Law Enforcement: This Is the Park Service: Come Out with Your Hands Up

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Dispatches, May 1997

Law Enforcement: This Is the Park Service: Come Out with Your Hands Up

On a hotly contested piece of southern California, the feds move in
By Michael Parrish

On a drizzly, cold January morning at a rustic ranch on southern California's Santa Cruz Island, 15-year-old Crystal Grabeel got up at 5 a.m., had breakfast, and fixed her lunch for the day's bow hunt. But she felt a bit worn-out after days of scrambling around the slippery hills with her dad and so decided to stay in for a few extra hours of rest. Which explains how, but certainly not why, she awoke to find three men standing in her room decked out in full assault gear — semiautomatic pistols, body armor, black ski masks, goggles, and combat boots — ordering her out of bed. The girl was made to lie face down on the muddy floor to be handcuffed, and though the officers later contended that she was restrained for no more than 30 minutes, Grabeel claims she was in shackles for nearly two hours. "And they never even identified themselves," she says.

Grabeel, it seems, was an unlucky bystander at a rather unusual event, in which a Blackhawk helicopter swooped in with 20 police officers from the Park Service and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department to deliver search warrants and make arrests, the culmination of a two-year investigation of alleged grave-robbing of Chumash Indian burial grounds. In the aftermath, it's still not entirely clear why the typically low-key Park Service authorized a commando-style operation — likened by one angry observer to the FBI's infamous Ruby Ridge siege — to make a handful of minor arrests. But at least one thing is certain: The raid is a dramatic example of the bad blood that has long run between the National Park Service and Francis Gherini, the 82-year-old patriarch of a family that for more than a century owned the land on which the arrests were made.

Indeed, though proving a direct connection seems rather unlikely, many residents along the southern California coast think it's far from coincidental that such tactics were used on Gherini's land, the last individually owned private property within Channel Islands National Park. The Park Service has been negotiating to buy the land from the Gherini family for about five years, intending to make it the hub of the five-island preserve, located 70 miles northwest of Los Angeles, by turning its historic adobe buildings into a new park visitor center. Gherini, a retired attorney from nearby Ventura, has been the only thing standing in the way. He claims that he's always been willing to sell but has never been presented with a fair settlement.

Frustrated by its inability to come to terms with Gherini, the government decided to give him an offer he literally couldn't refuse. On November 12, Congress passed a bill that forced him to sell his land to the government, a so-called legislative taking that went into effect on February 10. (Gherini's request for an injunction to block transfer of the property was denied by a federal judge three days earlier.) At press time, though the feds had already started to incorporate Gherini Ranch into the park, its former owner still had not been paid. And he claims that the previous month's arrests were little more than a negotiating ploy — an attempt to rally public support for the land grab by painting the folks who manage the property as criminals. "The raid was contrived to justify the taking," Gherini says. "But it backfired. The public just got furious over the way the thing was handled."

Park Service officials involved in the case deny any link whatsoever between the land dispute and the raid. They say that the agency began investigating the desecration of ancient graves two years ago, sending in undercover Park Service investigators to pose as well-heeled hunters on a number of outings led by Island Adventures, a concession operating on Gherini Ranch, which runs sea kayaking, whale-watching, fishing, and diving excursions in addition to hunting trips. In the end, three Island Adventures employees were charged with crimes. Two were arraigned for misdemeanors — providing food and guide services without a license. Brian Krantz, 33, was also accused of possessing remains from a grave, the lone felony charge. The Park Service contends that Krantz dug up a Chumash burial site with his bare hands while the undercover agents recorded his speculations about how many bodies might lie below. Says Channel Islands National Park superintendent Tim Setnicka, "It's important that those who would destroy the fabric of our nation's acutely aware that the National Park Service is determined to protect these resources."

But though the Park Service hauled a helicopter-load of evidence off the island, it does not yet seem that its efforts have thwarted a major despoiling of American Indian graves. Jaret Owens, the owner of Island Adventures, thinks the Park Service was really after him, intent on making it harder for him to obtain an extension of his concession franchise. Indeed, investigators searched Owens's home for illegal artifacts after the raid, but no charges were filed. "We've always had a lot of respect for the Indian stuff," Owens insists. Lauri Kelty of the Santa Cruz Island Foundation, which maintains the island's historic buildings and conducts educational tours, concurs, saying she doesn't believe any plundering went on. "No one has robbed any graves," she contends, "and no one's selling artifacts."

Still, some local officials steadfastly defend both the motives and the means of the arrests. "We have evidence that Krantz broke the law," says Santa Barbara County Senior Deputy District Attorney Darryl Perlin. "It's easy to criticize the government these days, but this was not Ruby Ridge. Nobody was shot and nobody was injured."

That may be, but it's clear that the fallout will nonetheless continue for quite a while. Though the Park Service says it will try to negotiate with Gherini in good faith, the octogenarian says he sees no reason why he should bother and instead is pursuing his case directly with the Justice Department. Krantz is due to stand trial at month's end, facing three years in prison and $10,000 in fines. Whether or not there's merit to the case, it now appears that there's growing concern over the way the arrests were carried out. "In the future," says Sergeant Bill Byrne of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department, which was brought in on the say-so of the Park Service investigators, "we're going to look at any request that we go back out there a little bit harder." Meanwhile, California Congressman Walter Capps has written a strongly worded letter to Park Service Director Roger Kennedy, asking that the agency conduct an internal investigation of the incident — a request that, given the current party line at NPS headquarters, seems unlikely to be met. "We have no problem with our conduct on January 14," says David Barna, Park Service chief of public affairs. "Yes, we went by helicopter. Yes, we went out there in flak jackets. But how would you have dressed if you were told that you were going out to confront armed hunters? We're not apologizing for our actions."

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