Last month, I reported on a property north of Escondido, near the San Pasqual Valley, that has garnered complaints from neighbors for more than six years.
The property was purchased in November 2016 by members of the Freedom Fighters Foundation, a nonprofit created by former US Border Patrol agent Alex Djokich and his wife.
On paper, the property is a future plant nursery and its owners say it’s a private shooting range for friends and family, but neighboring residents aren’t convinced.
They say they hear tens of thousands of rounds being fired several days a week. They also say they regularly saw dozens of vehicles meet at a location near the neighborhood and then take the dirt roads to the isolated property. Then the shooting begins.
John Carroll lives close to the property and has been trying for years to get public authorities and law enforcement to investigate.
Carroll’s back patio faces the direction of the property — he doesn’t really sit there anymore because the sounds of gunfire are too disturbing, he told Voice.
The Freedom Fighters’ 22-acre property is about a mile from his neighborhood and only about two miles from thousands of other homes. A Serbian Orthodox monastery right next to the property has several bullet holes.
Many families in the neighborhood have young children, who are often afraid of loud gunfire. Another resident of the neighborhood, Ron James, also told me that he knew some veterans in the neighborhood who were experiencing feelings of anxiety or PTSD from nearby shootings.
What we learned
NBC 7 began investigating the property in 2018. Since this story appeared, the Freedom Fighters have removed much of the promotional material for the five-day tactical training adventure they are offering to contest winners, including a video of the experiment which can still be seen in this report.
They also changed all of their social media platforms to private.
During my reporting, I found several Instagram posts from members of the public, gun groups, and videographers who visited the range and shared their experiences filming with the Freedom Fighters Foundation. A few of these posts were used as promotions for the tactical training adventure and said the entry fee was $5.
The property does not meet county requirements to be a legal shooting range in San Diego County, primarily due to its zoning. Friends and family of owners are permitted to shoot on the property, but recurring and commercial shooting with large groups of people is illegal. It also means they can’t charge people to shoot there.
Since my story was published, these posts have been deleted and the users who posted them have changed their accounts to private.
It also proved difficult to speak to any of the members of the Freedom Fighters Foundation. Any attempt to contact them is immediately answered with a reference to their lawyer, Robert Wright, who maintains that they are doing nothing wrong.
Where are things
Residents have been trying for years to get public authorities to investigate the situation.
For a public shooting range to operate legally, it must meet zoning requirements established by the county and have the proper permits, including a Major Use Permit.
Legal shooting ranges also have people trained in proper safety protocols. Most shooting ranges, such as the South Bay Rod & Gun Club in San Diego, always have safety guards on site to reduce the risk of injury.
Outdoor shooting ranges are also usually located miles from any home or business to further reduce security concerns.
“If there is a possibility of an illegal and unregulated firing range so close to thousands of homes and a monastery, why hasn’t it been properly investigated?” said James.
The city of Escondido hasn’t offered much help because the Freedom Fighters’ property is in the unincorporated county.
Supervisor Jim Desmond, who represents the area, said last month that his office was “working with county staff to ensure all laws and regulations were followed.”
The only move came from the county’s Department of Planning and Development Services, which handles things like code compliance. He has been warning Freedom Fighters since 2016 about illegal land clearing and hazardous materials that landowners have yet to fix six years later.
Instead, the freedom fighters are in the process of obtaining an agricultural clearing permit to use the property as a nursery, which neighbors believe is just a ruse to allow the owners to clear the land as they wish.
The county sheriff’s department has confirmed that the property has not been and is not being investigated in connection with these allegations.
In other news
- Tri-City Medical Center will open a new 16-bed mental health facility on the Oceanside Hospital campus. The facility will replace the behavioral health unit that the hospital closed in 2018. The new unit will be built by the county but staffed and operated by Tri-City. (Union-Tribune)
- Del Mar is considering a building electrification ordinance. This would require newly built commercial properties to be equipped with photovoltaic systems, and new residential and commercial construction to use only electric air conditioning, water heating and clothes dryer systems. Encinitas and Solana Beach are among the cities that recently passed similar ordinances. (Del Mar Times)
- In a few weeks, the voters of Escondido will decide on a hike in the sales tax, the length of the terms of elected officials and the salary of the treasurer of the city. Here’s a breakdown of each of the ballot metrics. (Union-Tribune)