Bad Lands

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, July 1994

Bad Lands

At Joshua Tree, it's Satanism. At Daniel Boone, it's ganja farming. At Lake Mead, it's homicide. Crime is on the rise where you'd least expect it. A report from the seamier side of the American wilderness experience.
By Debra Shore

"I've gotta go," is how Robert Tranter hastily ended a phone call one Friday afternoon a few months back. "I just got word that there may be another dead body out there." Tranter, a ranger at the Bureau of Land Management's California Desert District, did indeed find a corpse, the 13th such discovery by him and his colleagues in 12 months. And as usual, the cause of death--shotgun wounds to the chest--wasn't exactly what you'd call natural.

Most of us view our public lands as happy refuges, places to ditch the bonds of civilization and commune with nature--and why not? The allure of the Great Wilderness Escape, perhaps second only to the American Dream in the national imagination, has been seeded and fertilized by everyone from Henry David Thoreau to L.L. Bean. But in seeking harmony with nature, we often forget that human nature accompanies us everywhere we go, expressing itself in any number of ways: robbery, drunk driving, arson, drug manufacturing, paramilitary training, ammunition stockpiling, sexual assault, and murder--not to mention resource crimes like wildlife poaching and artifact theft. Wallace Stegner got it wrong: Wilderness is not where man is not.

In fact, it's getting a little crowded. More than 273 million people visited the national parks last year, 67 million more than a decade ago. (The system also has added 33 new sites since then.) The number of crimes committed on park property has doubled in the last five years, yet the number of law-enforcement officers--charged with the double duty of guarding resources and babysitting visitors--has decreased by 39. Throw in BLM and Forest Service lands and you've got more than 541 million acres with a combined law-enforcement squad of about 3,600--or about one officer for every 150,000 acres. It doesn't take a genius to do the math. "people who engage in criminal activities have figured out that remoter pubic lands are accessible to them," says Bill Paleck, superintendent of North Cascades National Park, who in his 27-year career has dealt with everything from suicide to drug smuggling.

Less apparent, perhaps, are the implications for the land itself. "These people problems are keeping us from doing the job we need to do in cultural and resource protection," says Rick Gale, a 36-year Park Service veteran who now oversees wildfire operations at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. "We can fix the graffiti on the restroom, but you lose one Anasazi pot and it's gone.

In the report that follows, we've excluded places where criminal spillover is a matter of proximity--the Angeles and San Bernardino National Forests on the outskirts of Los Angeles, or Gateway National Recreation Area outside New York, for example. Instead we've focused on the nationally popular locales most plagued--and endangered--by crime. Granted, the vast majority of visitors to these parks, forests, and BLM lands will never experience anything much worse than car vandalism at the trailhead or drunken behavior in a campground. But employ this as a reminder, a compendium of cautionary campfire tales that have a common moral: When you're packing for your annual getaway this summer, it's best not to leave your wits behind. As one ranger puts it. "Criminals go on vacation, too."

74485 National Monument Drive,
Twentynine Palms, CA 92277

Mug Shot
Joshua Tree, where high desert (the Mojave) meets low desert (the Colorado), where cattle rustlers hid their herds and gold miners punched holes in the ground seeking their fortune, has been wild and woolly for a long time. Today the area is besieged by yet another sort of fringe element. As retired San Bernardino sheriff's sergeant Brian English, who worked the area for 20 years, puts it: "I can tell you there are more weirdos per square inch in Joshua Tree, Twentynine Palms, and Yucca Valley than anywhere else. More child molesters too, because of the remoteness." Rangers here have their hands full with a regular witches' brew of troublemakers, including rowdy marines from the base in Twentynine Palms, practicing Satanists, amateur arsonists, grave robbers, and combinations thereof.

When they're not busy running down sociopathic soldiers or performing any number of mundane duties like dousing illegal campfires, Joshua Tree rangers update the park's three-inch-thick "weird file," a folder filled with photos and descriptions, from the amusing to the eerie, of unsolved mysteries--such as the 12-foot pentagram decorated with bird wings that ranger Nina Burnell found etched in the sand in May 1993. Why Joshua Tree? Gary Garrett, a longtime backcountry volunteer at the park, ventures a guess: "There's an unwritten acceptance that Joshua Tree has energy centers, though I've never felt them myself. Also, it is convenient to southern California."

