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Hidden underground bunker, tunnel with 1,000 bikes found in homeless encampment

As Orange County officials clear out homeless encampments along the Santa Ana River, they are making some unexpected discoveries.

In one area, they found an underground bunker accessible from a wooden hatch camouflaged with dirt.

In another, more than 1,000 bicycles tucked in a separate tunnel were found.

The county began clearing more than 150 homeless people from the area between Warner and Edinger avenues on Nov. 7 after months of complaints from nearby condominium residents about unsanitary conditions and other nuisances at the encampment.

Lt. Jeff Puckett said the Sheriff’s Department has made more than 260 arrests in the past several months in various encampments along the river trail in connection with crimes such as robbery, assault and trespassing.

However, homeless advocates have contended the county is criminalizing homelessness and shuffling the camps’ population around instead of solving the growing problem.

When public works crews arrived to clean up trash two weeks ago, they discovered more than 1,000 bicycles tucked into a tunnel along the concrete river bed in Santa Ana, just south of the river’s Fairview Street overpass.

“I’ve been doing this job for 20 years, and even I was stunned by that one,” Puckett said.

Workers dragged out the bikes and hauled them to a storage yard.

Puckett said the department likely will allow the public to look at the bikes at some point in an effort to reunite people with lost or stolen property.

Authorities said there were indications that someone was living in the area where the bikes were found, but they haven’t identified the person or how and why the bikes were obtained.

Authorities said they don’t know how many of the bikes might have been stolen.

“Common sense would usually dictate if you have 1,000 bikes in a tunnel, some of them could be stolen,” Puckett said.

On Thursday, county officials found a man-made bunker six feet underground along the trail. A plywood trap door opened to wooden steps, which led to a 10-by-10-foot living space reinforced with wood beams. The room was tall enough for an adult to stand in, authorities said.

Puckett said the bunker was empty when authorities stumbled upon it.

Kris Gillan, who lives in the New Chase condominiums near the river trail in Fountain Valley, said that of all the items found, she was most surprised to hear about the bunker.

“Nothing like guns, trash and needles would shock me, but the fact that someone had a whole downstairs living arrangement … it’s weird that they built it without us knowing,” she said.

Gillan said she can’t believe it took officials months to begin clearing the area.

“It’s like, ‘Shame on you, county. Look what was going on,’ ” she said. “We tried to tell you.”

The county plans to permanently close the west side of the flood-control channel between 17th Street in Santa Ana and Adams Avenue in Huntington Beach as it prepares to start maintenance of Orange County Flood Control District property along the trail, officials have said.

Before maintenance begins, Orange County Public Works officials have been tasked with cleaning debris and trash from the former encampment in Fountain Valley.

Puckett said officials found a .357 magnum containing three empty shell casings — indicating to authorities that it had been fired — near the camp. The Sheriff’s Department is investigating where the gun came from.

The trail was deserted Friday afternoon. Orange bags filled with trash were lined up waiting to be hauled away.

Nearby residents said most of the homeless people who had set up camp there packed up and left within three days of the county’s enforcement effort.

Gillan said the area is quiet and getting cleaner every day.

County officials hope to keep it that way. The Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to pay California Panther Security $450,000 annually over the next two years to have unarmed security guards open and close gates along the trail and report trespassers to the Sheriff’s Department, according to a county staff report.

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