Investigators believe that graffiti sprayed on rocks along a popular trail in Yosemite National Park over the Memorial Day weekend is linked to a gang active in Los Angeles and Fresno. It's the third tagging incident at the park in the last year.
Rangers discovered the vandalism on rocks along a 3/4-mile section of Mist Trail, which leads to the summit of Half Dome, a week ago.
"It looks like something you'd see in a subway or a city," said Yosemite park ranger Laura Pearson. "It looks really out of place."
Rangers are seeking help from police detectives in the Central Valley and Southern California who might be able to match the tags to ones officers might have seen in their own cities.
"The only hope we really have in figuring out who did this is in figuring out where [else] this gang tagging appears," Pearson said. "By talking to some of these police departments maybe we can figure out what city, even what neighborhood" the taggers frequent.
The graffiti was found near the Nevada Falls area of the park.
Pearson said she identified the words "CHON," "SUR" and "XIII" written in black marker or crayon on the rocks. Some of the larger marks were almost two feet tall and 1 1/2 feet wide.
She said she tried scraping the lettering off with paint thinner, but it didn't work. She is preparing to use special graffiti remover and a wire brush.
Memorial Day weekend usually draws big crowds to Yosemite, so rangers expressed surprise that no one reported seeing the vandalism. About 40,000 people visited the park over the weekend, they said, and about 2,000 used the Mist Trail.
"Even if it was really early in the morning, someone had to have seen something," said Pearson, who thinks possible witnesses may have felt too intimidated to report the incident.
Last year, a 19-year-old Riverside man was arrested after he tagged dozens of trees, rocks, tent cabins and buildings at Yosemite. The man was caught with the help of local police who recognized the tags.
Michael Trevino pleaded guilty to 10 counts of vandalism for defacing park property, said park spokesman Scott Gediman. Trevino was sentenced to 120 days in federal prison as well as two years probation. He was also ordered to reimburse the park for cleanup costs.
"I think it goes without saying that we take this very seriously," Gediman said. "The whole reason for a national park is for its natural scenery, and this kind of stuff is just beyond unacceptable."
Officials said they found it difficult to remove the blue and red spray paint from the trees and rock surfaces Trevino defaced. "A lot of the traditional chemicals used to remove this type of graffiti did not work," Gediman said. "We got it almost all the way off. If an average visitor walked by, you could not tell."
Park vandals are rarely caught because they work in insolated areas with few people around.
"You'd have to be there when it happens or know where [the vandals] went afterward," said Steve Capps, a California State Parks spokesman.
He said his department spent about $100,000 during the last fiscal year on vandalism-related repairs, a substantial portion of which involved graffiti.