The Facts
Number of acres: 559,950

Number of visitors in 1993: 1,256,928

Number of law-enforcement officers: 14 permanent, 3 seasonal

Percentage increase in law-enforcement activity over last ten years: 577

Number of Satanic rock rings found by one back-country volunteer since 1990: 50

Reported acts of vandalism in 1993: 54

Average cost of cleaning up one act of vandalism: $151.17

1994 budget: $2,775,381

Law-enforcement budget: $559,400

Hot Spots

  • Hidden Valley picnic area, where in 1992 a young girl and her brother found a booby-trap simulator--a military device with the explosive power of a quarter-stick of dynamite--while playing in the bushes. The device blew up, igniting the girl's clothes. Within the next few weeks four more booby-trap simulators were found in the underbrush, where rangers speculate they were stashed by marines.
  • Lost Horse Ranger District, where last January rangers discovered that someone had dug up and disheveled the grave of Johnny Lang, a prominent prospector who died on a supply run in the area in 1926. Sifting through the pile of bones and dirt left by the vandals, archaeologists found that the only thing missing was Lang's skull.
  • Indian Cove Campground, a perennial trouble spot where, during one notorious week in February 1992, two people were arrested for collecting 66 cacti, four people were arrested and charged with burning six picnic tables, a county hostage-negotiation team was called in to help catch a man tripping on LSD and mushrooms and screaming for rangers to shoot him, a successful five-hour search was concluded for a lost and inebriated college fraternity member, six marines were arrested for being under the influence of alcohol and for attempting to assault a woman with a burning stick, and a second person was arrested for drug use--the 97th such arrest that year in Indian Cove alone.
From the Files
On September 19, 1973, a lethal combination of drugs and alcohol killed musician Gram Parsons, formerly of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, in Twentynine Palms, a mile outside the national monument. While awaiting transport at the Los Angeles airport, the coffin containing his remains was stolen; a day later, at a turnout near Cap Rock, a maintenance worker at Joshua Tree came upon Parsons's flaming corpse, which burned a stain into the ground that remained visible for two full years. Two friends of Parsons later pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor theft and received suspended 30-day sentences. For some time afterward, groupies would visit the spot with spoons to try to scoop up souvenirs; nowadays, the occasional fan still places flowers on the site.

Anxiety Index: 3
Leathernecks and witches and Byrds, oh my!

601 Nevada Highway
Boulder City, NV 89005

Mug Shot
Of the 367 sites in the national park system, Lake Mead National Recreation Area has the dubious distinction of being the one where you're most likely to trip over a corpse. This morbid trend peaked in 1982, when 54 bodies were found within park boundaries; in 1993, Lake Mead still accounted for a quarter of the system's 160 recorded fatalities. Granted, most of the deaths have been the result of accidents (over the last 23 years, at least seven people have drowned here after jumping out of boats to recover their hats), but 53 violent crimes--homicides, rapes, assaults--have been recorded over just the last two years. Drunkenness, hooliganism, and proximity to Las Vegas (a 45-minute drive) add to the atmosphere of mayhem. "I'm an ex-marine and I went into park work because I didn't want to get into rough-and-tumble police work," says 15-year veteran ranger Bob McKeever. "But here I've been in a dozen foot-chases with wanted felons. I had a vision of sitting on a horse atop a mountain pass, watching eagles and moose. It hasn't turned out that way."

The Facts
Number of acres: 1,510,216

Number of visitors in 1993: 9,256,520

Number of law-enforcement officers: 45 permanent, 11 seasonal

Number of arrests in 1993: 609

Number of violent crimes: 13

Number of fatalities: 38 (17 drownings, 5 suicides, 3 boating accidents, 2 motor-vehicle accidents, 9 of natural causes, 2 undetermined)

