Holiday visitors seeking a quiet day off beside the water at Folsom State Recreation Area on July 5 instead had front-row seats to a pursuit, as park rangers chased an assault suspect on foot through throngs of picnickers.
It was like a scene from a big-city television crime drama. But this was a state park.
Crime is on the rise in California’s state parks, up nearly threefold in the past decade, according to Department of Parks and Recreation data analyzed by The Sacramento Bee.
Last year, 62,575 crimes were reported in the parks — or about 170 a day, compared with 65 a day in 1999 — even as crime in the rest of the state declined. Taking park use into account, crime last year reached record per-capita levels.
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“It makes us feel vulnerable,” said Floyd Oydegaard, owner of Columbia Booksellers, a business inside the Gold Rush-era Columbia State Historic Park near Sonora, which was hit hard last year by thieves and vandals. “It doesn’t belong here.”
Across the 278 state parks, crime is more common near water and in the eight off-road vehicle recreation parks. Both tend to draw large crowds and inherently risky activities.
Up and down the state during the past year, park rangers have contended with:
• “Car surfing” at Folsom Lake near Sacramento, where daredevil teens jump off a bridge from the roof of a moving vehicle into the lake below.
• Grave-robbing at Tolowa Dunes State Park on the far North Coast, which left American Indian remains unearthed.
• Illicit sex in parks — especially south coast beach parks — often solicited on Craigslist.
• The death of a 24-year-old rescue volunteer crushed by his vehicle while responding to an accident at Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area.
A mismatch of numbers plays a role. As crime increased and the department added a dozen new parks, ranger staffing levels remained flat and salaries did not keep pace with other law enforcement jobs. Nearly 30 percent of ranger positions now are vacant — 131 out of 450, 18 more than a year ago.
“There are things going on in the park that we just can’t catch,” said Folsom park Superintendent Ted Jackson.
Trespassing leads to offenses
The most frequent state park crimes may appear benign but hint at a growing disregard for park rules.
Trespassing in closed areas is the most common, increasing about 20 percent last year. Failing to pay entry fees grew about 10 percent. Also in the top 10 were illegal camping and fishing, and vehicle-related violations such as parking illegally or driving in restricted areas.
Serious and violent crimes remain rare in parks, but they, too, are on the upswing. The parks saw 33 assaults in 1999; 87 last year. Resource crimes — attacks on the parks themselves, such as vandalism, graffiti and tree cutting — grew 17 percent, to 10,299 incidents.
An extreme case occurred in April at the remote Tolowa Dunes park in Del Norte County. Grave robbers entered the Yontocket Indian Memorial Cemetery to dig up treasures such as pottery and arrowheads. A $2,000 reward has been offered.
Marijuana cultivation in the parks also is increasing. In 2009, 35 incidents were reported, up from 30 the previous year and only four in 1999.
When one plantation was busted in April in the rugged mountains of Malibu State Park, two armed men were arrested; one injured himself trying to get away.
“I think the entire system is teetering on the brink,” said Richard Bergstresser, a former ranger at Humboldt Redwoods State Park and past president of the State Park Peace Officers Association. “Job No. 1 should be boots on the ground: protection of the parks. I feel we’ve moved away from that mission.”
Department leaders say the statistics partly reflect improved policing techniques: Rangers are reporting problems they didn’t previously notice or track.
On paper, Hearst San Simeon State Park, with 21 miles of coastline — the most in the state system — experienced one of the largest increases in crimes last year. But officials there blamed a procedural change: Now, a record is kept every time a ranger is called out, rather than logging only those calls that end in a crime report or arrest.
No one, however, denies that ranger vacancies and attrition have undercut vigilance.
“That’s huge,” said Karl Poppelreiter, the department’s chief of enforcement. “We’ve had very competent people — some of our shining stars — who have left because they can make significantly more money and have significantly fewer pressures on them.”
Last year’s 7 percent uptick in crime probably is “not enough to notice” for most rangers, Poppelreiter said. But he is concerned that dealing with crime further erodes law enforcement’s ability to educate visitors and correct a problem before it becomes a crime.
Today’s rangers have the same training and enforcement powers as other law enforcement officers, but earn 20 percent to 50 percent less than city police or county sheriff’s deputies. Add growing frustration with the realities of rangering and the gap becomes too wide for some to resist.
Bergstresser, for one, joined the Arcata Police Department in February after eight years as a state park ranger.
A magnet for dangerous behavior
Many parks seem to naturally attract potentially dangerous behavior, whether that means hiking a remote trail without a map or launching a Jet Ski off a boat’s wake.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the state’s eight off-road vehicle recreation parks, which have a per-capita rate of crime and safety incidents seven times above the average for other parks.
