs special.”

According to Dr. Lani Miller, an environmental activist, the land in question is currently classified in the city’s general plan as a biological sensitivity/conservation area—but that would still allow for the building of up to 325 homes.

“Our initiative will amend the municipal code, Canyon South Specific Plan and City of Palm Springs General Plan in order to change the zoning to ‘environmentally sensitive area’ zoning, allowing the construction of six homes,” Miller said.

Miller said Oswit Canyon is an environmental oasis that is the home to some endangered species, including the peninsular bighorn sheep.

“I'm blessed by sights of bighorn almost every time I’ve been up there at dusk, when they forage—a breathtaking sight,” she said.

Both Garrison and Miller emphasized that they are not anti-development; rather, they are in favor of smart, ethical development in the city, and preserving sparse natural habitat for future generations.

That is the main reason the Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy stepped in and tried to acquire the land in Oswit Canyon. According to Jim Karpiak, the conservancy’s executive director, discussions were short-lived.

“We never made it to the stage of making a formal offer,” Karpiak said. “After initial discussions with the owners, during which they indicated an interest in selling the land for conservation, we commissioned an appraisal of the property at the conservancy’s expense, and then shared it with the owners. They indicated that the fair market value as established by that appraisal was not acceptable to them and terminated discussions with us.”

Karpiak said his contact while negotiating with the owners of the parcels in Oswit Canyon was Mike Cole, an Orange County-based developer. Cole, a minority shareholder among the land owners, did not respond to a request from the Independent to answer questions. He initially asked that we hold our story deadline for 48 hours and promised to respond to our request via email. We extended the deadline by 48 hours, but the responses have never arrived, at least as of our press deadline.

Meanwhile, Garrison and the other Save Oswit Canyon Coalition volunteers are continuing to collect signatures of Palm Springs registered voters.

For more information on the Save Oswit Canyon Coalition, visit www.saveoswitcanyon.com.

Jana Ploss used to walk the short distance from her condo in Riviera Gardens to her sister’s house on Chia Road almost every given day. She did it for years—walking back and forth, always crossing Vista Chino at Via Miraleste.

On Monday, Nov. 14, she left her sister’s home shortly after 6 p.m. About 6:13 p.m., according to police reports, she was struck by a car at the intersection of Vista Chino and Via Miraleste. She was rushed to Desert Medical Regional Center. Some 20 minutes later, according to the coroner’s office, Ploss was pronounced dead.

Ploss was 64. She was the second pedestrian killed by a car at that intersection in six weeks; James Harper, also 64, was killed on Oct. 6, according to police reports.

Roxann Ploss said that her sister was just 30 yards away from Jana’s front door at Riviera Gardens when she was hit by a car headed eastbound on Vista Chino.

“My sister came to my house daily and went home most nights,” she said. “Sometimes, she stayed over here.”

The Ploss sisters were very close. They chose to live in such proximity so they could spend as much time as possible together. On what would be their last night together, Jana Ploss stayed a bit later than usual to watch the news with her sister.

“It was already dark, which I emphasized, and I asked her to stay over,” Roxann Ploss said. “When she told me she had to get back, I told her to be careful then, and I would see her tomorrow.”

Within minutes, her sister was dead—but Roxann Ploss didn’t know it for another five hours.

“I was watching the 11 o’clock news, and the anchor came on to say, ‘another (pedestrian) fatality in Palm Springs,’” Ploss said.

Then the news broadcast showed footage of the scene of the accident. “I saw the shoe in the middle of the road, and I just knew,” Roxann Ploss said. “About five minutes later, a sheriff was at my door.”

The fact that the intersection has claimed two lives in such a short period of time certainly raises the possibility that the area might be dangerous. But Sgt. William Hutchinson, a Palm Springs Police Department spokesman, does not believe that is the case.

“Vista Chino is not a dangerous place for pedestrians and bikers or for night traffic in general,” Sgt. Hutchinson said.

However, Marcus Fuller, a Palm Springs assistant city manager and city engineer, has already taken up the issue with the California Department of Transportation, also known as CalTrans.

“Vista Chino is a state highway regulated by Caltrans, and Caltrans determines whether the installation of traffic signals, crosswalks or other improvements on Vista Chino are warranted,” Fuller said. “I have personally met with the Caltrans district director and his staff to discuss these accidents and to urge them to take action as soon as possible in whatever way they can.”

John Bulinski, the Caltrans District 8 director, said the fact that two pedestrian fatalities occurred at the same intersection is being examined.

“We are in the process of conducting an investigation of the circumstances surrounding these fatalities and the characteristic of the intersection,” Bulinski said. “We are working with the city of Palm Springs and will make appropriate changes after conclusions are reached.”

