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Underground Southern California party ends in 158 arrests

December 9, 2020 GMT
This photo from Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office streaming video shows Sheriff Alex Villaneuva discussing the arrest of nearly 160 people at a party in the high desert city of Palmdale, at a news conference in Los Angeles Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020. Officials said the people were at an illegal "super-spreader" party over the weekend despite surging coronavirus cases. Authorities announced Tuesday that the party in Palmdale resulted in the arrests of 158 people, 35 of whom were juveniles. Deputies found six weapons at the home and were able to rescue a 17-year-old human trafficking victim. KTTV Fox 11 first reported the party and arrests. (Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office via AP)
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This photo from Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office streaming video shows Sheriff Alex Villaneuva discussing the arrest of nearly 160 people at a party in the high desert city of Palmdale, at a news conference in Los Angeles Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020. Officials said the people were at an illegal "super-spreader" party over the weekend despite surging coronavirus cases. Authorities announced Tuesday that the party in Palmdale resulted in the arrests of 158 people, 35 of whom were juveniles. Deputies found six weapons at the home and were able to rescue a 17-year-old human trafficking victim. KTTV Fox 11 first reported the party and arrests. (Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office via AP)
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This photo from Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office streaming video shows Sheriff Alex Villaneuva discussing the arrest of nearly 160 people at a party in the high desert city of Palmdale, at a news conference in Los Angeles Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020. Officials said the people were at an illegal "super-spreader" party over the weekend despite surging coronavirus cases. Authorities announced Tuesday that the party in Palmdale resulted in the arrests of 158 people, 35 of whom were juveniles. Deputies found six weapons at the home and were able to rescue a 17-year-old human trafficking victim. KTTV Fox 11 first reported the party and arrests. (Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office via AP)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — An empty house in the high desert. An Instagram ad touting exotic dancers. A stay-at-home order.

It proved to be a dangerous combination in the city of Palmdale on Saturday night, as sheriff’s deputies swarmed the home and busted the illegal party there, arresting nearly 160 people — between the ages of 16 and 22 and many not wearing masks — who could ultimately be part of a coronavirus “super-spreader event” amid surging cases statewide.

The raid came after Sheriff Alex Villanueva vowed to crack down on “super-spreader events” even as he instructs his deputies to avoid enforcement of the county and state health orders for restaurants and other small businesses.

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The party, however, resulted in the arrests of 158 people, 35 of whom were juveniles. Authorities found six weapons at the home, as well as $424 in cash, and were able to rescue a 17-year-old human trafficking victim.

“Even without the health order, these actions were criminal in nature,” Villanueva said Tuesday during a news conference.

The “massive underground party” occurred at a vacant home in a residential neighborhood without the owners’ knowledge. It had been advertised on Instagram as “Project Wet ND’ Wild” — the home has a pool but it was too cold Saturday night to be used — with tickets ranging from $5 to $15, with extras up to $60.

The five teenage organizers were also arrested and had reportedly also promoted previous parties in Pomona and Ontario, officials said. They broke into the home, police said, prompting burglary charges, and had hired a videographer to record the party.

Every partygoer faces misdemeanor offenses of trespassing and violating the pandemic health order, officials said. One 17-year-old was also arrested on suspicion of possession of a firearm.

KTTV Fox 11 first reported the Palmdale party and arrests, capturing when deputies showed up and announced “this is the LA County Sheriff’s Department, this is an unlawful gathering,” over a loudspeaker.

The TV station’s footage showed a fenced-in home showing dozens of partygoers lined up and sitting on the ground with their hands behind their backs. They were given masks and blankets as deputies checked their temperatures.

“It was what we call a super-spreader for COVID,” Sheriff’s Lt. Paul Zarris told KTTV.

Zarris told the TV station that deputies received intelligence about the party, and the people inside were not wearing masks. Sheriff’s officials said they want to send a message to other potential party promoters and attendees.

“We just want to make sure that this doesn’t happen, especially in our area. We’ll let them know that this is not acceptable,” Zarris said.

Villanueva said his department is tracking other underground parties, which typically happen weekly and could also be super-spreader events. The sheriff has said his deputies would focus on education and voluntary compliance for county and state health orders.

Villanueva said his department would not enforce the orders at struggling businesses “where they’re deciding between complying with the orders and putting food on the table.”