Number of drownings involving drugs or alcohol: 5

Number of corpses discovered by visitors: 5

1994 budget: $10,805,370

Law-enforcement budget: $3,060,000

Hot Spots

  • The Cliffs, on the edge of Lake Mead's 33 Hole (so named because "10-33" is law-enforcement code for an emergency situation), the site of 30 drownings since 1975, almost half of them alcohol-related. In the seventies and eighties, rangers routinely wore riot helmets here to shield their heads from full beer cans hurled by surly drunks. "We used tear gas and tactical techniques to take the place over," recalls chief ranger Dale Antonich. "We still only go in with at least three rangers--two to walk around and one to guard the car."
  • The New Cliffs, at mile marker 4.2 on Upper Gypsum Wash Road. When Lake Mead rises, some of the Cliffs crowd migrates to this spot, from which they periodically pelt rangers and passersby with rocks.
  • Gasoline Alley, a small bay near Katherine's Landing on Lake Mohave, accessible only by boat. On spring and summer weekends, the entrance to the bay is choked with college students drinking copious amounts of alcohol. "They use gigantic water-balloon slingshots to knock our people out of their boats," says Antonich.
  • Remote mile marker 8.0, on the north shore of Lake Mead, where in March 1993 a visitor from Scotland shot and wounded a couple who were camping in the spot he had chosen to commit suicide. "There's places around there I wouldn't go without a gun," says ranger Tom Velenta, "and I'm a law-enforcement officer."
From the Files
On July 6, 1993, Barry Barnett, 38, of Laughlin, Nevada, met Michael Bertram, 40, of Bullhead City, Arizona, at a weekend-long beach wingding near Katherine's Landing. Though they'd been arguing for most of the party, when it broke up the pair borrowed a boat to go out and tow each other on Barnett's surfboard. Bertram returned the boat alone, noting casually to its owner, "I think I killed the little surfer dude." Two park visitors found Barnett's body floating near the Katherine's Landing water-intake barge on July 14. Charges of negligent homicide and reckless endangerment were filed against Bertram, who had fled to Florida, though for two months, according to park investigator Ernie Soper, "Nobody had money to bring him back for prosecution."

In October U.S. Marshals did finally haul him back--for violation of probation: Bertram had previously been cited for driving under the influence within park boundaries. As of early May, he was in prison in Florida awaiting trial in the Barnett case.

Anxiety Index: 4
It's an open-air frat house--and you're getting hazed.

1700 Bypass Road
Winchester, KY 40391

Mug Shot
Local pranksters thwacked the nail on the head a few years ago when they amended one of the entrance signs to read, DANIEL BOONE NATIONAL POT FOREST: Nearly half of the marijuana plants confiscated on national forest land last year were grown here. Authorities reaped and burned 248,487 plants from 4,591 plots around the forest and ferreted out 38 booby traps, including steel bear traps, punji sticks, dynamite, and fishhooks strung across trails at eye level. The good news: That's way down from the 145 traps found in 1989.

Daniel Boone's status as dope capital of our public lands is no surprise, in historical context. During World War II, under a federal incentive program, farmers in this part of southeastern Kentucky were paid to grow marijuana plants for the hemp fiber used to make rope, and it's still widely acknowledged as a vital part of the local economy. "We were interviewing an elderly gentleman whom we'd just arrested for cultivating marijuana," says the forest's special agent in charge of eradication, "and there in his patch I said to him, 'Now what in the world are you doing here? You're three counties away from your residence!' And he looked at me and said, 'Sonny, all the good places over there were taken.'"

The Facts
Number of acres: 681,923

Number of visitors in 1993: 5,261,700

Number of law-enforcement officers: 16

Number of joints per visitor that could have been rolled with marijuana destroyed in 1993: 42.9

Approximate total hours of intoxication that could have been provided by marijuana destroyed: 451,500,879

Approximate street value of marijuana destroyed: $248,400,000

1994 budget: $13,525,864

Law-enforcement budget: $1,053,800

Hot Spots

  • Leslie, Clay, and Owsley Counties, in the extreme southeastern part of the forest. This is the location of most of the 180,000 acres designated as "constrained," meaning that law enforcement always goes in with backup. Each year a dozen or so visitors to these areas report that they've been told at gunpoint they'd best pitch their tents elsewhere. Growers are less polite with the feds: During the 1992 growing season, they shot at a Kentucky National Guard truck used to refuel drug-surveillance choppers.
From the Files
In Kentucky, the religion that is high school football holds services on Friday night, and for ten years Archie Powers was its high priest--which is to say, he was the head coach at Corbin City High School, a longtime powerhouse that brought home the state title twice under his guidance. When Powers resigned in 1982, he rode his popularity into the office of judge executive of Whitley County. From this new pulpit, he and a partner extended a hoe to a bit of his jurisdiction in southern Daniel Boone National Forest and raised about a thousand marijuana plants. Upon his indictment in 1990, the cry swept across the land: "My God, my boys played football for him!"

Can be lowered by sampling the local plant life.

Box 129
Big Bend, TX 79834

Mug Shot
The extreme poverty of the Mexican hamlets across the Rio Grande, coupled with the fact that only five or six rangers patrol the park at any given time, makes for a lot of conflict in and around Big Bend. Twice in recent years, snipers on the Mexican side have taken potshots at rafters on the Rio Grande; in 1988, a man was killed and his wife and guide wounded by a teenager on the bluffs above Colorado Canyon, 15 miles from the park entrance. A more typical consequence of the border tension, however, is car break-ins. "It's very easy for someone to ride across the river on a horse, hit a vehicle, and go back across," says chief ranger Jim Northup. "You'd be surprised at what they take. A lot of the stuff that's stolen is the kind of stuff needed for basic subsistence--water jugs, gasoline, tires, kerosene lanterns."

