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Vanishing point

Trail heads provide the perfect setting for 'car clouts.'

September 23, 2003|Jim Benning | Special to The Times

It sounds more like a scene from the urban jungle than from a wooded national park: Clothed in camouflage, armed officers stake out four parking lots to catch a thief responsible for a series of burglaries.

Yet that was what happened over the summer in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. Park rangers created a unit specifically to nab the people responsible for a months-long series of car break-ins -- 45 in all -- inside the park.

Sure enough, after watching a man pull out items from two cars, rangers arrested him and a female companion. Break-ins declined after the arrest, but rangers suspect a different group is targeting cars in the park.

"It's like a wave," said Rick Brown, a Great Smoky Mountains ranger. "We catch one and another wave fills in right behind them."

Car break-ins are a nagging, ongoing problem in parks throughout the nation, including Southern California, because hikers, mountain bikers and other visitors often leave their cars in secluded areas vulnerable to thieves. Across the country, car break-ins are among the top crimes committed in the national park system.

"It's like smog," said Roger Richcreek of the U.S. Forest Service. "It's always here."

National park rangers refer to break-ins as "car clouts." The expression may be rooted in the definition of "clout," which the dictionary says is "a blow, especially with the fist."

Most park agencies don't break down thefts by category, so car clout statistics are hard to come by. Nationwide, 2,838 thefts were reported last year in national parks. Of those, 745 occurred in Western states. In California state parks, 645 burglaries were reported in 2002, and most of those were car break-ins, said Steve Capps, a state park spokesman.

Burglaries in the state park system increased almost 50% from 2000 to 2002, a rise officials attribute to a boost in park attendance.

Malibu Creek State Park, with 10 reported burglaries last year, was hit more often than any other state park in the Los Angeles area. Second on the list, with six burglaries, was Point Mugu State Park, where miles of narrow trails draw mountain bikers and hikers.

A thief can be a simple opportunist who spots a wallet on a car seat and breaks a window to snatch it. More often, they work in small groups and hit a number of trail heads, waiting for hikers to venture into the woods for what is usually a long while. The thieves smash and grab, or jiggle door handles until they find one unlocked. They take stereos, CDs, cameras. They particularly like wallets with credit cards, checks and a driver's license, so they can make purchases that often are resold at swap meets.

Several years ago, when mountain biking instructor Mark Langton returned to his pickup truck from a ride in Solstice Canyon, he spotted a cable poking out of his camper shell. A thief had popped the window, cut the lock and stolen a valuable toolbox. Langton returned to the scene twice armed with a pipe for self-defense, hoping to catch those responsible. "I was going to do whatever I could to recover my property or at least deter more thefts," said Langton, who never caught his thief.

Not all parks and trailheads experience this problem. Will Rogers State Park had only one burglary reported in 2002 and none the previous year. Judy Bartzatt, chief ranger at Joshua Tree National Park, could recall only one incident from about five years ago.

At Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, the car clouts rangers worry most about are caused by black bears scavenging for food. "The bears open cars just as easily as lunch sacks," said Bill Tweed, chief naturalist. "They do a good deal more damage than a human thief."


Don't get smashed

With a little planning, you can avoid becoming a victim.

* Leave valuables at home, take them on the trail or store them in a secure area of the car before arriving at the trail head.

* Try to avoid parking in remote areas with few people. If anyone is loitering suspiciously, consider contacting authorities.

* Don't leave items in view in the car, however innocuous they may seem. A thief might presume a pair of pants holds a wallet.

* Don't leave hiking itineraries visible, and don't announce to your hiking partner where you're hiding your wallet or purse -- in case someone is listening.

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