Common violations include speeding, failing to heed muffler requirements and riding in closed areas.
Off-road parks also log many injuries.
Resource crimes at Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area nearly doubled in 2009, mostly due to citations for riding in areas closed because of erosion or habitat restoration, ranger David Dennis said.
Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area may have turned the corner on off-road crime. The park has long led the state park system in total crime reports. But last year, crime there dropped 15 percent.
Rangers point to several changes. All vehicles now must include an 8-foot pole topped by an orange flag, making them more visible amid the undulating dunes. Street vehicles previously were exempt.
New safety guidelines also give rangers greater flexibility to cite off-highway vehicle riders behaving badly. And the fine for illegal camping jumped from $64 to $300.
Most of all, Oceano rangers are aggressive about speeding, which they consider the root of many of their problems.
Park visitor Johnny Enos Jr. of Hanford agreed with that assessment: “There are too many people out there going way too fast.”
Crime drives down number of visitors
Visitors to state parks seem to have noticed the growth in crime. A 2007 survey by the state Parks Department found people citing gang activity, alcohol and drug use, and concerns about personal safety as reasons to stay away.
The department also found visitors spending less time in state parks for the first time in at least a decade, bucking a national trend.
At Millerton Lake State Recreation Area near Fresno, rangers have found themselves interacting with more gang members and parolees this year, especially after inmate early releases from Fresno County jail began. The rangers often spot identifying tattoos as they patrol the park, they say.
“Inner-city problems manifest out here,” said supervising ranger Mark De Leon.
Systemwide, drinking-related incidents increased about 5 percent in 2009 from the year before.
Some crimes erode the park experience more subtly. Noise violations, for example, rank among the top 10 park crimes, increasing about 30 percent — to 2,220 reports — in 2009.
“It’s mostly a lack of awareness,” said Nick Franco, superintendent of the district that includes Hearst San Simeon State Park, which recorded a steep spike in noise violations last year.
“Campers are used to having spirited conversations or their radio on loud,” Franco said. “They’re on vacation, having fun, but it’s 10 p.m. and they forget there are other people around them who want to go to bed.”
Serious crimes, such as burglary, are relatively rare in state parks. But they take a high psychological toll.
Columbia State Historic Park may be off the beaten path in rural Tuolumne County, but it was a magnet for theft and vandalism last year. The small Gold Rush park suffered seven thefts, three burglaries and 15 instances of vandalism — often graffiti, difficult to remove from historic buildings.
Brawls, break-insand booze
Not surprisingly, the busiest parks tend to log the most problems, especially those near urban areas. Southern California’s beach parks lead the pack.
Last year, Huntington State Beach experienced one of the largest overall crime increases: about 40 percent. Neighboring Bolsa Chica State Beach also saw a large rise. Together, the two parks attract about 5.5 million people a year to their five miles of sandy coastline.
Huntington also surged into first place for resource-related crimes, with 799 last year, rising from eighth place in 2008.
Action on the beaches varies dramatically — from rescues at sea, to fistfights over fire pits, to break-ins and brawls in the vast parking lots.
In May 2009, a beach restroom was burned to the ground by teenagers lighting toilet paper, said Lt. Jeff David, 39, Huntington and Bolsa Chica’s top-ranking peace officer.
Earlier this month, David and another ranger cleared out a homeless camp near a beach parking lot. Among the items: a high-end wet suit that retails for more than $200.
Someone had been burglarizing cars, and the wet suit offered a clue. The encampment’s below-grade location provided a perfect vantage point to surreptitiously observe surfers hiding their car keys — in wheel wells or bumpers — before hitting the waves.
Many of the problems at Huntington and Bolsa Chica involve illegal alcohol consumption, often by underage beachgoers.
As David crept through deep sand at Huntington Beach in his 2009 Chevy Silverado, his attention was drawn to a group of 15 teens. He soon observed two of them drinking beer.
The group eventually gave up its entire supply of booze, out of sight inside a cooler: 20 cans of ice-cold Coors Light, plus several Gatorade bottles spiked with alcohol.
“Please, sir, I’m begging you, if I get a ticket right now it will literally ruin my life,” said one 18-year-old. “I’m trying to be a firefighter.”
David was kind but undeterred. He wrote the teen a ticket, made the group pour their booze into the sand, then kicked them off the beach.
“It’s something different all the time,” David said.
This story was reported by McClatchy Newspapers’ five California papers: Kathe Tanner and David Sneed at The Tribune; Matt Weiser and Marjie Lundstrom at The Sacramento Bee; Rosalio Ahumada at The Modesto Bee; Tara Albert at The Fresno Bee; and Jamie Oppenheim at The Merced Sun-Star. It was written by Weiser and Lundstrom.