But the predominant concern is smuggling. Though its border makes up 13 percent of the international boundary with Mexico, there is no customs port of entry in the park. As a result, an inestimable quantity of drugs, animal pelts, household appliances, auto parts, stereo equipment, and construction materials--not to mention illegal aliens--sneak past rangers and the Border Patrol each year. In 1993, rangers stopped four pickups hauling 500 boxes of frozen chicken parts, a bust that turned into a logistical nightmare. "If they had spoiled, we would have been liable," says assistant chief ranger Roger Moder. "We had to track down a food locker 100 miles away."

The Facts
Number of acres: 801,163

Number of visitors in 1993: 330,741

Number of rangers: 13

Number of car break-ins reported: 36

Number of illegal aliens caught: 31

Number of fox and bobcat pelts stuffed into a spare tire confiscated by rangers on January 31, 1994: 20

Pounds of marijuana confiscated on same bust from a different tire: 23

Street value of drugs seized in or near the park in 1993: $5,034,601

1994 budget: $3,564,400

Law-enforcement budget: $690,000

Hot Spots

  • San Vicente Crossing, the preferred port of entry for less-than-legitimate trade with Mexico. "The Cavalry," a group of 30 or so mounted Mexican men, some with machetes slung from their saddles, hangs out on the park side of the Rio Grande and, for $50 a pop, provides an informal towing and ferrying service for vehicles crossing in either direction, no questions asked.
  • Dominguez Springs Trailhead and the adjacent parking area, two hours from the nearest paved road and a favorite spot for car looters. Rangers often observe hoofprints around the unlucky visitors' cars, which leads them to believe that the thieves come from across the river.
From the Files
In July 1991 the body of 26-year-old Donald Tate was found in the southeastern part of the park in a desolate area along the Rio Grande. Tate's teeth were broken, his finger pads were missing, and his skull was fractured. The corpse of his five-year-old daughter was found in his burned-out van several miles away.

Smuggling-related theories abound, though some rangers think Tate was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Less plausible is the theory that a campstove fire in the van burned Tate, who ran to the river to extinguish himself, expired there, and got washed downstream. "There's some speculation that his finger pads were nibbled by turtles," says ranger Moder, "but then there's the blow to his head..."

Anxiety Index: 2
An I LOVE NAFTA bumper sticker buys added peace of mind.

40001 State Road 9336
Homestead, FL 33034

Mug Shot
The Coast Guard and the U.S. Customs Bureau have been less of a presence in south Florida since a massive drug sweep in the eighties cleaned up the region's murky backwaters. As a result, a dispersed, harder-to-track drug trade is reestablishing itself in the park. "It was pretty easy when the stuff was stacked up ten feet high and 20 feet long," says ranger Mike Mayer. "Now it's in much smaller loads, and it's getting harder and harder to stop it."

It doesn't help that just four rangers patrol several hundred square miles of the most tangled territory, or that a new trouble spot has emerged to divert their attention: East Everglades, a 107,600-acre crazy quilt of private and federal land recently appended to the park. The problem there isn't smuggling but rather general gun-happiness. "I can show you refrigerators and hulks of cars that look like cheesecloth," says ranger Bob Panko, "and mounds of shell casings on the ground." Just last fall, a wealthy Miami businessman was cited for helicoptering a few pals out to the Chekika Access Area to test out an impressive variety of toys, among them a .50-caliber Desert Eagle pistol, two nine-millimeter pistols, a .454 revolver, and a single-shot pen gun. "The people out there shoot at virtually anything," says ranger Ben Morgan. "On the Fourth of July, it reminds me of Vietnam."

