Police sweep sanctuary

SERENITY SCARE <br>Eco-reverend Robert Seals (left) stands with Jamie Parker and Brad Brown, who live in the house behind them. “We were all just dumbfounded,” said Brown. “It was terrifying in a way.”

Eco-reverend Robert Seals (left) stands with Jamie Parker and Brad Brown, who live in the house behind them. “We were all just dumbfounded,” said Brown. “It was terrifying in a way.”

When David Breed pulled into the driveway at the Serenity Center, on farmland off Dayton Road, around 9:30 p.m. on April 27, he had a lot of company: half a dozen or more police vehicles.

He saw several other police cars parked around the perimeter of the 40-acre site, he said.

When he got out of his car, officers wearing protective vests yelled, “Freeze! Put your hands on the car!” Two of them, he said, had their guns drawn.

While some 10 to 15 officers searched the grounds of the main house, he said, an equal number deployed to the rear of the center, where tenants occupy three small cottages. Les Harrison, a contractor, lives in one of them.

Seeing the cars approaching, he stepped outside. “Hands in the air!” someone shouted. Suddenly he was surrounded by “about 15 cops,” many of who had their guns drawn and at ready.

“Wow! This is just weird. What did I do wrong?” Harrison wondered.

Well, nothing, it turned out. The police, an interagency anti-gang task force made up of officers from throughout Butte County, had been on a sweep that day looking for parole violators who were known gang members. During the sweep, they’d gotten a tip that two wanted parolees, one of them possibly armed, had been seen at the site recently, said Capt. Mike Maloney, of the Chico Police Department.

They were fishing in the wrong pond, however. The Serenity Center is officially a church, said Robert Seals, its founder and “eco-reverend.” The people who live and spend time there are musicians, healers and otherwise law-abiding folk, he said.

The group leased the site 10 months ago. The previous residents were transients and drug offenders, Seals said, so he understands why the police might have targeted it. But he also believes the cops should have had better intelligence about the site before deploying so much firepower. After all, he said, the CN&R recently did a feature story about the church ("Serenity, Now!” Backbeat, Aug. 4, 2005).

Maloney said 18 to 20 officers were involved and their only goal was to find out whether the wanted men were on the site. “The property is pretty large,” he said in a phone interview, “with lots of trees and cover. We expected the parolees to be there. We were aware we didn’t have search warrants, so all we did was make contact with people to determine whether they’d seen the parolees.”

Some did say they had seen the parolees, Maloney added.

Five people interviewed at the center who had been there on the night of the raid all insisted the parolees were unknown to residents.

“It was an unnecessary show of force,” Seals said. “All they had to do was walk up and show the men’s pictures. If we’d seen them, we’d have said so. We don’t want criminals here either.” He’d like an apology, he said.

Maloney said the officers visited 32 locations on their sweep, did 23 searches, found 11 parolees and made two arrests.