September 25, 2008

Team of lone rangers scours the new Wild West

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

By Mike Anton
Los Angeles Times

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."

Duncan, 52, is a gregarious bear of a man with a graying beard and a Georgia accent thick as country gravy. He grew up in the sticks and dreamed of a life outdoors just like Fess Parker's Daniel Boone in the '60s television series. After a stint in the Air Force and time working for an aerospace firm, Duncan went back to college, earned a forestry degree and joined the Park Service, serving first in Alaska and later at the Manassas Civil War battle site in Virginia. His first two years in the Mojave he patrolled alone.

More than 500,000 vehicles a year traverse the preserve's few paved roads. Because there are no formal entrances or fees, it's unknown how many are just passing through on what is a popular and at times white-knuckle shortcut between Palm Springs and Las Vegas. (A driver recently was clocked going 121 mph and ticketed; fatal wrecks are common.)

Park officials stress that the overwhelming majority of visitors come to admire the preserve's austere beauty. Three of North America's four desert ecosystems meet in its 1.6 million acres to form more than 30 distinctive plant and animal habitats. Hiking the Kelso Dunes, which rise to 700 feet, conjures a feeling of being Lawrence in Arabia. Spring wildflowers are a popular draw as is the lovingly restored Kelso Depot, once a thriving passenger train stop and now the preserve's visitor center.

But off the beaten path are scenes that will never appear in a glossy coffee-table book: The man hanging from a rope on a Joshua tree in February, an apparent suicide. The attempted hijacking of a recreational vehicle by a luckless man abandoned in the desert by a friend; he was beaten and subdued by the four vacationers when his gun proved empty.

"Some people look at all this desert and say, 'That's just wasteland. It doesn't matter what I do with it -- or do in it,' " Duncan says as he drives past an old water-pumping station with graffiti and three wild burros. "I've had people tell me to my face: 'We know what the rules are, but when no one's around, we do what we please.' "

Thieves will steal anything that's not anchored to the ground -- as well as stuff that is. Scrap metal from historic ranch structures and mining sites. Copper wiring from modern communication relay stations. Rare butterflies and reptiles coveted by collectors, including the colorful rosy boa and the endangered desert tortoise. Tortoises have also been found shot to death.

Two men who stole a front-end loader from an abandoned mine carved a road across miles of black lava cinder cones before they were caught.

Mojave National Preserve has 1,600 documented archaeological sites, some dating to 10,000 B.C. Many of them have been stripped of their pottery, baskets, stone tools and metates, arrowheads and other artifacts.

"What surprises me is how much material used to be there," said David Nichols, the preserve's full-time archaeologist, who compared his findings with old field surveys. "At most of these sites, I'd say 70% of the visible cultural material is gone."

Rampant looting predates the Park Service. An area first documented in 1977 was so rich in artifacts it was dubbed the Freightwagon Site because you could fill one with the stuff. A researcher's report offered this prescient observation: "As soon as this site location becomes public knowledge, it will be vandalized by off-the-road 'enthusiasts.' "

When an associate of Nichols' revisited the area last year, nearly everything was gone. Off-road quad tracks led straight to the site from I-15.

"It's awful," Nichols said. "And because the place is so vast we never, ever catch anyone in the act of doing anything."

Native American petroglyphs have been cut from rock walls and carted off. Boulders adorned with ancient art have vanished. Vandalism is pervasive, especially of petroglyphs depicting "mask figures" which resemble a human face with eyes and a mouth.

People shoot at them for target practice.

"I dream of the day that I come around a corner and find a guy with a hammer and chisel," Nichols said.

Maybe he shouldn't, given that Nichols patrols the backcountry unarmed.

The preserve's remoteness makes it an ideal place to take care of certain types of business.

In 2001, a Dallas man was traveling to Los Angeles with three men he met in a coffee shop. They pulled off I-15 and drove into the preserve to find a quiet place to empty their bladders. That's when one of the man's new friends shot him to death under the soft light of a million stars.

Two years later, a woman's torso was found just outside the preserve. Tattoos of a hummingbird over the left breast and an "M" with a star on the lower back led authorities to identify the remains as those of a 19-year-old Las Vegas prostitute last seen getting into a car with California plates.

Duncan figures it's a sure bet there are more out there who will never be found. "There's an old story: If all the dead here in the desert stood up, we'd have a forest."

As he approaches places such as the New Trail mine, a lurching 20-minute drive up a rock-strewn road, Duncan is aware of the risk of being in this country alone.

It was here in 2001 that Duncan and Gebicke went to saw off locks that had been placed on the camp's old cabins. They encountered four men in a pickup coming the other way. They just happened to have the key.

At the mine, the rangers discovered a drug lab and 10 gallons of pure methamphetamine oil ready to be crystallized.

The men were arrested and the mine site cleaned up.

A 2003 National Park Service narrative of the preserve's history noted that "crystal meth has posed a considerable problem to the park." Rangers periodically run across red phosphorus stains, containers of lye and empty boxes of pseudoephedrine -- signs of a cook at work.

"If I don't get up here for six months, you have no clue as to what's gone on in that six months," Duncan said.

On this day, the New Trail mine is quiet. On a table in an outbuilding are empty bottles of whiskey, sour apple schnapps and a half-filled jar of clear liquid labeled "corn whiskey."

Outside, a lizard scurries across ground strewn with beer bottles and spent shells.

Whoever was here left several camp chairs behind, suggesting they will be back. What they'll be up to is anyone's guess.

The desert is good at keeping secrets.

On patrol, Ranger Tim Duncan carries a handgun and a Taser. Next to him in his truck are a shotgun and an M-16 assault rifle with extra magazines. “Out here, you have to be prepared,” he says.