As for Roxann Ploss, she hopes that, at the least, the installation of a pedestrian crossing with flashing lights at Vista Chino and Via Miraleste might prevent future losses in lives.

Meanwhile, Fuller and Hutchinson offered some useful safety tips for drivers and pedestrians:

• State law requires drivers to yield to pedestrians, but also requires pedestrians to use caution and not cross a street when it is unsafe to do so.

• Avoid looking at your phone.

• Always drive at a speed that is safe for the conditions.

• Slow down when proceeding through a crosswalk or intersection, and be aware of pedestrians on the sidewalk.

• Look both ways when crossing the street.

• When walking at night, wear bright or reflective clothing, and carry a flashlight.

There is a tropical garden up in the most unlikely of places—the high desert—that grows orchids, by the thousands.

I discovered it by pure chance while on another assignment in Landers, located north of Yucca Valley about 55 miles from Palm Springs. As I drove on Belfield Boulevard, I saw dozens of cars in a busy parking lot next to a huge tent-like structure. I thought it might have been a celebrity wedding—but instead, it was the largest orchid nursery I’d ever seen.

I grabbed my camera and started taking photos of the gorgeous orchids—and didn’t stop until I went through tens of thousands of square feet of absolute botanical beauty owned by Gubler Orchids company. It was a true photographers’ paradise.

Any horticultural expert will tell you that orchids are among most elegant, most expensive and most sought-out flowers. It’s a fact that Charles Darwin was doing research on orchids while also working on his Theory of Evolution.

The Gubler family has been gardening at their Landers orchid nursery since 1975. According to Heidi Gubler Brodeur, there have been three generations of botanists in her family, starting with her grandfather, Heinrich Gubler, who owned a nursery near Zurich, Switzerland, back in 1918.

“My dad, Hans Gubler, arrived in the U.S. in 1949,” she said. “He lived the American dream. In 1954, after having saved $300, he started his own business selling orchids out of a station wagon in Altadena, Calif.”

Later on, Hans Gubler named Cattleya orchid hybrids after each of his three children: Lc. Christopher Gubler, C. Karin Ann Gubler, and Pot. Heidi Gubler.

Over the years, Gubler Orchids grew into one of the largest orchid growers in the nation. The crucial moment for the company’s expansion came with the move to the high desert, where the family built advanced solar greenhouses.

“We came here for clean air, pure water, sunshine and four growing seasons,” Gubler Brodeur said. “We ship our orchids throughout the world and everywhere nationwide, even to Alaska.”

Today, the company is led by Chris Gubler, who managed to double it in size and increase sales 10 times over since taking the reins.

But not everything has been rosy for the Gubler family in the high desert: They suffered a big blow during the 7.3-magnitude earthquake that hit Landers on June 28, 1992.

“I was in shock. Everything our family had worked for had been ruined,” Chris Gubler said.

However, this horror story has a happy ending.

“It turns out that the earthquake was a rebirth for Gubler Orchids, as we made huge capital improvements to nursery,” he said.

Gubler Orchids also owns and operates another nursery nearby in Lucerne Valley, but it is closed to the public. Between the two nurseries, the Gublers own approximately 155,000 square feet of producing greenhouses.

The family also owns a couple of orchids that are beyond 60 years old!

The future of the company seems secure, with the fourth generation of Gublers stepping in: Chris’ daughter, Kelsey, just joined the company after graduating from Cal Poly.

Gubler Orchids is located at 2200 Belfield Blvd. in Landers. Its showroom, growing grounds and greenhouses are open from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday. For more information, call 760-364-2282, or visit www.gublers.com.

The “breaking news” TV flash disrupted a peaceful Saturday afternoon at my home in Palm Springs. Three cops had been shot while responding to a domestic disturbance just a couple of miles away.

I started feeling uneasy and tense—like I used to feel in my hometown of Sarajevo.

I turned the TV off.

Within minutes, my editor called and left me a message, asking me if I was available to cover the shootings. I didn’t respond. I’ve done my share of violent breaking-news stories all around the globe. No more.

Later, my editor texted me, saying that two of the three officers—Jose “Gil” Vega, 63, and Lesley Zerebny, 27—had died.

I’ve seen many senseless killings, as a war reporter in Romania and what was once Yugoslavia. When I lived and worked in Rio de Janeiro, every morning would start with the gruesome front-page murder-scene photos of butchered bodies. Rio is a beautiful place, but there’s too much violence.

I chose to start a new life here in the desert after I was granted political asylum in the United States. I chose to live in Palm Springs because there were rarely shootouts, or gunfire, or police sirens, or dead bodies at night on the local evening news. For more than 20 years, I’ve been covering events in this peaceful oasis—until that serenity was shattered midday on Saturday, Oct. 8.

