Ten years ago, street gangs and homeless people claimed the Santa Ana River Bikeway as their own.
Graffiti marred the concrete walls along the urban pathway. Makeshift homeless camps cropped up beneath bridges and in dense pockets of underbrush. Thieves, hidden in darkness, terrorized unsuspecting joggers and bicyclists; killers dumped bodies along the paved trail.
It was a place that avid bicyclist Charley Simons avoided--until now.
Today, trail users are hard pressed to find evidence of crime along the river. The reports of violent attacks and robberies that had so unsettled the bicycling community a few years ago are faint memories. Simons now rides the 28-mile bikeway from Yorba Linda to Huntington Beach without much fear.
"I've seen a tremendous amount of growth there," he said. "It's a big change."
Trail Safer Than Early 1990s
Police attribute the plunge in crime to stepped-up police patrols, gang sweeps and the dismantling of homeless camps. In the last few months, most police stations reported only a handful of minor incidents along the trail.
"It's not foolproof safe, but it's safer than it's been in the last few years," said Capt. Art Romo of the Orange Police Department.
The relative safety of the trail today is a far cry from the early 1990s, when a rash of gang-related slayings and robberies plagued parts of the river, particularly in Santa Ana.
In 1991, a shootout among rival gangs there left one youth dead and two injured as innocent bystanders scrambled for cover as the bullets flew. Later that year, police found the body of a man who had fallen or been pushed onto the asphalt path. In 1993, a jogger stumbled upon another man's corpse on the trail, and that same day, two miles away on the trail, a man lay stabbed and bleeding for hours before a passerby discovered him. That summer, police found the body of another slaying victim on the trail.
Those days, however, are distant memories, said Sgt. Raul Luna of the Santa Ana Police Department.
Massive sweeps in 1994 and earlier this year rounded up nearly 200 suspected gang members, which drastically reduced violent crime in Santa Ana, he said. Five years ago, the city reported 46 gang-related killings. Last year, there were seven.
This drop in gang crime has cut down substantially on incidents along the river, Luna said, although exact numbers are not available.
"The guys committing crimes in the riverbed were gang members," he said. "Part of the gang reduction has taken a bite out of crime in the riverbed."
Police also have increased their presence along the river from Orange to Huntington Beach. Patrol cars cruise along the trail on the lookout for suspicious activity. Helicopters occasionally circle overhead. Every now and then, city and county officials trim the dense trees and plants that harbor transients.
"By cleaning that stuff out, we've made it more open and more safe," Romo said.
Cyclists and trail users have noticed the difference.
Simons said he's often seen police cars parked alongside the river, and he sometimes hears the whir of helicopters overhead. Late last year, the county also installed three trail-side emergency call boxes for cyclists and joggers. This added safety precaution, coupled with a bolstered police presence, makes him feel more secure, Simons said.
Among bicyclists, the days of swapping horror stories about the trail are mostly gone. "The worst I ever encountered was a homeless guy with a shopping cart who took a swing at us," cyclist Dan Gorman said. "But he just spooked us."
Still, fear lingers among many trail users, who cannot shake the days of gang-related robberies and slayings from their minds.
Simons, who leads organized bike rides along the trail, was forced to reroute the weekly excursion a few years ago when many riders expressed concerns about safety on parts of the path running through Santa Ana. Now, instead of traveling south through Santa Ana as they had done for nearly 15 years, the group of 20 or so riders heads north from Orange into Yorba Linda.
Some Change Route in Winter Months
The darkness of the trail, particularly in winter, forces many cyclists to hunt for other bike routes for night riding, such as the better-lighted coastal route.
"When the time changes, and it's dark, I avoid the river trail," said Jeff Rich, an Anaheim Hills resident who bikes seven miles to work each day on the river path. "It's very easy to get accosted out there."
Despite the drop in crime, people's fears are understandable, police said. Darkness, isolation from city streets and occasional confrontations with transients can frighten even the most competent rider, they said.
"It's safe but people must still use caution when they're out there," Romo said. "People still need to use common sense."