A weekend raid of a “massive underground party” in Palmdale that violated pandemic health restrictions led to more than 150 arrests, the rescue of a 17-year-old human trafficking victim and the seizure of firearms, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said Tuesday.
The Saturday night party in a vacant rental home in the 6300 block of West Avenue M-8 was organized by a teen promoter who was one of the people arrested when sheriff’s deputies descended on the event about 10 p.m., Villanueva said.
Sheriff’s deputies had advance knowledge about the party hours before it happened. When questioned why the department allowed the party to happen and potentially expose the attendees and deputies to the coronavirus, Villanueva defended the decision, saying the party was stopped before it could become even bigger, and doing so allowed the department to save the girl and prevent future illicit parties by arresting the organizers.
“Parties like these often involve drugs, prostitution, underage drinking and violence,” Villanueva said outside the Hall of Justice, where he announced the 158 arrests as well as the rescue of the human trafficking victim and the recovery of a half-dozen firearms from the location.
“We were able to rescue a girl who was present and categorized as a commercially sexually exploited child,” Villanueva said.
Involved in the law enforcement operation were personnel from the sheriff’s Palmdale Station, the Human Trafficking Task Force, Operation Safe Streets Bureau, Aero Bureau, three mobile field forces and Los Angeles County Fire Department paramedics.
According to Fox11, which had been tracking the teenage promoter’s activities and was on scene when the raid occurred, 116 adults were cited and released for various misdemeanor offenses, while seven people were booked into jail. Another 35 juveniles were also cited and released. The arrests included three adults and two juveniles booked on suspicion of burglary, while one juvenile was arrested on a gun charge, the station reported.
When stricter health orders were announced last week, including plans for the state’s regional stay-at-home order that took effect late Sunday night, Villanueva said his department would continue to rely on the public’s adherence to restrictions.
“Since March, we have continued to focus on education and voluntary compliance regarding health orders,” he wrote on Twitter. “Moving forward, we will additionally be conducting targeted enforcement of super-spreader events.”
The Palmdale party was considered just such an event, Villanueva said.
“As you can see, this was a flagrant violation of the governor’s health order,” the sheriff told reporters. “But also please understand, even without the health order, these actions were criminal in nature.”
Villanueva said COVID-19 protocols were maintained by the law enforcement personnel, including providing those who were detained with protective masks.
Sheriff’s Capt. Ron Shaffer said the residential homeowner was planning to rent the house to a family and did not give permission for the residence to be used for such a gathering.
Los Angeles County and state health restrictions in place due to the coronavirus ban gatherings with people from different households. State health orders that were in place on Saturday also included an overnight curfew, barring people from gathering with others between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.
During the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, Supervisor Kathryn Barger presented a motion asking the county’s chief executive officer to find funding to help the sheriff crack down on “underground” super-spreader events.
Barger said the sheriff’s department is monitoring social media to identify party locations and set up surveillance. She said 500 to 1,000 people were expected at the party and that the organizers broke into the vacant property where it was held.
The same 17-year-old organizer hosted another big party in Pomona, according to Barger.
“We know that these large parties that are taking place are problematic. Many of the people that come there are not practicing social distancing, are not wearing masks, and in fact are putting the community in jeopardy,” Barger said. “When they leave, they could give (the coronavirus) to their loved ones, they could give it to their grandparents.”
Supervisor Holly Mitchell offered an amendment, her first on the board, asking that super-spreader events be specifically defined to avoid any confusion with lawful gatherings like protests. Mitchell also asked that enforcement funding be provided to both the public health and sheriff’s departments.
“It’s important to issue tailored and appropriate responses to the health order violations aimed at achieving our underlying objective, but not criminalization,” Mitchell said. “It’s really important that … policy, public safety and health really walk a fine line, but walk together, protecting public health without unfairly prosecuting lawful conduct.”
The board’s vote on the motion and amendment was unanimous.