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Bodies Blot Griffith Park Scenery and Reputation

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Anthony Russell, found shot to death last week along a mountainous back road in Griffith Park, was the 10th body discovered in the sprawling park in just two years. But police say his death stands out--for unsettling reasons.

Unlike other victims, Russell was not hidden in the brush or thrown off a steep hillside, said Los Angeles Police Department Homicide Detective Sam Jacobellis. The 30-year-old Los Angeles resident lay in plain view at the edge of the road.

Russell, who had a history of drug arrests, apparently was on the wrong end of a soured drug deal, according to interviews in recent days with those who knew him, Jacobellis said. Police are looking for people for questioning, but so far no arrests have been made.

One baffling question for police is why no effort was made to hide the victim.

A passing motorist happened on the body only minutes after Russell was killed. The dead man was dressed in a blue jogging suit and jeans and had been shot once in the chest. He lay a few feet from a steep canyon where, with just a small push, he could have been hidden from view for weeks or even months, Jacobellis said.

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To the veteran detective, it seemed that the killer simply gave no thought to concealing such fresh, obvious evidence. “I just wonder if today’s murderer even worries about that any more,” Jacobellis said wearily.

In Griffith Park, a rugged, sometimes-spectacular landscape covering 4,000 acres, the news of the body was hardly a shock. “Another one?” said information booth attendant Lynda Burdick, with mock surprise. “They’re always finding bodies up here.”

During one 15-day period last year, six bodies turned up in the park. The numbers have given Griffith Park--one of the nation’s largest city-owned parks--a grisly reputation as a killers’ dumping ground.

The stigma has grown as park visitors, employees and homeowners have become increasingly concerned over their own safety. The fear of attack--most likely from gangs and vagrants--forced a change in maintenance policy about a year ago. Employees no longer conduct a nightly search for vandalism and graffiti around the main parking lot of the hilltop observatory building, said one official, who asked not to be identified.

There is still plenty of graffiti to be found, but employees are considered at too great a risk, the official said.

Warnings against lingering in the park after dusk have been given to all 22 full-time employees of the observatory, the official added.

“I wouldn’t suggest being anywhere . . . after dark,” he said. “The terrain here can hide a criminal, hide a body, can hide lots of things.”

Although police say that violent crime in the park is relatively uncommon--10 aggravated assaults were reported last year--the task of securing the vast space from body dumpers and possible attackers is daunting. The mountainous terrain includes more than 90 miles of hiking and equestrian trails, many of them far from paved roads. Bodies are typically dumped in the park at night, police theorize.

“I always expect we’re going to have several every year,” Jacobellis said. “Over the last four or five years . . . we’ve had anywhere from three to half a dozen dead bodies found in that park each year.

“There’s nothing we can do about it.”

Russell’s case is unusual partly because the murder may have occurred inside park boundaries, police said. His body was found just below the crest of 1,652-foot Mt. Hollywood, at a point where winding, two-lane Mt. Hollywood Drive reaches its zenith midway through the park.

At that point, the well-paved road, bordered by trees and thick brush, is at the same elevation as the Hollywood sign one hillside to the west. The vista is spectacular: a deep, rugged canyon and, in the distance, the tall buildings of Hollywood.

In nearly every other case, Jacobellis said, the killings occur elsewhere and the bodies are dumped in the park. Wrapped in blankets or plastic bags, they are discovered most frequently by hikers or by the transients who scavenge the trails and trash cans looking for food, the detective said.

Usually the corpses are several weeks to a few months old and badly deteriorated. One body found last year along a hiking trail was so decomposed that police were not sure if it was a man or a woman.

Two other bodies discovered in a rugged ravine early last year were linked to a missing-person’s report from 1983. Those remains--just a scattering of bones, rusty guns and occult jewelry--turned out to be the vestiges of a suicide pact. A young couple “married” by candlelight in a Hollywood occult shop had decided to seek a higher mystical plane.

