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California and the West

Aqueduct Patrols Expect--and Find--the Unexpected

Waterway: State workers target trespassing or flow problems. But they also rescue animals and spot car parts, sofas, mattresses and, yes, corpses.

July 13, 1998|ANTONIO OLIVO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gnarled probably from its deadly impact with an Antelope Valley Freeway guardrail overhead, the answer to Gary Devore's mysterious 1997 disappearance may have been lying in plain sight for more than a year.

But what appeared to be the loose hood of Devore's sunken Ford Explorer quickly blended into the hot shimmer of the California Aqueduct's concrete banks days after the accident. Eventually, it was forgotten, like countless other items that find their way into Southern California's chief source of drinking water.

Bonnie J. Brown is bothered that she and other state Water Resources Department workers did not pay more attention to it.

But, to be honest, a loose car hood is among the least of Brown's worries on her job patrolling a 50-mile stretch of the aqueduct near the department's Pearblossom plant near Palmdale.

Along with old sofas, mattresses, beer bottles and used condoms, errant car parts are simply part of the scenery along the usually 15-foot-deep channel's otherwise desolate banks, she said.

Seeing no signs of an accident nearby, "we decided it was just junk" from another freeway accident, Brown said of what now appears to be the hood of Devore's Explorer.

The crumpled hood that was first spotted by state aqueduct workers shortly after Devore was reported missing was converted soon after into a shelter by homeless men living under the freeway bridge that passes over the waterway. This was long before the screenwriter's remains and car were fished out by Sheriff's Department divers last week.

Her desert tan emphasizing the job's long hours outdoors, Brown, 44, combs miles of the aqueduct five days a week searching for signs of trespassing or problems with the waterway's flow.

That job used to be performed primarily by California State Police pilots before the state merged that department in 1995 with the California Highway Patrol.

"I used to go up in the plane with [the pilot] just for the fun of it," Brown said. "You could see everything happening from up there."

Now, Brown and her partner, Bob Runde, spend most of their time documenting holes cut in the aqueduct fences by venturesome neighborhood teenagers, or removing litter clogging one of 60 flow control gates on their watch.

Occasionally, they save stray dogs, deer or horses that have wandered near the channel and slipped into the water. Lined with algae, the aqueduct's banks are as slick as ice.

Bloody paw and hoof scratches on some of the flow control gate walls are testament to that.

Often, Brown said, they must shoo away children, who, despite the numerous warnings posted on the aqueduct gates, take dips in the channel, oblivious to the vicious undertow in what appears to be calm water.

"That's what I hate most, is seeing kids in there," she said, over the crackle of her pickup's tires rolling over a gravel road adjacent to the aqueduct during a recent patrol.

"If they don't stop jumping in there, you wind up finding them too late," Brown said.

Along their 50-mile portion of the 440-mile conduit that moves water from the Sacramento Delta to Lake Silverwood in Hesperia, Brown and Runde have come across waterlogged bodies, guns, pipe bombs and countless stolen cars abandoned in the waterway. The water moves through the aqueduct to reservoirs in Southern California and then to water treatment plants before becoming potable.

Whenever Brown or Runde find corpses or items of significance, the discoveries are reported to their superiors, who then call the county sheriff.

Moving deceptively at a pace of 1 million gallons per minute, the seemingly tranquil 60-foot-wide waterway in the Mojave Desert is a repository for tragedy and sordid deeds.

*

Since 1996, California water department workers have found 41 corpses in the channel. Most of the deaths were drownings, but several have been murder victims, officials said.

Earlier this year, the body of a days-old infant and that of Lancaster murder victim Renee Mullins were discovered near Palmdale.

"Poor Bob was freaked out when he found Renee Mullins," said Brown, who has been patrolling the channel for five years.

As if on cue, Runde's tired voice squawked over the CB radio, asking Brown to cover for him while he took a break.

"Ten-four, you go on ahead," she said. "He had only been here a while and he found her and a newborn baby in about a three-month span," she said. "Luckily, I was on vacation when that happened."

But Brown has seen her share of bodies on the job.

"I've found three so far," she said. "You never get used to it."

Lately, Brown has wondered if she will someday wind up in the drink.

Aside from the usual job hazards such as rattlesnakes and flat tires along the aqueduct's sometimes rocky roads, Brown said, she now has to worry about being shot.

Brown has had two near-misses in recent months while inspecting leaks inside narrow flood culverts burrowed under the aqueduct.

Last summer, "I heard these ping, ping sounds next to me while I'm by my truck and notice that these guys on motorcycles are at the top of a hill firing their guns and hitting the metal rail next to me," she said.

In January, she said, she was inside a concrete culvert pipe while bullets ricocheted around her.

"It's been the only time being inside one of those things has bothered me," she said. "I didn't know I could move so fast."

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