A homegrown idiot gang member allegedly decided to wipe out the cops who came to his door, just doing their jobs. (I’m not going to mention him by name.) The police officers—one a veteran officer within months of retirement; another a young woman who had just returned to work after having a child—had no chance the moment they walked up to the door. The Palm Springs Police Department should consider using this tragic event to change its 911 procedures when dealing with gang members. The red flags must go up before the dispatch. Always.

Remember the nonfiction book (and subsequent movie) The Onion Field? Its author, a former cop, Joe Wambaugh, actually lived here in the desert. After the infamous case—two police officers were kidnapped by criminals during a traffic stop, with one of the cops later killed—the LAPD changed its police tactics.

Little information has been released about the third police officer who was shot in Palm Springs. He is a material witness in this murder case, and is understandably being protected at this time. Sooner or later, he may testify and/or face the media inquiries. I spoke to a cop who survived a shootout with a gang member in Cabazon a few years back. He retired and became a plumber.

I’ve been shot at during the wars I covered, and you never forget it. I’ll always remember the hornet-like sound of the bullets that missed me by a mere chance. The sound of bullets hitting or piercing hard surfaces inches away stays with you—coming back to mind after hearing a sound with the slightest resemblance.

However, I’m not going to dwell on the fact that two cops were shot and killed in my neighborhood. Instead, I’m going to do just as those slain cops did on that fateful day: I’m going to do my job.

I’m going to write about and expose the gangs of Palm Springs. I hope that other media outlets will do the same. And I have a message for the members of the Varrio Las Palmas gang, to which the alleged cop killer reportedly belongs: This is Palm Springs, not a gangland.

Up on a plateau in the High Desert, about 50 miles north of Palm Springs in a small town called Landers, there’s a domed structure that’s been attracting buzz since the 1950s.

Its builder was George Van Tassel, a UFOlogist, aviator and businessman who claimed that an alien from outer space, speaking in perfect English, told him how to build the structure back in 1953.

Van Tassel named it the Integraton.

According to writings by Van Tassel, who authored four books—including I Rode a Flying Saucer—“the purpose of the Integratron is to recharge energy into living cell structure, to bring about longer life with youthful energy. It is a machine, a high-voltage electrostatic generator that would supply a broad range of frequencies to recharge cellular structure.”

Van Tassel died at the age of 67 in 1978, so the part about longer life didn’t exactly work for him. However, there’s an explanation for that among the folks who know a thing or two about Van Tassel.

“He never finished it,” said Gene Woodley, the Morongo Basin Historical Society vice president, to me on a recent visit to the Integraton.

Wooley, a Landers resident since 1984, told me that no nail was used to build the four-story-tall wooden dome that measures 55 feet in diameter.

Another longtime Landers-area resident, Rob Harris, met Van Tassel 50-plus years ago.

“I was 17 then,” he remembers. “At first, as George talked to me and my friends, I thought that he had spent too much time out there in the desert under the sun. That was before I knew anything about him.”

The way Van Tassel described his Integraton as “a high voltage electrostatic generator that would supply a broad range of frequencies” was apparently inspired by ideas of famed inventor Nikola Tesla (1856-1943).

Yes, Tesla cars are named after this gifted scientist of Yugoslavian origin. He was a genius—and an eccentric, too, who harnessed the use of alternating electrical current (AC). He also invented fluorescent lighting and bladeless turbines while developing theories on robotics, missiles and computers.

Way before the modern rivalry between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, there was a bitter “war of currents” between Tesla’s AC system and Thomas Edison’s direct current (DC) system. Tesla’s alternate current prevailed.

I first wrote about the Integraton for a European magazine in the late 1990s. When I entered the Integraton back then, I realized that it looked almost exactly like pictures from Tesla’s labs that hung on the walls of my high school science classroom in Sarajevo. In those old black-and-white photos, Tesla was usually sitting on a chair in a middle of a spherical wooden structure while illuminated by the discharge of several million volts of electricity, cascading all around him.

Van Tassel must have seen the same photos back in his days, and perhaps that’s how he came up with the idea to build the Integraton—even if he did claim an alien told him how to build it.

Interestingly, when I visited the Integraton some 18 or so years ago, there was a Tesla coil inside. The machine was placed in a prominent place and was clearly marked with a brass tag.

Nowadays, the new owners of the Integraton use it as a tourist attraction for visitors who want to experience “sound baths.” Indeed, Integraton is very acoustic. Anything that works to attract paying visitors to the Integraton is good for business.

Sadly, as I was taking pictures of the dome on a recent visit, an Integraton staffer told me that all of Van Tassel’s machines, including the one invented by Tesla, had been removed from the Integraton.

