Residents say they hear booming sounds for hours, sometimes from dawn to dusk, with the noise echoing through their North County neighborhood.
"It’s dangerous,” Lindsey Larsen said, ”There's a lot of hiking trails back there where this is located and a lot of people hike back there.”
The loud sounds originate from a nearby gun range where thousands of rounds are fired for the most part on Saturdays and Sundays, neighbors told NBC 7 Investigates.
These residents said they can hear the shots but do not know who is doing the firing and why a range is allowed so close to their Rancho Pasqual neighborhood or who owns the gun range.
“It sounds like they are right on top of us,” Rancho Pasqual resident Ron James said.
James shared with NBC 7 Investigates a video he recorded on a day he said he heard the gunshots while a Red Flag Warning was in effect.
NBC7 Investigates found the property is described as a 21.7-acre vacant lot. That is according to the San Diego County Assessor's Office. There is no mention of any gun range on the property.
The mystery surrounding the range’s operation was found in discussions on the NextDoor app, which allows neighbors to stay connected. The ongoing conversations between neighbors caught the attention of NBC 7 Investigates and would lead to multiple agencies becoming involved in reviewing what is happening at the range.
Some of the comments posted on NextDoor read:
- "It was silent for years but started up again in 2015, I think."
- "Is this a firing range?”
- "The fire risk is concerning."
- "Hey, they graded a whole lot of open space for it."
- "They were shooting last week during the Santa Ana winds"
- "Can someone tell me who they are and where they are?"
The concern for most residents NBC 7 Investigates spoke with is the fire danger from the potential of stray shots creating sparks. San Diego County's wildfire history proves they have a reason for concern.
The Rancho Pasqual neighborhood was evacuated during both the 2003 and 2007 wildfires.
"[The 2007 fire] burned up to the back of our fences and in between some of the homes," said John Carroll, a resident who told NBC 7 Investigates his attempts to stop the range from being used on high fire days have been thwarted time and time again.
In addition, Carroll said he has made repeated attempts to get someone in a position of authority interested in the issue with little or no response.
Ron James said he has tried too. It was James who reached out to NBC 7 Investigates for help in trying to resolve what he and Carroll and the other neighbors we spoke with see the range as a serious situation for their community.
James is a print and digital magazine publisher who encourages dialogue on NextDoor to keep the community involved. Carroll has a 33-year-long career as an FBI agent and 17 years as a member of the FBI SWAT team in Los Angeles.
"We've complained that they're shooting on extremely high fire days, during red flag warnings, wind warning and in fact in the most recent incident on [December] 10th, the Lilac fire was still raging just a few miles to the north,” Carroll said.
Carroll adds that the individuals on the range were firing high-powered guns and other weapons.
Attorney Robert Wright contacted NBC7 investigates following our numerous inquiries, saying he represents the property owner. Wright told us his client “maintains a good relationship with its neighbors” and “had not received a single complaint until recently.”
A number of residents, including Carroll, said when they’ve walked over to the range and asked that the firing stop while a Red Flag Warning was in effect, they said they were run off by men in civilian clothes. The residents said the men claimed they were Border Patrol agents and that this is their shooting range.
NBC 7 Investigates was able to establish ownership of the property by using the NBC 7 Drone Ranger video of the area and map coordinates to pinpoint the exact piece of land.
According to the Assessor's Office, the property is listed as a vacant lot, meaning it has no listed address, which explains the difficulty the residents in the community had in locating the person or persons responsible for the range.
Using the location information, NBC 7 Investigates learned the current owners are The Freedom Fighters Foundation, a 501C3 non-profit with a mailbox set-up in Encinitas. The Freedom Fighters Foundation states it operates for public benefit.
NBC 7 Investigates found the non-profit declared $44,000 in contributions on its last required report; the Foundations attorney says the range doesn’t charge fees for use, it’s a private range by invitation only.
Part of the Freedom Fights Foundation’s education program states it teaches “the core principles of constitutionally limited government, conservative family values.”
In searching the non-profit’s name on YouTube we found a one minute video about the Foundation. The video shows intense training at the range, using a variety of high-powered guns.
When NBC 7 Investigates started making inquiries, the YouTube clip was removed from the website.
NBC 7 Investigates asked the San Diego County Department of Planning and Development Services for a list of permitted gun ranges and learned there are seven gun ranges with major-use permits.
To see a map of the permitted gun ranges, click here.
According to San Diego County records, the Freedom Fighters Foundation is not a permitted range.
Attorney Wright pointed out the 501c3 non-profit doesn’t have to have a permit. In an email, Wright wrote, “No San Diego County permit is required.” and that it is in an area where “shooting is legal and allowed” and complies with County safety regulations he says.
To see Wright's full response to NBC 7 Investigates, click here.
NBC 7 Investigates checked with the U.S. Border Patrol to see if this was the agency's range and were told they have two indoor ranges and one is on Camp Pendleton. Contrary to residents' suspicions, the range is not run by the Border Patrol, nor any other state or federal agency as far as NBC7 Investigates can determine.
