It's been half a year since Michael Pohlenz last rode along the Ballona Creek Bike Path, but he remembers the occasion as vividly as if it were a week ago.
On a sunny afternoon in May, he entered the path near Sawtelle Boulevard, carrying only a fanny pack with a spare inner tube and some tools. It was a route he traveled two or three times a week, from Culver City to the beach.
This time, however, he had ridden only about 200 yards when he encountered two youths standing in the middle of the pavement near Culver Slauson Park. They held up their hands and ordered him to stop, and because they were blocking his way, he complied.
"Suddenly, there were four more behind me," he recalled. One of the original pair demanded all of his money. When Pohlenz explained that he hadn't brought any, the youth produced a large tree branch, another revealed a quart beer bottle, and those behind him brandished sticks.
"I'm thinking, this is crazy, this is absurd," Pohlenz said. He began fumbling with his fanny pack, searching for a couple of dollars and some loose change he suddenly remembered stowing in it, but his attackers grew impatient. One struck him from behind, landing a single sharp blow on his head, arm and back.
Pohlenz relinquished the pack, went home and has not ventured back onto the bike path. "I use my trainer (stationary bicycle) or I run," he says. "I feel like I lost my bike path."
Police say Pohlenz's experience was far from unique. "Approximately five months ago, we had a series of robberies on the bike path between the 405 Freeway and Centinela," said David Martinez of the Los Angeles Police Department. Martinez is the senior lead officer responsible for monitoring crime in that neighborhood. Typically, he said, assailants placed debris, such as broken glass, shrubbery or branches, across the path, and when bicyclists would slow down, they would approach them with baseball bats or 2-by-4s and rob them.
In at least one incident, the suspects identified themselves as gang members, but Martinez said he is reluctant to speculate about gang involvement in the other robberies.
Police responded by working a foot beat along the path, confronting possible suspects and intensifying their patrols in the nearby Mar Vista Gardens housing project, an approach they believe has eliminated the problem. "To my knowledge, there hasn't been an incident on the bike path, whether it be a robbery or a theft or an assault or anything, in the last several months," he said in a recent interview.
Others, however, are less convinced that the problem is solved. "It's rough down there," said Connie Sellars, a neighbor who has lived in the area for 20 years and who walks her dogs along the path twice a day. "I have seen rapes, I have seen robberies, I have seen them knock a lot of people from their bicycles. This whole year has been really bad."
Sellars' daughter, Carmen, a Redondo Beach resident who bicycles the path to visit her mother, is among those who have been threatened. "Three fellows were standing together," she recalled. "It was close to the freeway underpass, and they had a switch-blade knife, and just as I was passing, one of them took it out and said, 'How would you like this, lady?' "
When she reported the incident, which took place in June, to the police, she says, "They were courteous and explained that they couldn't help me. They didn't have enough people to patrol the bike path the way they would like to. They as much as said, 'Sorry, stay off the bike path.' "
Martinez acknowledged that the path has been a frequent crime scene. "I hate to say yes, it happens every year, but it seems like it does happen all the time, primarily in the summer," he said, noting that most incidents seem to take place in the late afternoon and early evening. The terrain makes enforcement difficult, he said, because it affords predators so many hiding places.
"Some of them flee into the project area. Some of them flee down Slauson into the apartment buildings," he said, "and it's almost like trying to find a ghost."
Detectives believe they have a lead in this year's robberies, and Martinez says the bike path is safe for cyclists again. The police recently discontinued their foot patrols and are directing their attention toward the overgrown area between Culver Slauson Park and the San Diego Freeway, where assailants have been hiding.
"We've gotten hold of Caltrans, and we're working with the park," he said, "and we're trying to get that place cleaned up so it isn't an area where they can hang out and wait for bicyclists and do their drinking and drugs."