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In announcing the arrest of nearly 160 people at a “massive underground party” in Palmdale over the weekend, Sheriff Alex Villanueva asked L.A. County officials to support his department’s efforts to stop “superspreader” events instead of focusing on restrictions on businesses.

In a news conference Tuesday, Villanueva said a 17-year-old put together a party in the 6300 block of West Avenue M8 for Saturday night. Organizers broke into a vacant house and used a U-Haul truck to bring their equipment, the sheriff said.

Investigators learned about the event and responded to the location, where they ended up arresting 158 people, including 35 minors, according to Villanueva.

Officers recovered six firearms that night and three more the next day, Villanueva said. They also rescued a 17-year-old victim of sex trafficking, according to the Sheriff’s Department.

“This was a flagrant violation of the governor’s health order, but also, please understand, even without the health order, these actions were criminal in nature,” Villanueva said.

The property owner did not give permission for the party and was looking to rent the home to a family, Capt. Ron Shaffer said. The Sheriff’s Department is working on what charges could be filed against the 17-year-old organizer, the captain said.

The department did not provide further details about the arrests.

Sources told the Los Angeles Times that sheriff’s officials knew about the party hours in advance, but chose not to stop it.

According to Villanueva, it’s likely that at least about half a dozen similar parties are happening every week in the county.

Last week, as a second stay-at-home order loomed in Southern California, Villanueva said his deputies would seek voluntary compliance as they have since the pandemic started, but hinted at additional “targeted enforcement on super-spreader events.”

He reiterated the strategy Tuesday, saying deputies would only issue citations “in rare cases and as an extreme, last resort. Otherwise, our focus and plan is to target superspreader underground events for enforcement such as the one we’re talking about today.”

Villanueva said that he’s getting some support from the county Board of Supervisors, which is considering a motion to provide the department additional resources.

“As you see, we don’t have unlimited resources, just like some of my peers in other counties said, we still have barely enough resources to handle the crime that is occurring. But this is something that we’re gonna have to devote some time and energy because it drives so many other things, what’s keeping the hospitals full,” the sheriff said.

Villanueva added that his department recognizes the threat of the coronavirus, but it’s also considerate of the emotional and financial toll of the pandemic, including to business owners and workers.

“They’re put in this difficult position where they’re deciding between complying with the orders or putting food on the table for their families, and we shouldn’t really be, in government, we should not be in a position of putting people in this precarious position,” he said. “As such, I asked our state and local politicians to strongly consider allowing our restaurant industry to reopen, and instead strongly support law enforcement in focusing on the targeted enforcement with superspreader events such as this one.”

Sheriffs in Ventura and San Bernardino counties announced a similar approach of education over enforcement of the order, which required the closure of outdoor dining amid an alarming rise in COVID-19 cases threatening to exceed the capacity of the state’s hospitals.

In Orange County, the sheriff called following the health orders “a matter of personal responsibility and not a matter of law enforcement.” The Riverside County sheriff vowed not enforce the stay-at-home order, calling the restrictions “flat out ridiculous.”