Sheriff's Posse Members Ride for Own Rewards

Times Staff Writer

In the oldest tradition of the western lawman, the nine members of the Crescenta Valley Sheriff's Station Deputy Reserve Posse ride horseback into the hills to preserve law and order.

For $1 a year, they endure horseflies, heat and dust. And they say they love it.

"They're really an extension of the old West," said Deputy Wayne Wallace, assistant coordinator of the Crescenta Valley reserves.

"Each person is different, " he said, "yet they come in here and put on a uniform and they're all here for the same reason: It's demanding but, in the long run, it's rewarding. You can't beat it."

During the week, most posse members pursue occupations somewhat less romantic. They include a bank executive, a meat cutter, a dry cleaner, a construction contractor, a printing company owner and a credit card investigator.

Similar Motives

But on most weekends, posse members saddle up and ride rugged back-country trails to look for lost campers, patch up injured hikers and handcuff lawbreakers.

All said they have similar motives for volunteering as much as 80 hours a month to the posse trail: a desire to help the public, a love for the back country and, of course, to be on horseback.

"I know I've come out here in this," posse captain Bob Ouzts, a 52-year-old bank executive, said, referring to the blazing heat in Big Tujunga Canyon on a recent Sunday, "or been out in the winter, with the wind blowing, freezing and shivering in the dark, and I would ask myself, 'Why am I doing this, why am I punishing myself?' And the moment you find that lost kid, you know exactly why you're doing this."

Paula Riley, a 40-year-old credit card investigator for a bank and the only woman in the posse, said, "I guess we've all got that old-fashioned good-guy attitude."

The Crescenta Valley posse is one of 18 sheriff's posses in Los Angeles County, but its territory is considered among the most rugged and remote.

Mountain Peaks, Drop-Offs

Much of the station's approximately 425-square-mile area of responsibility lies within the rugged San Gabriel Mountains in Angeles National Forest, ranging from May Canyon near San Fernando to the Mt. Waterman ski area.

The area features high mountain peaks, sheer drop-offs, extreme temperatures and sudden changes of weather. It is a high-use recreation area now; it was once a hideout for the likes of Joaquin Murietta, Juan Flores and Pancho Daniel, bandidos who preyed on early settlers.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department was founded in 1850 and a posse was soon formed to try to rout those stagecoach robbers, highwaymen and murderers from the surrounding hills.

Help Hikers, Campers

Things generally are not quite so exciting for the posse these days, although Deputy Jerry Heltzel two years ago caught a woman and her lover dumping the body of her husband with the aid of a male accomplice. The accomplice turned witness and was granted immunity from prosecution; the woman and her lover are serving long prison sentences.

But posse members more often spend time helping hikers and campers and making sure laws are obeyed instead of looking for criminals on the lam.

They also ride in residential areas with horse trails, such as in La Canada Flintridge, to keep motorcycles and four-wheel-drive vehicles as well as vandals and rowdy youths off the trails.

"It's a high-visibility thing," Deputy Wallace said. "We are there to let the people know we are there."

The posse also helps the forest service and the state Department of Fish and Game during deer season, when hunters flock to the area. The posse checks for illegal weapons, poachers and license violators.

Bill Brandstetter, a Forest Service ranger who works in Big Tujunga Canyon, said the posse's presence makes a difference. "The problems pick up when they leave," he said.

Ouzts (pronounced ootz) said the posse responds to more than 100 incidents each year. "Every weekend we go out, we have at least two or three problems to deal with," he said.

Posse members must pass 12 weeks of training at the sheriff's academy, attending nights and weekends. They are trained in arrest laws, search and seizure, crowd control, first-aid, firearms and some traffic-related skills.

Posse member Riley, who described herself as "110 pounds and 5 feet, 2 inches in fat socks," couldn't join the posse until the department dropped the height and weight requirements. She has been riding with the posse for two years now.

Struck by Limb

"She's one of the best I've ever seen," Ouzts said. "She gets along with people real well and she can be authoritative, too. She can handle the rowdies. Sometimes they kind of laugh at her at first because she's tiny, but she can make them forget about that all of a sudden."

Though she often has to stand on a large rock or a low fence to get in the stirrups, she rides tall in the saddle. Sometimes too tall. She was once riding hard, chasing a girl's runaway horse, when she was knocked from the saddle as she rode under a tree.

"I saw the leaves but I didn't see the limb," she said as she pointed out the spot above her right eye where she took the blow that knocked her out and required 16 stitches.

50 to 80 Hours a Month

Posse members normally ride, in rotation, one Sunday patrol and one training session each month. There also is a posse on the trail every Sunday and on most holidays.

With meetings and the time it takes to keep their horses and equipment ready, members say they each spend 50 to 80 hours a month on posse duties.

Each also spends several thousand dollars a year to feed, board and keep his or her horse healthy. The county provides each with one uniform, a duty belt and .38-caliber handgun.

Ouzts pointed out with a laugh that the annual $1 each is paid for insurance amounts to 78 cents after taxes.

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