Sunday, September 18, 2005


Town tired of being dumped on
By: DAVE DOWNEY - Staff Writer

A town near Desert Center that sprung up to support a large mining operation years ago now sits boarded up, fenced and abandoned. Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone once proposed housing paroled sex offenders in the homes that are located very close to the local elementary school.
Staff Photographer-The Californian

DESERT CENTER ---- Out on Interstate 10 about 150 miles east of Temecula, a mirage-like place marked by a distinct, broken ring of palm trees, a cafe and a tank museum breaks up the monotonous, desolate desert landscape, if only for a moment.A closer look, however, reveals a community of 500 permanent residents that swells to 1,000 in the winter. Its people are mostly veterans and senior citizens, guards who work at two Blythe-area state prisons and their families, and the seasonal "snowbirds" who flock there in November, seeking refuge from winter cold.

Ten miles to the north of Desert Center is the area's kindergarten through eighth-grade school, where the baseball diamond is landscaped with gravel. School officials say the field likely will remain that way because Eagle Mountain Elementary does not have enough students to field a team, let alone enough money to irrigate a thick thatch of grassy outfield.Looking west and north from Eagle Mountain School it is impossible to miss the gray terraces carved into the chocolate-colored mountains that are the massive iron ore mine, which gave rise to a town in its heyday. One can't miss, either, the steepled former church next to the school and hundreds of abandoned boxlike houses with boarded-up windows and faded and chipped yellow, white or light-brown paint." It was a full-on city," longtime Desert Center resident Rick Overman said, noting it had a bowling alley, a grocery store and a bank.

It is here that Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone recently proposed putting some of the county's jailed criminals and paroled rapists. The former Temecula councilman proposed buying the defunct Eagle Mountain state prison nearby and converting it into a county jail. Stone also suggested turning boarded-up homes into halfway houses for sex offenders. Perhaps, Overman said, it seemed like a good idea on the surface: Put the most dangerous criminals and most unwanted sex offenders deep in the heart of the desert, 50 miles from Indio and 50 miles from Blythe. The problem, he said, is that Indio and Blythe aren't the nearest towns; Desert Center is.Worse, he said, the K-8 school, where 25 students are enrolled for class this fall, is a football field's distance away from the would-be halfway houses."It's not in the middle of nowhere, and it's not away from people," Overman's wife, Karen, said of the suggested jail and halfway-house campus. A closer lookFor the Overmans, the campus proposal hit too close to home.It was bad enough, Rick Overman said, that his daughter, now 21, was molested between the ages of 6 and 9 by a man who once lived in the area. The notion of putting sex offenders next to the school went over the top, he said. After all, that's where his 5-month-old granddaughter, Deja Niccole, will one day learn how to read."I kind of take it personally," said Overman, whose thick silver hair and black "Vietnam Veteran" baseball cap match the colors of his favorite football team, the Oakland Raiders. Stone said last month that he never intended to harm anyone in the desert community and has abandoned the idea of setting up halfway houses at Eagle Mountain.

The idea surfaced during the early-summer uproar over the placement of paroled rapist David Dokich in the rural western Riverside County community of Mead Valley. "It was just an idea," Stone said. "It came up during the Dokich issue when we were asking, 'Hey, where do we put these guys?' I was just basically thinking out of the box, thinking out loud." Stone said the site next to Eagle Mountain school "may not be an appropriate place for that." However, it's also not appropriate for registered sex offenders to live as close as one-fourth of a mile from urban schools with 2,000 or more students, as they are allowed under state law, he said. Stone said the Eagle Mountain halfway-house concept was an outgrowth of efforts to see if paroled rapists could be moved farther away from schools all over the county. Those discussions led to state legislation and a proposed initiative to extend the minimum distance to almost a half-mile. Stone, too, said he is abandoning the proposal to buy the 13-acre, 75,000-square-foot defunct Eagle Mountain prison from Kaiser Ventures for $10.8 million, although he continues to believe it is a practical option for a county jail, at a time when a crowded correctional system is spitting inmates onto the street before their time is up."I've always said it would be better to deliver a jail in months rather than years," Stone said. "You wouldn't have to buy a utensil for this place. It is turnkey ready to go." However, Stone said there is no use pushing an option Riverside County Sheriff Bob Doyle opposes. Doyle has said the desert prison's dormitory-style cells are unsuitable for the county's predominantly violent inmate population.

On Friday, Doyle proposed building a new jail in western Riverside County instead to stem the tide of early inmate releases. "It's dead," Stone said of the Eagle Mountain jail idea. " The supervisors all agreed, me included, unanimously (in a closed session) after the sheriff would not consider it an option that we would not pursue it." It's not just the danger sex offenders pose that is giving rise to opposition in Desert Center, a neighborhood of simple, one-story, Bermuda-grass-landscaped houses wrapped around 27-acre Lake Tamarisk and a nine-hole golf course. Local boosters are rising up to stop the jail and halfway-house campus in its tracks because they say it would derail any chance Desert Center has of getting on the economic development map." This type of development does not enhance land values; it takes away from values," said Larry Charpied, 52, an organic jojoba farmer who jokingly refers to himself as a "jojoba witness." Prisons and perverts "Prisons, perverts, garbage dumps and sewage disposal areas ---- all these things that have been proposed for years around here aren't going to do us any good," Charpied said. "They are dead ends." The Eagle Mountain mine is coveted as a potential dumping ground for Southern California's mountains of garbage. Riverside County officials approved a plan to ship trash to the site by rail in the early 1990s, but the project has been tied up in court. Larry and Donna Charpied and regional environmental groups filed suit to halt the plans to dump trash in the mine's 1.5-mile-long and half-mile-wide open pit. The mining town next to it was founded in 1948 by iron magnate Henry J. Kaiser and shuttered in 1983 with the closing of the mine. While the Eagle Mountain company town immediately transformed into ghost town, the Eagle Mountain School kept its doors open to teach math and English to kindergartners and grade-school students living 10 miles away in Desert Center.

The Charpieds and Overmans wish Los Angeles and the rest of urban Southern California would leave them alone and let them pursue their own dream. That dream is not to become the dumping ground for Southern California's unwanted trash and people, Donna Charpied said, but a place where students come to learn about the desert and tourists come to experience the desert wilderness.

"Some people look at the (boarded-up) houses and see a ghost town," Donna Charpied said. "We see wilderness huts."Where some see rocks and cactus, Rick Overman sees a landscape rich in wildlife ranging from mule deer to bobcats to red-tailed hawks and in the history of gold mines and Gen. George S. Patton's desert-training exercises. During World War II, Patton brought soldiers to the area to train for battle in the brutally hot conditions of the barren Sahara Desert, where the Germans were threatening to take control of the Suez Canal. A museum in nearby Chiriaco Summit commemorates that historic desert training center. "It's actually pretty out here," Overman said. "A lot of people don't see it that way. But it is. This place is just crawling with nature." It's particularly beautiful at night, he said."There's no lights to hide the stars," Overman said. "You can see the Milky Way like you can just reach up into it. And you can hear the coyotes. It's relaxing. I'd like to see this go for something other than a resort for perverts."

Contact staff writer Dave Downey at (951) 676-4315, Ext. 2616, or



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