Last month, I reported on a property north of Escondido, near San Pasqual Valley, that has garnered complaints from its neighbors for more than six years.
The property was purchased in November 2016 by members of the Freedom Fighters Foundation, a nonprofit organization created by former U.S. Border Patrol Agent Alex Djokich and his wife.
On paper, the property is a soon-to-be plant nursery, and its owners claim that 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 of ammunition firing several days a week. They also say they’ve regularly seen dozens of vehicles meet up at a spot near the neighborhood and then proceed through the dirt roads to the secluded property. Then, the shooting starts.
John Carroll lives near the property and has been trying for years to get public officials and law enforcement to investigate.
Carroll’s back patio faces the direction of the property – he doesn’t really sit out there anymore because the sounds of the gunshots are too disturbing, he told Voice.
The 22-acre Freedom Fighters 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 in it.
Many of the families in the neighborhood have young children, who are often scared of the loud gunshots. Ron James, another resident in the neighborhood, also told me that he knows of certain military veterans in the neighborhood that experience feelings of anxiety or PTSD because of the nearby shooting.
What We Learned
NBC 7 first started investigating the property in 2018. Since that story came out, the Freedom Fighters have removed a lot of the promotional materials for the five-day tactical training adventure they offer to contest winners, including a video of the experience that can still be seen in this report.
They also changed all 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 shooting with the Freedom Fighters Foundation. A few of these posts were used as promotions for the tactical training adventure and said the entrance fee was $5.
The property 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 are allowed to shoot on the property, but recurring and commercial shooting events with large groups of people are illegal. This also means they can’t charge people to shoot there.
Since my story was published, those posts have been deleted, and the users who posted them have changed their accounts to private.
It has also proven difficult to speak to any of the members of the Freedom Fighters Foundation. Any attempt to contact them is immediately answered with a referral to their attorney, Robert Wright, who maintains that they aren’t doing anything wrong.
Where Things Stand
Residents have been trying to get public officials to investigate the situation for years.
For a public shooting range to be legally operating, it must fit the zoning requirements established by the county and have the proper permits, including a major-use permit.
Legal shooting ranges are also staffed with people who are trained in the proper safety protocols. Most ranges, like the South Bay Rod & Gun Club in San Diego, always have range safety officers on site to reduce the potential for injury.
Outdoor shooting ranges are also typically located miles away from any homes or businesses to further reduce any safety concerns.
“If there’s a possibility of an unregulated, illegal shooting range so close to thousands of homes and a monastery, why hasn’t it been properly investigated?” James said.
The city of Escondido didn’t offer 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 is “working with county staff to ensure that all laws and regulations are being complied with.”
The only movement has come from the County’s Planning and Development Services Department, which handles things like code compliance. It has been warning the Freedom Fighters since 2016 about the illegal clearing and the hazardous materials that the owners still haven’t fixed six years later.
Instead, the Freedom Fighters are in the process of obtaining an Agricultural Clearing Permit to use the property as a plant nursery, which neighbors think is just a ruse to allow the owners to clear the land however they want.
The county Sheriff’s Department confirmed that the property has not and is not being investigated in relation to these allegations.
In Other News
- Tri-City Medical Center will open a new 16-bed mental health facility at the hospital campus in Oceanside. 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 have photovoltaic systems, and new residential and commercial construction to use electric-only space conditioning, water heating and clothes dryer systems. Encinitas and Solana Beach are among the cities who have recently passed similar ordinances. (Del Mar Times)
- In just a few weeks, Escondido voters will decide on a sales tax hike, term limits for elected officials and the city treasurer’s salary. Here’s a breakdown of each of the ballot measures. (Union-Tribune)