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Residents of a quiet Escondido suburb have been complaining to the county and elected leaders since 2016 of constant gunshots coming from a nearby property near San Pasqual Valley.
The shots usually start early in the morning – residents say they hear thousands of rounds discharged from high-powered weapons a few times a week, sometimes for hours on end. But after more than six years, the constant firing near their homes and families has become an unsettling reality.
“I can’t even sit in my own back patio,” resident John Carroll said. “It’s unbearable, and it has completely changed the atmosphere of the neighborhood.”
The 22-acre property, just north of Escondido, was purchased in November 2016 by members of the Freedom Fighters Foundation, nonprofit organization created by former U.S. Border Patrol Agent Alex Djokich and his wife.
The nonprofit’s mission is “to advance and protect the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution as originally intended by the Founding Fathers,” its website states.
Two years after the Freedom Fighters Foundation purchased the property, its CEO at the time, Chad Clay Kipper, pleaded guilty to felony gun trafficking charges, and the organization fired him after learning of the charges.
On paper, the property is a soon-to-be plant nursery, and its operators say only friends and family of the property owners shoot there.
But videos and photos on social media, accounts from neighbors and the secretive nature of the organization that manages the land indicate something more organized is going on.
The property itself doesn’t fit the county requirements to be a legal shooting range in San Diego County primarily because of its zoning. Friends and family of the owners, though, are allowed to shoot on the property. Recurring and commercial shooting events with large groups of people are illegal. This also means they can’t charge people to shoot there.
The Freedom Fighters’ attorney Robert Wright told Voice of San Diego that the owners only invite friends and family to shoot at the property and that they don’t charge fees for use.
However, residents say the Freedom Fighters’ website paints a picture of organized commercial events, ones where members of the public are invited in large groups to participate in a shooting range experience. The website’s homepage also offers visitors a chance to win a five-day “tactical training adventure” on the property.
Social media posts from a few years ago, photos on the website, as well as a clip of the Freedom Fighters’ promotional video in this NBC 7 report from 2018, show people firing AR-15 rifles, shotguns and pistols at dozens of targets on the Freedom Fighters property near Escondido.
Residents say they’ve regularly seen dozens of vehicles meet up at a spot near the neighborhood. Once a group gathers, the cars proceed through the dirt roads to the secluded property. A little while later, the shooting starts.
“Just because you are a nonprofit and claim to not charge people, why does that give you the right to run a high-powered tactical shooting range right next to a neighborhood?” resident Ron James said.
Wright also told NBC 7 in 2018 that people who work for federal and state law enforcement agencies have used the target shooting area if invited to do so.
Residents have asked for a full investigation from county officials, but that has so far been restricted to a review from the county’s planning department, which handles code compliance and land use conformance.
The Freedom Fighters have received warnings from county planners every year since 2018 to correct the unpermitted structures, illegal clearing and hazardous materials that are still on the property.
In one of the first warning letters from April 2018, the county told the Freedom Fighters to restore the property to its “previous condition prior to the grading/clearing,” meaning reversing all the 3.2 acres of land they cleared that allowed them to set up targets and equipment for a shooting range.
A year later, the Freedom Fighters started obtaining an Agricultural Clearing Permit, to turn the property into a native plant nursery.
Three years later, there’s still no plant nursery and the Freedom Fighters have not reversed the clearing or corrected any of the other code violations that county staff have warned them about since 2018.
All the warning letters threaten “enhanced enforcement” and potential penalties if the Freedom Fighters don’t comply, but it’s been four years since those warnings started, and there hasn’t been any enforcement or penalty.
In the meantime, residents are concerned the shooting could spark a fire. The area is already a wildfire risk because of its especially hot and dry climate, and neighbors claim to have heard shooting even on high fire hazard days and Red Flag Warnings.
In 2017, the San Diego Sheriff’s Department responded to complaints that people on the property were shooting during the Lilac fire, which was burning several miles from the range, NBC 7 reported.
Border Patrol Supervisor Larry Bordon was at the range that day, and told sheriff’s deputies that because they are federal agents, the Red Flag warning was not applicable to them. Djokich was also at the range and identified himself as a Border Patrol agent.
The group ultimately told deputies they would stop shooting for the day.
The U.S. Border Patrol confirmed in a 2018 letter that it does not operate a shooting range or conduct any official training at the property.
Stray bullets from the range, meanwhile, have struck the Serbian Orthodox monastery that neighbors the property. The exterior of its building is now home to several bullet holes.
Donna Durckel, a county spokesperson, said the county conducted a noise study on the property over four days in August 2021.
“We confirmed that firearms were used during this time,” Durckel said. “On August 4, 2021, analysis of the study was completed, and no violation of the Noise Ordinance was found.”
Carroll, who accompanied the county representative during the study, said he asked for multiple studies over different weekends, as that specific weekend in August didn’t happen to have a lot of shooting.
Members of the County Board of Supervisors, including Jim Desmond’s office, which represents this district, referred Voice of San Diego to the County’s Planning and Development Services department.
A Desmond staffer said over email that the office is “working with county staff to ensure that all laws and regulations are being complied with.”
The communications manager for Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer, who represented the district when the complaints started, said in an email that Lawson-Remer is “aware of the complaints and is supportive of actions to protect the neighbors.”
A communications representative for Escondido said it has no jurisdiction over the issue because though the surrounding neighborhood is in Escondido, the property itself is in the unincorporated county.
The county Sheriff’s Department confirmed that the property has not and is not being investigated in relation to these allegations.
Members of the Freedom Fighters Foundation denied requests for comment and referred me to their attorney.
In a letter from the Freedom Fighters to county staff in August, the organization emphasized its right to conduct shooting there according to county law. It maintained that if shooting is allowed, then so should the materials needed to shoot (i.e, targets and other structures).
They also said the complaints of neighbors are “meritless.”