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Hunt for Yosemite Gunman Disrupts Tourists' Plans

July 17, 1993|MARIA L. LA GANGA | TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — The road to Tuolumne Meadows was a scene of disrupted plans and jangled nerves Friday as a backcountry manhunt sought an armed assailant who shot a park ranger Wednesday night.

The search party swelled from 125 to 180 state, federal and local law enforcement agents. A helicopter circled an evacuated 53-square-mile area of the park's high country and a dog team sniffed through the forest, but no signs of the gunman were found.

By the time searching had ended at 6 p.m., authorities said they were satisfied that the suspect was no longer in the area and they planned to open Tuolumne Meadows this morning.

"We don't have any evidence, we don't have any footprints, we don't even know if it's a man or a woman," Park Ranger Phyllis Cremonini said. "We're no closer than we were yesterday. Time certainly is not on our side."

Cremonini said law enforcement agencies have received tips on possible suspects from as far away as Georgia. One possible suspect is James Stephen Robinson, 39, who is believed to have been involved in a homicide Wednesday in Nevada, authorities said.

"We have no idea if he's even involved," Cremonini said. "We're certainly considering him. The same caliber weapon was used in both shootings. . . . Maybe he came into the park to hide."

On Wednesday at 10:15 p.m., Ranger Kim Aufhauser, 37, was patrolling Tioga Road when he saw a hiker. He drove slightly farther down the road, turned around and headed back. As he got out of the car, he was struck by three shots from a .22-caliber gun.

The gunman ran away. Aufhauser, who was shot in the leg, was treated at a hospital in Mammoth Lakes and released Thursday. Doctors said the shaken ranger--whose life was saved by a bulletproof vest--could return to work Tuesday if he wishes, a park spokeswoman said.

The usually bustling Tuolumne Meadows lodge and campground remained evacuated Friday as agents scoured the heavily wooded High Sierra terrain where the assailant is believed to have fled. Lodgings and campgrounds in Yosemite Valley and other areas of the park remained open.

The parking lot at Olmstead Point on Tioga Pass Road was jammed with disgruntled vacationers who had hoped to use the route--also known as California 120--to cross the Sierra Nevada or drive farther into the park.

"The next 20 miles is absolutely gorgeous," said Moe Landry of Pittsburg, Calif. "We were hoping to get through."

Although Landry and his family had to be content to gaze at Tenaya Lake and watch the marmots gambol before heading back to Yosemite Valley, others waited patiently in lawn chairs and cars for rangers who escorted them to Tioga Pass.

If the investigation hits a dead end, rangers plan to scale down the search today and reopen the Tuolumne Meadows lodge, campgrounds and hiking trails that were evacuated early Thursday morning.

But today's possible reopening might not be soon enough for Richard Newton of Orange. Newton was scheduled to begin a 126-mile, 24-day backpack trip Thursday from the meadows to Lake Tahoe--a trip that he had been planning since January and his first vacation in 13 years.

"I've got clothes and food mailed ahead of time going to South Lake Tahoe," Newton said. "I've been training for several weeks getting ready for this big trip. I even gave up smoking and drinking. I'm going to wait for a day and see if they catch this guy."

The Anguiano family from Riverside was a lot less composed about the major manhunt and the huge dent it put in their vacation.

On Friday morning they stood in the crowded and dusty parking lot at Curry Village in Yosemite Valley wedging their belongings back into their truck and grumbling about their bad luck.

Their party of 17 campers had been rousted from Tuolumne Meadows at 6:30 a.m. Thursday and left on their own to find a place to stay in the crowded park for the last two days of their trip.

They landed in a tent cabin for a night, then cut their trip short because of money.

"One night in a tent cabin is almost as expensive as a whole week camping," said a sunburned Mary Anguiano. "And you have to buy all your meals."

But in most of the jammed national park--the third-busiest in the nation--vacations resumed as usual Thursday. If the tourists were largely oblivious to the possibility of violence and the widespread search, park employees were not on Friday. Many knew Aufhauser and were shaken by the unprovoked attack.

"From an employee perspective and throughout the Park Service this sent shock waves," said Lisa T. Dapprich, the park's chief spokeswoman. "In the history of Yosemite nothing like this has happened."

Violence at all national parks--and attacks on rangers--has escalated in recent years as the number of visitors increases while the number of rangers drops because of budget pressures. Yosemite, many say, is the most violent.

"Yosemite is one of the places I would not go to work, especially in the valley," said Bob Martin, a ranger at Shenandoah National Park and a spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police.

"Your criminal element is realizing that national parks are areas of opportunity," he said. "Rangers are so overworked and there are so few of us that we really don't serve as much of a deterrent."

Attacks on officers have risen nationally from 69 in 1990 to 104 in 1992, according to the National Park Service.

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