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California and the West

New Spirit Rises From the Ashes of a Town's School

Community: After a teen prank leads to a night of fire and destruction, residents stand together to set things right again.

November 16, 1998|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LEE VINING — The boys were on the prowl, doing what locals call "Yogi Bearing." In the shadows of late evening, they skulked into a campground on the edge of this tiny town beside the Sierras. Their target: An ice chest full of beer.

With campers snoozing all around, the two teenagers snagged a couple of coolers loaded with six-packs. Then their youthful act of thievery took a devastating turn. Still buzzed, the pair broke into Lee Vining High School and began igniting fires. Several smoldered out. But one in a stack of computer paper caught, then pirouetted to the ceiling.

By morning, Lee Vining High was reduced to a smoldering hulk. It wasn't hard to find the culprits in a town of about 300. Deputies arrested the two boys--ages 14 and 15--at their homes, still hung over.

Nothing like this had ever happened here, and the sense of loss has drawn townsfolk together. Nearly everyone volunteered time and energy to overcome the destruction of a school that was the indisputable heart of community life. Children and parents salvaged unburned books, computers, desks. The local church was converted to classrooms.

The Sept. 19 blaze also brought to light "Yogi Bearing," heretofore nothing more than a nuisance crime named for the 1960s TV cartoon character who poked through picnic baskets in mythical Jellystone Park. Though the moniker isn't well known outside far-flung spots like Lee Vining, this youthful ritual of heisting beer coolers from unsuspecting campers is hardly unique to the isolated eastern Sierra.

The ransacking of ice chests by teenagers bent on getting booze is among the most persistent problems in the state's public campgrounds. Rangers see it from Eureka to the Mexican border, from the mountains to the sea.

"Theft of ice chests is probably our single biggest crime," said Bob Foster, public safety superintendent for the California state parks. "And the culprits tend to be juveniles going after alcohol. It's easy pickings, basically."

Typically, the thieves strike at night. Most aren't nabbed. A common modus operandi: A cooler is hoisted and taken perhaps 100 yards away, to the bushes, behind some rocks, anywhere out of earshot. "The next morning," Foster said, "we usually find the ice chest with everything except the booze."

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In Lee Vining, the tradition of Yogi Bearing is fostered in part by the cozy confines. The town hasn't a single liquor store, but there are plenty of campgrounds within a half-hour's drive.

"Being that everybody knows everybody, it would be hard for a kid to hang around outside the local market waiting for someone 21 to buy them beer," said Martin Strelneck, a longtime resident of Lee Vining and for years the sheriff of sprawling Mono County. "As a result, Yogi Bearing becomes a fairly common event in summer, unfortunately."

Although state park officials don't keep statistics on such petty crimes, it is most prevalent in crowded beach campgrounds near growing coastal cities.

In San Diego County, rangers at San Elijo and Carlsbad state beach parks have taken pains to curb the cooler thefts. They've hiked patrols in the early evening, distributed written warnings to campers upon entry, even sprinkled words of caution into interpretive nature talks. The result has been a drop in reported thefts, though there are still easily three or four a week during peak months.

Few in Southern California call the crime Yogi Bearing, but "it's exactly like being in bear country," said Ken Burton, supervising state ranger in San Diego. "The camper has to be aware if they leave belongings out, especially in urban parks, there's a chance it won't be there tomorrow."

Teenagers of all types--gang-bangers and the best of students, rich and poor--have been caught in the act. If an arrest is made, perpetrators generally are sentenced to community service, often helping clean up the parks they hit.

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Richard Rojas, chief state ranger in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, sees it as an unfortunate rite of passage. "You get to a certain age, you get challenged to drink, you don't have the money or the ID. So you go raid a campground. And the most extreme result is what we saw in Lee Vining."

Denizens of the wind-blown village on the raw shores of Mono Lake still have a hard time believing that two of their own would pull such a stunt. Huddled at Yosemite National Park's back door, Lee Vining booms in the summer months and is dead in the winter, when snows close Tioga Pass and most tourists don't venture beyond the ski resort at Mammoth Mountain.

"In winter, you could sleep out on that highway," said Ken Eaton, manager of a gas station in town. "Unfortunately, there's not a lot for kids to do around here. There're no movie theaters, no bowling allies."

For teenagers, Yogi Bearing can be the stuff high school legends are made of--or at least fodder for a good story.

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