■ By Kyle Selby / Reporter
Two weeks ago, a window-smashing spree hit at least nine local businesses, resulting in an estimated $30,000 worth of damage.
Malachy Francois, 34, was arrested nearly a week later at his home on the 29000 block of Escalante Road in Menifee, after a search warrant led officers and investigators from the Hemet Police Department to his residence. Francois was arrested for four counts of vandalism; evidence connecting him to the crimes was seized during the search.
Employees at one of the businesses, Shoe City, say that the costs to repair their windows range between $3,000 to $4,000; several outlets have already given them quotes. Customers have even reached out to them, offering to help raise funds to pay for the damages; however, the employees are certain the insurance will cover it.
They could not recall ever being vandalized to that extent. The only other incident they could compare it to was when the store first opened in September 2015, and somebody tried to break in through the building’s roof. Minimal fracas has affected the store since then, with the exception of a shoe-snatching here or there.
“I feel like they’re all bark, no bite,” commented another employee on the criminal element that hasn’t really seceded since the City of Hemet declared its “War on Crime” campaign in early April. “I don’t think Hemet is getting worse, I just think there’s a lot of homeless.”
Gatekeepers offer security services
According to one of the employees, a private security company out of Beaumont has approached the store before, offering their services, but they declined. One employee said it was because Shoe City is considering adopting their own security sector.
While Karla’s Kritters Pet Store on 1515 E. Florida Avenue managed to avoid the wreckage of this particular spree, they are no strangers to vandalism. Or security patrol services.
“This city’s horrible for a small business,” said owner Jim Romley. Romley plans to sell Kritters and move out of state when he retires from his “regular” job as security administrator for Social Services of Riverside County. “I can’t wait!”
He’s had plenty of run-ins with the less-than-desirables that frequent the streets of Hemet, burglarize his shop, and even leave their used needles behind his shop.
“I’ve called [the police] a few times, and they might come out and tell them that they can’t be there because they are loitering,” explained Romley. “So they’ll walk away, but the police drive off, and they come right back.”
The Hemet Gatekeepers, a private “neighborhood watch” patrol service, have reportedly been making their rounds, offering their services to local locations where crime runs high.
Homeless ‘don’t want our help’
“We don’t have a homeless problem,” said founder Steve Norman, pastor of Hemet Christian Assembly in a video he posted online. “We have a crime problem.”
According to the Gatekeepers’ website, they are “an affordable option to provide private security focused only on the City of Hemet. We understand and are sympathetic that business owners face economic challenges every day.” A strong tactic of theirs is targeting the homeless population in town.
“No more reaching out to homeless, no more reaching out to the park – these people don’t want our help,” Norman’s colleague Jim Lineberger, founder of Hemet Community Pantry said in another video.
While it’s no doubt Weston Park is a breeding ground for crime, the two allege that “95 percent of them are criminals.” It may be worth noting that Shoe City, the subject of the same particular video, was vandalized by Francois, a resident of Menifee, and not of Weston Park.
Strong marketing approach puts off potential clients
The Gatekeepers approached Romley recently to negotiate a deal to patrol his property (along with the Thai food restaurant adjacent to him) but he declined their offer.
“They seem like nice enough guys, but I’m not paying $300 a month,” explained Romley. “It felt like extortion to me.”
The Hemet Gatekeepers identify as a nonprofit organization; a group of volunteers that incorporate graffiti removal, trash clean-up, weed abatement, and shopping cart removal into their program.
Over the weekend, they recently spearheaded a large cleanup effort for and around the vacant Mimi’s Cafe property at 1778 W. Florida Ave. Dozens of trash bags, mattresses and used needles were reportedly hauled away.
Their patrol service however, is profiting from their assistances.
It’s bullying!” said another local business owner. “Now they’re picking and choosing who they’re going to protect.” He made comparisons to Rebuild Hemet, and Hemet Cash Mob, groups that have used similar aggressive approaches for endorsements in the past as well. “It’s like the old-school mafia.”
After several unsuccessful attempts to reach them, one call made to the Hemet Gatekeepers office was answered by their operations manager, “Robert,” who would not disclose any information about the company, and informed The Valley Chronicle that founder Steve Norman would be out of state until Thursday morning. When we asked to speak to Jim Lineberger, Robert informed us that “Jim is not actually an owner of the company.” When we asked him what role Lineberger has in Gatekeepers, he responded “I am not able to say.”
However, just moments after the phone conversation with Robert, Steve Norman was spotted in town by a witness who wanted to remain anonymous. Robert apparently lied – but why? What do the Hemet Gatekeepers have to hide?
Many questions have surrounded the Gatekeepers since they seemingly sprung up out of out of the ground sometime around April. Clearly, their mission is to “Take back our city” as many of their online videos and poster slogans suggest.
Gatekeepers provide armed services
Their website, www.hemetgatekeepters.com lists their services as “roving armed vehicle patrol,” “armed alarm response,” “parking enforcement,” “dedicated vehicle patrol,” and “standing guards.” Somehow, they “have the ability to cite and remove vehicles from your property should they be in violation of private or California Law.”
Do they have affiliation with the police department or the City, or are they deputized themselves? Who is funding them? How many clients do they have? Are their security guards actually armed? Who is patrolling? What is their pricing structure? Is there a difference between Gatekeepers and Apollo Protective Services?
As of now, their cryptic modus operandi is unsettling, to say the least. Surely, all of these questions shall be answered during the Gatekeepers’ public forum Saturday, June 24, from 10 a.m. to noon. at Hemet Christian Assembly. Who knows, maybe they are the good guys after all. Attend if you can, and be prepared to ask the tough questions.