The Facts
Number of acres: 1,506,539

Number of visitors in 1993: 1,061,000

Number of law-enforcement officers: 35 permanent, 6 seasonal

Drugs confiscated in 1987: 474 bales of marijuana, 135 balls of hashish

Drugs confiscated in 1993: 211 grams of marijuana

Number of weapons offenses in 1987: 15

Number of weapons offenses in 1993: 191

1994 budget: $10,356,300

Law-enforcement budget: $1,414,200

Hot Spots

  • The Ten Thousand Islands, on the Gulf Coast near Everglades City. Though fewer antics go on here than in the past (between 1983 and 1987, more than a hundred residents of Everglades City were arrested by DEA or customs agents), this network of mangrove islands is still believed to be a popular conduit for illicit substances--especially in smaller quantities. Rangers and non-park officials all declined to discuss intelligence reports that indicate the estimated amount of drug traffic through the region. "By the nature of our geography, we're very susceptible to smuggling by vessel and by air," says Richard Crawford, who heads the DEA office in Fort Myers. "We can never totally stop it."
  • East Everglades, near the end of Southwest 237th Avenue, an overgrown marsh originally slated for development but never drained. "We have seen or seized just about every type of weapon ever made up there--M-16s, AR-15s, AK-47s, even a grenade launcher," says Morgan, who was once fired upon while flying a helicopter over the area.
From the Files
On the afternoon of July 1, 1992, observers at a customs intelligence facility in Richmond Heights spotted a twin-engine Piper Aerostar flying low from the Bahamas toward the eastern United States and dispatched a helicopter and a plane to tail it. The two aircraft followed the Aerostar to a spot above a landing strip west of Homestead, at which point confederates on the ground are believed to have notified the Aerostar's pilot of his pursuers. Before the pilot and passenger were finally apprehended at Homestead General Aviation Airport, they wheeled around and flew back across the park, jettisoning their entire cargo--some 16 bundles of cocaine worth about $2.5 million apiece. Ten were recovered: Eight splashed down in the Everglades backcountry, one landed on a Homestead church, and the last crashed into a house next door to a neighborhood crime-watch meeting, where the Homestead police chief was concluding his speech.

Anxiety Index: 2
Make my day, Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

6221 Box Springs Blvd.
Riverside, CA 92507

Mug Shot
Given that a ranger's beat here can cover as much as a million acres, it's a safe bet that there's a whole lot going on that the authorities will never see. Nevertheless, they see plenty: In 1993, rangers discovered 12 corpses--one without a head or fingers--scattered about the district. In the Barstow Resource Area, where seven of the bodies were found and where the evidence locker is full of assault weapons, a paramilitary group called the Confederate Mexican Army has been conducting boot camp. "Their goal is to take back southern California, basically," says ranger Jerry Bronson. In June 1993, in the Ridgecrest Resource Area, a group of Japanese-Americans, possibly affiliated with the Japanese mafia known as the Yakuza, was observed running armed drills on a mining claim near Red Mountain.

Other nuisances have included Charles Manson, who was apprehended in the Panamint Range in 1969; a methamphetamine lab found in the Orocopia Mountains in 1989; skinheads holding periodic armed rallies in the southern Panamint Valley; and the instant city that routinely springs up on holiday weekends at Imperial Dunes, where dune buggies tear up the turf and their drivers tear up one another. "They've been riding hard," explains ranger Bob Zimmer, "and they're dirty, and they just finally piss each other off to the point where they may stab each other."

The Facts
Number of acres: 12,500,000

Number of visitors in 1993: not available

Number of law-enforcement officers: 60

Average number of weapons on each person encountered by rangers: 4

Number of guns confiscated in 1993: 150

1994 budget: $17,000,000

Law-enforcement budget: $2,660,000

Hot Spots

  • The areas off Boulder, Hodge, and Sidewinder Roads in the Barstow Resource Area. These places have become postapocalyptic shooting galleries identifiable by piles of debris--and dead bodies: Three of the seven corpses found in Barstow last year were found here.
  • Corn Springs, in the Palm Springs South Coast Resource Area. In the first four months of this year, rangers seized four sawed-off shotguns and 15 assault weapons here. Two years ago they dug up a cache of stolen explosives, possibly linked to the ongoing bombings of wild animals in the area by clubs of "varminters." "They love to blow up and kill wildlife," marvels ranger John Blachley. "They will shoot it and then hang it up and continue to shoot it. It's kind of strange."
From the Files
One Sunday afternoon in December 1993, a visitor from New Zealand was hiking the Sheep Spring Oasis Trail in the Palm Springs South Coast Resource Area when he was hailed by someone in a pickup truck claiming to be stalled. When the hiker approached, he was shot twice in the torso, then robbed of his shoes and money and left for dead. He managed to drag himself to Interstate 10, seven miles away, where he flagged down help.

Anxiety Index: 4
A vacation to die for!

Debra Shore coauthored a guide to the crown jewels of the national park system, which appeared in the June 1992 issue.

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