Three members of the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office who responded to a major attack on a South Bay electrical substation last year recently revealed their belief that those in charge mishandled critical decisions just hours after the incident.
Around 1:30 a.m. on April 16 last year, an attacker or attackers opened fire on Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s Metcalf substation located off Highway 101 in south San Jose. Bullets from a high-powered rifle exploded through 17 large transformers causing them to ooze oil, overheat and finally shut down. The attack lasted just 19 minutes and caused more than $15 million in damage. It could have caused a significant blackout across the Bay Area.
The event has been called the most significant attack ever on our nation’s power grid. Some have labeled it an act of terrorism. High-ranking government sources have told the Investigative Unit they believe it was a trial run for a larger attack on the grid. Yet, those first on scene that morning say the response to the incident was a debacle.
“This was far more than vandalism,” said one of the first responders. “It was a serious attack and it was compromised from the start.”
Two sheriff’s deputies asked the Investigative Unit to keep their identities hidden for fear of retaliation. They ultimately decided to speak out because, as the other deputy put it, “this is important.”
They are dissatisfied that sheriff’s office administrators did not send enough resources to the scene fast enough after first responders asked for more help when they arrived around 3:30 a.m.
“It was a big deal and the Sheriff’s Office refused to recognize that until about 8:30 or 9 o’clock the next morning,” the second deputy said.
The two deputies question why it took more than five hours before additional support arrived. They accuse the sheriff’s command staff of downplaying the significance of the attack and failing to quickly call out more deputies and extra resources such as the SWAT team, helicopter and K-9 units. They believe those delays contributed to a crime that remains unsolved 16 months later.
“Deputies worked their hearts out,” the first deputy said. “The sergeant on scene was frustrated that the support wasn’t there.”
Those frustrations grew deeper after they discovered that this past March, Undersheriff John Hirokawa sent what they call a misleading letter to Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren outlining the response to the Metcalf incident last year.
“It’s written to make this incident look like the Sheriff’s Office was on top of it and handled it perfectly when nothing could be farther from the truth,” the second deputy said.
The substation is located in Lofgren's district and she asked the sheriff’s office for an account of what happened on the morning of the attack. When asked to weigh in on allegations that the letter lacked critical details, the congresswoman said she did not want to get in the middle of sheriff’s office issues.
In the letter the undersheriff wrote “the administration immediately arranged for additional Sheriff’s Offices resources assigned to this incident.” The letter also includes, “Over 1,600 hours of overtime and over $100,000 in overtime were expended to investigate” the incident.
“It is so disingenuous to say we spend 1,600 hours of overtime and $100,000 well after everything was over,” the second deputy said. “It means you spent money and sent bodies because the media got there...better send troops out there to make it look good for us. To me, that is what this is all about.”
The other deputy characterized the letter as a cover up to hide what he called botched decisions in the hours following the attack.
The two deputies are not the only Sheriff’s Office employees questioning what happened at Metcalf. The Investigative Unit obtained an internal email written to Hirokawa by Sergeant Gabriel Gonzalez—the first supervisor on site that morning—and the third person to express concern about the response.
Gonzales references “insufficient staffing on scene” and writes that “it was pretty demoralizing for my deputies” and “we felt left out to dry that morning.”
Hirokawa originally declined requests to address the concerns raised by some of his first responders, but recently agreed to answer questions outside of the Santa Clara County administration building following a board of supervisors meeting.
“What I did do is I looked over the facts and I believe that call was handled appropriately,” Hirokawa said.
When asked to respond to Gonzales’s claim that requests for additional resources were not granted quickly enough, Hirokawa said he wasn’t going to second guess the sergeant’s interpretation of how the call should have been handled. The undersheriff also defended the accuracy of the letter he sent to Lofgren and said he doesn’t know why three members of his staff would claim that he misled the congresswoman.
Although a sergeant and two deputies questioned the letter, Hirokawa pointed to emails from three supervisors involved in the Metcalf response who found no problems with it. He acknowledged that the sheriff’s office can “always do a better job.”
After recognizing that some of the first responders questioned the response to the Metcalf incident, Hirokawa said he now plans to call for a complete debrief. But the undersheriff also stands by the decisions made in the hours following the attack.
“The fact is we responded and I think we did a great job,” Hirokawa said.
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