June 9, 2007

The Lone Rangers

Greg Vojtko / The Press-Enterprise
San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department resident Deputy Corey LaFever surveys the area he covers along both sides of Interstate 15 between Baker and Nevada.

Resident lawmen cover a vast, desolate 5,000 square miles of San Bernardino County

The Press-Enterprise [Riverside, CA]

BAKER - Shrugs from behind the counter. No blood on the payphone, either.

There wasn't much to the investigation of a 911 hang-up call from the Baker Country Store, but then, when you're the only deputy in 5,000 square miles of remote desert, it's hard to be hot on anyone's trail.

"It was probably a half-hour ago?" asked San Bernardino County sheriff's Deputy Corey LaFever, trying to elicit a memory from the store's clerks.

Nothing. Outside, two payphones sat, seemingly unharmed.

"Unfortunately," he told the clerks, "I get here as soon as I can."

That could be the watchword for LaFever, who, like the colleague he alternates with, is the sole deputy responsible for the vast, isolated depths of San Bernardino County's High Desert.

The territory is about the size of Connecticut, stretching north of Barstow all the way to Nevada; from Fort Irwin east past the Mojave National Preserve.

It's not uncommon for LaFever to put 300 miles a day on his cruiser, visiting rural outposts like Nipton and Kelso before backtracking to his small substation at Baker's Community Services District building.

LaFever, a wiry 26-year-old with spiked hair and three cell phones on his belt -- one for his role as the area's deputy coroner -- accentuates the positive. There's less time chasing calls and more time to try drug interdictions on Interstate 15, or interacting with the fewer than 1,000 people living in the communities.

But then there's the other side. LaFever once went a week without an incident to respond to. The 911 hang-up that took him 30 minutes to investigate -- he was on a dirt road to Sandy Valley when it came in -- was the only call during a 10-hour shift.

"Obviously, there's a lot of time to think," he said on the drive from Kelso to Baker, 36 miles past an endless parade of Joshua trees.

When the peace is shattered, other issues can arise. Backup can be an hour away, "and that's if you're lucky," said sheriff's Lt. Don Riser, who supervises the resident deputies from the sheriff's station in Barstow, 60 miles south.

Not halfway through his two-year assignment, LaFever is optimistic. But Riser acknowledged it takes a special person to wake up in the middle of the night and drive hours for anything from fistfights to plane crashes, to merely checking a car with its headlights on.

"It's crazy what we do to these guys up there," Riser said. "They are in the middle of no place by themselves. And I mean no place."

That doesn't take into account what being in Baker does for your personal life.

"The biggest thing is the wife," Riser said. "How do you talk your lovely bride into working in the middle of hell?"

A Veteran Returns

For Kathy Andrews, it didn't take arm-twisting. Her husband, Bill, is the other resident deputy who rotates with LaFever. The couple lives in a modular home provided by the Sheriff's Department at no cost.

Sure, the closest supermarket is 60 miles away. And yes, the closest large mall is 90 miles. But aside from knowing a good night's sleep is always a call away from being ruined -- sometimes twice in the same night -- she said life in the farthest reaches of the county isn't bad.

You simply have to do your shopping, errands and social outings, like a trip to the movies, in one swoop.

"I like being where it's peaceful and quiet," Kathy Andrews said. "But everything has to be very well planned."

Unlike LaFever and his family, which includes a wife and two toddlers, the Andrewses have done this before. Bill Andrews had his first stint as Baker's resident deputy in the late 1980s, and if anyone thinks it's a lonely existence now, he said they should have seen then.

Cell phones were nonexistent. There were fewer California Highway Patrol officers in the vicinity to offer backup. Simply letting dispatchers know your location could require a 20-mile drive on dirt roads to make radio contact.

"It got pretty hairy," said the 54-year-old Andrews, an 18-year veteran of the Sheriff's Department who requested a return to Baker last year to make extra money, through on-call pay, for retirement. "But you just suck it up."

While Andrews knows how slow the beat can be, he also has a wealth of chaos-packed tales. One involved a robbery/homicide at a Baker gas station where the clerk gave his "dying breath" on the 911 phone call.

First Andrews had to guess if the assailants would flee north or south on I-15. He chose north, hoping the suspects didn't know side roads.

Andrews spotted their U-Haul van near Cima. With no backup, he kept his distance with his flashers off until a passing car shined its lights right on him, revealing his cruiser and spooking the suspects.

They threw a shotgun and money out the window before finally exiting near Whiskey Pete's Casino just over the Nevada state line. Then they jumped a fence and slipped into the casino, thinking they were unseen. But Andrews knew the security guard, and the two watched surveillance that followed the suspects' trail into the casino and down to a table where they sat to gamble.

Las Vegas Metropolitan police made the arrest.

"They had killed the clerk, in cold blood, because they didn't want any witnesses," Andrews recalled. "With no backup, I couldn't risk a traffic stop. It could have been an all-time shoot-out."

Old West Mentality

Incidents like that -- or a recent one where LaFever responded alone to a fatal plane crash and worked 18 hours as both sheriff's deputy and coroner -- prompts Riser to call the Baker resident deputies "Lone Rangers."

"If they were down in Rancho (Cucamonga) and needed backup, they'd have three guys in three minutes, 10 guys in six minutes and 15 guys in 12 minutes," Riser said. "But it can literally be an hour and a half. We just have to hope they survive the encounter."

Baker's deputies also have to be good communicators, Riser said.

LaFever quickly realized that. Calmly reasoning with a suspect is preferable to a confrontation when your backup help is nowhere in sight.

"You tend to learn verbal judo," he said as he traversed dusty, rocky roads on the way to Nipton.

"You've got to be a little more talkative, because if you've got to go hands-on with someone, you probably couldn't do it for 30 minutes."

To residents and shop owners in the tiny towns scattered throughout his turf, LaFever is the affable deputy who regularly stops to chat, and on this day, buy a Snickers candy bar he put next to his cruiser's air-conditioning vent to stop its melt.

At the Nipton Trading Post, LaFever greeted German tourists on their way to Lake Mead and made sure shop employee Linda Lou didn't have any crises.

"Nah, we're fine," Lou said. "You don't see the lights on at night in Nipton. We're all sleeping."

LaFever chuckled, then made his way to the town center: a dirt road directly behind the Trading Post lined with a handful of tiny wooden homes. He found a man able to give him air for his low tire, and all it cost was a minute's small talk about a well that the town is installing to bottle water for sale.

"I'm still waiting to try that Nipton water," LaFever said as he got back in his car and pulled away.

Two hours later, he was back in Baker. The final tally of stops was Nipton, Kelso, Cima, and Sandy Valley -- where he passed a ranch with a mannequin being hanged out front, the word "Litterer" on the post above its head.

"A lot of these towns have the mentality of the Old West: 'I'll handle my own business,' " LaFever said, noting that some residents don't report thefts because they figure his drive would be too far.

But he still travels the long roads, hundreds of miles at a time. He still pumps his own gas at the same stations he watches over, waves to children as he jogs along Baker Boulevard in his free time, and scouts out dunes for his personal hobby of taking his Jeep off-roading.

"There's a lot of experience I can get there that I can't get elsewhere," LaFever said. "But at the end of my two years, will I be ready to go? Sure, because if I'm not growing or learning, I'm standing still."

With that, LaFever points out the window of his patrol car. It's at a massive Sandy Valley hay farm known for its rancher who recently vanished without a trace.

He is surrounded by acres and acres of nothing on every end.