However, the attorney for the Freedom Fighters Foundation wrote, “Occasionally, people who work for federal and state law enforcement agencies have used the target shooting area, if invited to do so.”
NBC 7 Investigates went to look at the range, observing it from a trail which circles the property, joined by neighbors James and Carrol. The former FBI agent pointed out there are three different types of ranges on the property
One of the ranges appears to be set up for automatic or semi-automatic weapons, another for pistols and one for long range rifles.
NBC 7 Investigates observed two men using the sniper range which sits above the other two ranges.
"It sounded like it's probably a 308 caliber, sniper-type rifle," Carroll told NBC 7 Investigates after hearing some sniper rounds go off.
An errant shot is easily in range of the Rancho Pasqual residences and Carroll said, "We are only about 400 yards from our houses as the crow flies."
Carroll's primary concern, though, is not errant shots by fire. "The shell itself is leaving the barrel at 2800 feet per second, when the bullet hits a rock it's going to splinter and shatter," Carroll said.
"The fire danger," Carroll said, "from that one bullet alone is extreme."
A search of the history of the property the Freedom Fighters Foundation purchased showed it paid $220,000 for the land in November 2016.
On the same property record, NBC 7 Investigates found the name of Alexander Djokich and his wife as one of the parties involved in the purchase of the land.
Djokich's wife's name also appears on records for the foundation charity.
In checking his name, NBC 7 Investigates found a court document from a federal appeals case that names in the lawsuit a border patrol agent who is a witness, Alexander Djokich.
NBC 7 Investigates was able to contact Djokich eventually through a plumbing company he owns. When Border Patrol Agent Djokich answered the phone, NBC 7 Investigates attempted to speak to him on several subjects, including the range permit, the use of an apparently large amount of ammunition at the gun range and the concerns residents have about the potential for fires.
Djokich did not want to talk, only saying he “did not trust the media” and referred us to other FFF members for comment.
NBC 7 Investigates received no response in our numerous attempts for interviews or comments from other individuals listed on property documents for the Foundation. Instead, NBC 7 Investigates received a call late Friday evening from Attorney Wright offering to answer our questions.
Wright did not respond to our questions about how many Border Patrol agents are Freedom Fighters Foundation members and how often Border Patrol personnel train at the range.
When asked about interviewing a Foundation member, Attorney Wright said his sole contact is a client who is a "plainclothes law enforcement officer who for obvious reasons cannot appear on camera.”
Carroll said he believes Djokich is one of the men at the range who uses his position of authority to keep people away from the firing range.
"They threatened to arrest me for trespassing," Carroll said, "I certainly was not trespassing, I was simply trying to get them to stop shooting on a very high fire danger day."
This confrontation occurred during the Lilac fire, burning several miles from the range, the dark clouds clearly visible from the range. Sheriff's Deputies arrived on-scene after receiving a "shots fired' complaint that day.
NBC7 Investigates acquired a copy of the Deputies' report of the incident for that Red Flag day which identifies Djokich and confirms he is a Border Patrol agent.
The documents also include a statement from a Border Patrol Supervisor, Agent Larry Bordon, who intimated to sheriff's deputies that because they are federal agents, the Red Flag warning was not applicable to them. The report said the agent claimed they were on private property, conducting training.
“It’s happened before,” Carroll said, adding this was not the first time the range was in use during a Red Flag warning day.
Quoting from the Red Flag Law, it states it is "unlawful for any person to discharge firearms” when a Red Flag warning is in effect unless the range is permitted. However, there are other exemptions to the law as well
In checking with government agencies about the operation of the range, NBC 7 Investigates was told that given the current circumstances, the range does not need a permit. No one is breaking the law, according to the California Department of Forestry and the San Diego County Sheriffs Department, as attorney Wright has told us.
So why haven't concerns about this firing range never been addressed before? Judging from neighbors’ complaints and NBC7 Investigates' research, there was possible bureaucratic confusion on where to send complaints to. The foundation’s attorney told us they only have received one recent complaint about the range.
Additionally, the area had been used by casual gun enthusiasts for years, it was only when the Freedom Fighters Foundation purchased the property that people in the community noticed a marked increase in gunfire.
The Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agency began interviewing residents immediately following NBC 7 Investigates' inquiries. The agency will not confirm nor deny any investigation is taking place.
However, residents confirm the ATF has been asking questions about the range’s operation. It is important to note an inquiry does not necessarily mean an active investigation is taking place or that any laws have been broken.
County officials are interested as well, telling NBC 7 Investigates, "We are reviewing the information we have and evaluating possible future next steps."
In a prepared statement for NBC 7 Investigates, the United States Border Patrol said, "Based on what you've provided, these incidents are currently under independent review. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has a mechanism in place where any reported allegation of abuse or misconduct is documented and referred to DHS' Office of Inspector General and/or U.S. Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) Office of Professional Responsibility."
UPDATE - 02/07/2018
After NBC 7 Investigates' initial report, residents took to NextDoor to share their reaction to the story. To see those posts, click here.