For more information, visit integratron.com.

The Palm Desert Sheriff’s Station, located on Gerald Ford Drive, is the home of the Coachella Valley’s most robust local policing force.

The station covers all unincorporated areas of the western valley, as well as the cities of Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage and Indian Wells, each of which contracts with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department to provide police services.

Officials in one of those cities, Palm Desert, are expressing concerns about rising public safety costs. Palm Desert Mayor Bob Spiegel recently told the Independent that for the first time, public-safety costs now make up more than half of the city’s budget.

After hearing that, we decided it was time to talk to the commander of the Palm Desert Sheriff’s Station regarding the local state of crime, public-safety issues and law-enforcement needs.

Unfortunately, our media requests were either ignored or shoved off to the cities with whom the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department contracts. Deputy Armando Munoz, the local public information officer, repeatedly dodged questions. He wouldn’t even tell us how many deputies are employed at the Palm Desert Station.

Up until about two months ago, the things were different. The station’s commander was Capt. Susan “Sue” Trevino, the first woman to ever hold that post. Capt. Trevino, who recently retired, was a remarkable leader who understood the need for media access and public information.

On Aug. 10, Capt. David Teets took over as the station’s new commander. After two weeks of emailing media requests for a short, 10-20 minute interview with Teets, Munoz stated that “the captain is unavailable” to talk.

Therefore, I simply showed up at the Palm Desert Sheriff’s Station—and Lt. John Shields, a law-enforcement veteran of 27 years, gave me an interview on the spot. He started by answering that employment question: He said the station has roughly 200 people on staff.

Lt. Shields oversees Rancho Mirage as its assistant chief of police. He talked about the city’s low crime rate, and the fact that there has not been a homicide in Rancho Mirage in recent years.

“With Rancho Mirage, our concern is property crimes,” he said. “That’s the biggest problem, and it’s not that big in comparison to other areas,” he said.

Rancho Mirage, with a population a bit below 18,000, has a sheriff’s substation. Eleven deputies are on patrol daily—two motorcycle officers included—along with three community service officers.

Lt. Shields said Rancho Mirage has no plans to reduce its policing force.

“We meet with the city manager and the city staff weekly, and we have not recommended it,” he said.

Due to the recent San Bernardino and New York terrorism acts, the question of adequate public safety is on the minds of many.

“For the size of the city, we have quite a few officers out there, so we have a very good presence there,” Lt. Shields said. “We also have lots of city staff personnel who went through the active-shooter training program, and they know if they see something, to say something.”

President Gerald Ford used to live in Rancho Mirage, and rumor has it that President Barack Obama is considering purchasing a home there.

“When and if they come, he will no longer be a sitting president, so the footprint and the threat is much smaller,” Shields said. “As far as the resources go, the Secret Service will take care of that, but we’re ready.”

As for Indian Wells, my questions were promptly answered via email by Nancy Samuelson, the city’s spokesperson. According to her, Indian Wells has one officer dedicated 24/7, as well as one motor officer, one special enforcement officer, one special event officer, five community service officers and one lieutenant overseeing its staff.

There is a small sheriff’s substation across from Indian Wells City Hall, and the city’s crime rate is minimal.

“Main public safety (concerns involve) traffic enforcements, collisions and petty property crime,” Samuelson stated. “Any need for more deputies is analyzed by response time, number of calls and crime volume.”

Samuelson said that Indian Wells’ population is 4,974, and that the city’s contract with the Sheriff’s Department costs $3.5 million annually—which represents 24.78 percent of the city’s budget.

Unlike Rancho Mirage and Indian Wells, the city of Palm Desert is facing some challenges when it comes to the rising cost of public safety.

According to David Hermann, the city of Palm Desert’s spokesman, the city’s general-fund budget is $53,267,218 for the fiscal year; of that, $21,141,245 is slated for police services.

In order to save some money, the city froze two motorcycle-cops positions. Hermann said the savings from two positions is $611,034.88.

There is also a possibility to save more money: The city froze a special enforcement officer position, too, but these funds were set aside in case one of the frozen positions needs to be reinstated; the potential additional savings is $308,116.24. 

“The city’s police department currently has 78 sworn deputies, taking into account two frozen officer positions and one officer assigned to the special enforcement team,” Hermann said. “The department also has 11 non-sworn positions, including nine community service officers, a crime analyst and a forensic technician.”

Palm Desert, with a population just shy of 50,000, could save more than $900,000 from these public-safety budget cuts. Could this substantially affect safety and crime in Palm Desert?

That’s a question I wanted to ask Capt. Teets. Alas, he was “unavailable.”

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