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Lone rangers in a hostile land

Park service workers in the Mojave never know what vestige of the Wild West they'll find, right down to train robbers.

September 25, 2008|Mike Anton | Times Staff Writer

KELSO, CALIF. — High noon and the desert is hot as a wok, yet Tim Duncan is wearing body armor under his uniform. A handgun and a Taser hang from his belt. Next to him in the truck are a shotgun and an M-16 assault rifle with extra magazines.

"Out here, you have to be prepared," he said.

Duncan is a National Park Service ranger at the Mojave National Preserve, a Mordor-like sweep of serrated mountains, feral deserts, Joshua tree forests, dry lakes and lava beds -- a park five times the size of Los Angeles that's patrolled by eight law officers.

Here the wilds of nature meet the wilds of man, an incongruous environment that has hidden meth labs and illegal waste dumps, plant and wildlife poachers, archaeological thieves, the occasional dumped body and train robbers.

Yes, train robbers.

Union Pacific trains laden with goods from the coast rumble into the Mojave National Preserve at the aptly named Devils Playground, 40 miles of hellish sand dunes and salt flats at the base of the Kelso Mountains. Mile-long caravans of double-stacked cars wheeze to a crawl as they labor up the steep Cima Grade through the heart of the preserve. Sometimes they stop on side tracks to let other trains pass.

Thieves typically strike at night -- busting into boxcars and tossing down the booty to waiting accomplices with trucks.

Sometimes, looters find what they want, such as consumer electronics. "Other times the container is loaded with teddy bears or promotional magnets for a restaurant," Duncan said.

Congress created the preserve in 1994. When Duncan arrived three years later, the railroad was losing more than $1 million a month there to robbers.

"It was just like an open-air flea market out here," he said. "Stuff was strewn everywhere."

Stepped-up enforcement by park rangers and railroad police has dampened the wholesale looting. Yet rangers still come across piles of empty flat-screen television boxes and Styrofoam packing material. Four men were caught last month liberating TVs from a boxcar in broad daylight. A fifth suspect, a 17-year-old boy, was found dead, a victim of the scorching midday heat.

Such arrests are rare. Those who do get caught tend to stand out.

Three summers ago, Ranger Kirk Gebicke and a partner stopped to chat with two men sitting in an empty Budget rental truck near the railroad tracks. The pair had been drinking and couldn't explain why they were parked in a moving van miles from anything that needed to be moved. They expressed ignorance about a sack of cocaine the rangers found in the grass four feet away.

The men were arrested. An aerial search of the area found 75 flat-screen TVs worth more than $225,000 that had been thrown from a train.

"I'm at the edge of the world here," Gebicke said. "There are things here that you won't find at Yosemite or Yellowstone."

Mojave National Preserve lies an hour east of Barstow, sandwiched between Interstate 15, Interstate 40 and the Nevada state line. Known as the Lonesome Triangle, it has been trafficked for eons by people seeking riches, a path to someplace else -- or simply a place to hide.

Prehistoric hunters tracked large animals across a verdant landscape of rivers and lakes sculpted by volcanic activity. Ancestors of today's Mojave, Paiute and Chemehuevi Indians eked out an existence after the lakes disappeared.

Spanish soldiers and Mormon pioneers blazed routes to the coast that others followed in droves -- the Southland's first freeways. Miners in the 1800s discovered gold, silver, copper and minerals used in industry. Ranchers found endless grazing land. During World War II, Army Gen. George Patton chose the Mojave as a stand-in for North Africa to train soldiers. After the war, returning troops turned the Mojave into an off-road motorcycling mecca for a booming Los Angeles.

An anything-goes Wild West ethic permeates the area's history, and vestiges of it persist.

The freeways are conveyor belts for trouble from Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Some 1,800 miles of dirt roads lead to countless out-of-sight arroyos and hidey holes. It's impossible to know what's going on out there.

At any given time, two or three lone rangers drift across a potentially hostile universe where the road signs have been blasted by bullets and any hope of backup is a mirage.

Rangers study the landscape for signs of recent human activity. Gebicke carries what he calls a "track trap" -- a garden rake to smooth over entrances to dirt roads leading to known trouble spots.

"I'm seeing what's in place and what's out of place," Duncan said. "If I'm on a road where there never was a gate and suddenly there is one now, why, that raises a red flag."

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