Many regulars at the park say the fear of violent crime is exaggerated. In addition to the 10 aggravated assaults logged last year by police, there were 19 stolen cars, 65 thefts from cars, 110 vice-related crimes such as narcotics sales and prostitution, and two rapes reported in the park. With the observatory, a golf course, a zoo and the Greek Theatre, the park draws an estimated 10 million visitors annually.

“You are a lot safer in Griffith Park than you are in downtown or a lot of other places in the city,” said Charlie Turner, 84, of Hollywood, who hikes there every day.

But several park employees expressed a heightened concern over the transients and gang members who congregate there. Last week, an observatory employee on a short work break took a seat atop a wall bordering an embankment. He was approached by a seemingly friendly man who suddenly pushed him off the wall, colleagues said.

The employee fell nine feet and broke his collarbone. The attacker then scaled the wall, threatened the injured man with a rock and stole $20 from him.

“He said he was going to kill me,” the employee said by telephone from a hospital. He confirmed details of the incident but asked not to be identified.

“It is scary sometimes,” said Michele Santillan, 19, an employee in the Greek Theatre office who tries to leave each night in the company of other workers. It is especially so in the winter off-season, she said, when the roads are empty of theater crowds and night falls early.

Homeowners have criticized the size of the security force--17 unarmed rangers--who must patrol the park around the clock. At any given time, no more than five rangers oversee the 4,000 acres.

“Geographically, they just can’t cover it,” said Philip Homesey, president of the Los Feliz Improvement Assn., which has long pushed for beefing up the ranger force. “We have a lot of vagrants in the park--and more and more all the time. They use the park to sleep in because it’s out of the way. They become victims of crime.”

Late last year, as part of a citywide program to make parks safer, the Los Angeles City Council agreed to add five more full-time rangers at Griffith Park by the end of 1990. But some, including observatory director Ed Krupp, say that even that number will be too few.

“I don’t know that the park is any worse than the city at large,” Krupp conceded, “but I think the expectation is that the park ought to be a safe place. That’s what is jarring for people.

“You can go down the police blotter yourself and see what kinds of things occur here and if they’ve escalated. There’s no question they’ve escalated.”

In a series of meetings between police, homeowners and park employees, other measures have been discussed.

David Rambo, president of the 236-member Los Feliz Oaks Homeowners Assn., said he would like to see Fern Dell Drive, a major south access road into the park, closed at nightfall, rather than 10:30 p.m. That would curtail the apparent drug sales and acts of prostitution that occur in cars parked along the roadside, he said.

“Any cop will tell you darkness breeds problems,” Rambo said.

Park officials do close mountain roads in the park at dusk, but Fern Dell is considered one of two key routes leading to the observatory, where nighttime laser shows are one of the park’s popular attractions.

Ideas such as brighter lights, additional patrols and high-tech security systems are regarded as too costly.

Detective Jacobellis said police might benefit greatly from a system of video cameras installed at park entrances. In a case such as Russell’s death last week, in which the approximate time and location of the murder were known, the videotape might have provided a crucial glimpse of the suspect’s arrival or departure.

The same advantage might have been gained last year when a girl’s body was found soon after her death, concealed in a trash can, he said. Detectives eventually arrested a suspect who now awaits trial, but a camera system might have made their job easier; they were confident they knew where and about when the killer entered the park.

“We might get lucky now and then and come up with license plates,” Jacobellis said. “We’d have more clues to work on.”

But the price tag for such a system is made excessive by the many entrances that would have to be monitored, he added. There are nine paved roads leading into Griffith Park, a number that complicates even the relatively simple task of locking the place up every night.

Like many visitors, Larry Horton of Glendale appreciates the park’s vastness--the sprawling, brushy hillsides, the views from the railings surrounding the observatory. The 25-year-old UPS worker said he drives up every month or so to gaze out at the open terrain and the city beyond.

“I tell my wife, there’s no telling how many bodies are out there,” Horton said. “There’s no telling how many out there will never be found.”


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