Shortly after 6:30 a.m. Tuesday, while a fine gray mist still hovered close to the ground, four squad cars and a four-wheel-drive vehicle rolled into the parking lot of the Cross Creek shopping center in Malibu. Two state government cars were already there, waiting.
A dozen uniformed men--eight from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and four from the state Department of Parks and Recreation--assembled on the asphalt. They strode to the edge of the lot, where the wilds of Malibu Lagoon State Park begin.
The patrol's quarry: the bums and tramps who have taken up residence in the park, a 76-acre wildlife refuge surrounding the estuary where Malibu Creek meets the sea.
In the past, state park rangers have occasionally warned the few transients they encountered that camping at the lagoon is illegal. The rangers have even arrested some offenders, but they did not have enough manpower to make a concerted effort.
This year, authorities have noticed that there are, in the words of Sheriff's Capt. Mark Squiers, "a few more"--perhaps as many as a dozen--human inhabitants of the lagoon. The reason, county and state authorities speculate, is that new trails provide better access into the brush and new trash cans are a good source of food. Before the summer tourist season advances and the park's population burgeons, law enforcement officials decided last month they had better clamp down.
So for the first time, Squiers said, the Sheriff's Department and the state have joined forces to establish a patrol that will periodically sweep through the lagoon, by foot and on horseback, to get the transients out.
The action stems from complaints from the shopping center's merchants and from the exclusive communities that border the lagoon: the imposing estates of Serra Retreat and the million-dollar beach bungalows of Malibu Colony.
The merchants accuse the lagoon bums of shoplifting from their store shelves and cadging from customers. The estate residents, according to Sheriff's Department officials, look down the canyon at night and see flickering campfires that they fear will ignite the surrounding brush.
One Malibu Colony resident, who asked to remain unidentified, said her insurance company questioned renewal of her homeowners' policy because of the vagrants living nearby. (The insurance eventually was extended).
The new patrol began last week, almost a year after Los Angeles police assigned 30 equestrian officers to keep the homeless away from downtown areas where visitors to the Olympic Games were expected to gather. The Los Angeles effort drew criticism from attorneys representing Skid Row transients.
The Malibu effort has spawned some controversy, too. "So it's against the law to sleep on the beach," said the Malibu Colony resident. "It's against the law to have a dog on the beach, but there are lots of dogs on the beach."
Said another colony resident, who also requested anonymity: "I feel bad about it, frankly. The beach is for everybody. I'm much more bothered by members of the general public who come to my house to ask for a drink of water or try to use the bathroom," she added. "These (transients) for the most part are very careful about being law-abiding. I think it's nice to live peacefully."
Trouble at Store
Even Luis Verano, assistant manager of the Hughes Supermarket at Cross Creek, has his doubts about the law enforcement effort. Verano recites a lengthy list of the times lagoon residents have caused trouble at his store. But "they'll just take off for a couple of weeks and they'll come back," he predicted. "About all the sheriff can do is put the pressure on and hope they move someplace else. But where else do they have to go?"
Sheriff's deputies and the rangers are aware of the potential pitfalls. They have talked of solutions, but found none. There was discussion, Sheriff's Sgt. Dennis Burns said, of sending transients arrested in Malibu to the downtown Los Angeles jail, to make returning more difficult. But "that idea wasn't well-received downtown; they're already so crowded," he said.
And, Burns added, "there was talk of trying to set up something" for the transients at a local state campground. But Bud Getty, superintendent of the state's Santa Monica Mountains District parkland, said that would "just lead to a nuisance there."
Finding the transients can be difficult. Last week, the deputies and the rangers went through the lagoon on a sweep that started about 11 a.m. They soon realized they had come too late in the day; all of the transients were awake and away from their sleeping places.
Tuesday, they found three transients and two abandoned campsites.
Waiting for Apartment
Minutes after they began to make their way through the pickleweed, one pair of deputies found Robert Shane Harris, 19, half-hidden under a willow tree. He was soon standing, in his socks, faded jeans, a T-shirt and beard stubble, handing over his driver's license. He had spread out his sleeping bag--which meant he qualified for a citation for illegal camping. His backpack, shoes and an empty Doritos bag were tucked in the underbrush.
Harris said he recently left his home in Richmond, near San Francisco, "just to get away from everybody." He said he had landed a job as a busboy in Malibu and that he had located an apartment that will be available July 1.
While he waited, he said, he had spent four nights at the lagoon. "It's pretty quiet," he said. "And it's been pretty warm."
The deputies told him to get away, that he would not be cited unless they find him sleeping in the park again. He said he did not know where he would find shelter in the next few weeks.
The only arrest of the day came nearly two hours later. Supervising ranger John Schmill spotted two of his rangers approaching with a bearded, straggly haired man in a dark blue T-shirt and purple sweat pants. "There's Chester," Schmill said.
The rangers had found Chester Callero, 34, in his regular spot by the shore. "Chester has been around here long term," Schmill said. "We talked to the judge and every time Chester comes in, the judge adds two days to his term. He's up to 10 days now."
After Callero received his citation, he was released.
"Where'd he go?" Burns asked.
Ranger J. P. Patton smiled. "Back to the beach," he replied.