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REGIONAL REPORT: CRIME : Riding the Gantlet : Reports of Robberies and Assaults on Bike Paths in Los Angeles and Orange Counties Are Increasing

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bill Evans considered it the code of the road to stop for a fellow cyclist in distress. What else was he to think of the guy waving that day from the side of the Los Angeles River bike path?

Hunkered sheepishly over his rusty old bicycle, the man looked sadder than two flat tires and a busted chain. So Evans, a 52-year-old veteran cyclist, braked his customized mountain bike--his option-loaded, cherry-red, $2,900 hand made bike. Just as it dawned on him that he was all but isolated on the concrete trail, the man grabbed his handlebars and hauled him to a stop.

“That’s a nice bike you got,” the man remarked amicably before suggesting that Evans let him take it for a test ride. When Evans refused, the man--young, heavyset and nicely dressed--pulled out a buck knife.

“Let me have this bike,” he hissed, “or I’m going to cut you up bad.”

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Evans--who complied and who was shaken for months after the robbery last summer--is among a growing number of cyclists who believe that Southern California’s inner city bike trails have become too dangerous to ride alone.

Early last month, a 46-year-old liquor store clerk pedaling home from work at night was shot to death on the Ballona Creek bikeway near Marina del Rey. Los Angeles and Culver City police said it was the worst of at least seven attacks in the last four months on the trail. The Ballona Creek path has generated so many complaints that the Automobile Club of Southern California has for the last 18 months warned its cycling members to avoid it.

Cyclists in San Diego and Ventura County say such incidents are rare along their lush bike paths, which for the most part run along the beach or through verdant countryside. But along those trails that cut through urban neighborhoods, the picture, in some spots, is more menacing.

Harassment, assaults and strong-arm robbery have been reported in recent months by cyclists on the San Gabriel River and Los Angeles River bike trails in Los Angeles County, the Santa Ana River bike trail in Orange County, among others. Parts of those trails are idyllic, and police say that for the most part bikers have more to fear from potholes and unleashed dogs than they do from muggers and thieves.

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The problem, they say, is concentrated along stretches that run past some of the most crime-ridden sections of Los Angeles, Pico Rivera, Compton, Lynwood and Santa Ana.

Here, gang graffiti in lurid reds and blacks cover blocklong stretches of the concrete riverbeds. Homeless people camp in the underpasses and behind the brittle clumps of brush that flank the trails. In such spots, police say, lone riders are isolated and easy prey for highway robbery. Thieves pose as fellow bike enthusiasts in need of help, police say, or simply grab cyclists who pedal by too slowly.

Near the Mar Vista Gardens Housing Projects in Los Angeles, police were warning cyclists earlier this year about a gang of urchins who were booby-trapping the Ballona Creek path with sticks and little nests of rocks and glass. When a cyclist stopped to avoid a blowout, gangs of 13- and 14-year-old boys emerged from the brush with baseball bats and 2-by-4s to wrest away bicycles worth hundreds, often thousands, of dollars.

“I’ve been real lucky--I put my head down, look straight ahead and I don’t look weak,” said Ruth Barnes, a past president of the L.A. Wheelmen bicycle club and a member of the Los Angeles Bike Advisory Commission.

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“But there have been knifings, women harassed, and then this murder,” Barnes said.

Police caution that the concern about bike path crime may be more a function of heightened awareness than anything else. Although statistics are hard to come by--most agencies do not keep a separate accounting of bike-path crime, and the paths themselves are split among many jurisdictions--in general, police say, only a handful of crimes are reported each year by people who use the riverbed trails.

The recent slaying of John Carl (Jack) Jones of Los Angeles along the Ballona Creek bike path was the first murder of a bicyclist in memory for any of the three police jurisdictions covering the seven-mile concrete path, and authorities noted that Jones, who worked nights, was riding alone about 4:30 a.m. when he was shot.

“Every year in the summer, we have problems on the bike path--robberies, assaults, other things,” said Los Angeles Police Officer David Martinez, senior lead officer for the patrol covering Los Angeles’ portion of the Ballona Creek path. “It goes in spurts.”

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Sometimes, authorities are the last to know.

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Lt. Jim Moss said the San Gabriel River bike path is so tranquil that his deputies in the Pico Rivera substation rarely even patrol it. Santa Ana police had a similar impression of the Santa Ana riverbed path.

But Barbara (Bobbi) Gold, Culver City’s newly appointed bike-path safety coordinator, said police may be underestimating the problem because much of the harassment to cyclists goes unreported.

“Many of the victims think it wasn’t severe enough, or the police won’t do anything,” she said. “My husband has been bothered twice by aggressive panhandlers, and I had a terrible time getting him to report it. All the bike stores and bike clubs know about the problems. There have been a lot of things, but they’re just not getting to the police.”

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Muriel Scheurman, a Downey bicyclist who rides the San Gabriel River and Rio Hondo bike trails, said that earlier this year, a fellow cyclist who was riding without a helmet was knocked unconscious when a vandal heaved a bottle at him from the top of an overpass. Jim Tatum of Pico Rivera, another regular on the San Gabriel River trail, said he has had to dodge rocks from time to time. His daughter, Jean Thurmond, said she once encountered a flasher on the trail.

But strong-arm bike theft seems to be the most common form of violence on the path, cyclists say.

“The main thing I hear about is druggies stopping people and saying, ‘I want your bike, give it to me, thank you,’ ” said Jerry Woodruff, manager of Downey Cyclery in Downey. Woodruff said that at least four people in the last year have confided, as they purchased a new bike, that they were replacing one that was stolen on the Los Angeles River trail.

Such attacks can be traumatic.

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Richard Pena, a 24-year-old Anaheim cyclist, is still recovering from an ambush in 1985 that occurred near Santa Ana’s Centennial Park on the Santa Ana River bike path.

Midway through a training ride, Pena stopped for water. As he swung back up on his $1,400 Bianchi racing bike, he found himself surrounded by three gaunt, unkempt men. One grabbed the handlebars. Another began fingering his pack. Tauntingly, they said they were hungry and asked if he had anything to eat.

“I literally reached around, opened my pack and gave them a banana,” Pena recalled. They burst out laughing and dashed it to the pavement, he said.

That’s when Pena began to fight, but he was outnumbered and unarmed.

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“The guy behind me put his left hand on my right shoulder and stuck a gun under my rib cage,” Pena recalled. “He pulled the trigger. I fell.”

Slumping to the ground, Pena watched the gunman scramble onto his bike and flee down the path. As the other two took off running, he said, “I heard one say, ‘What the hell did you do that for?’ And I realized I was hurt pretty badly, because I couldn’t feel my right leg at all.”

It took a three-week hospital stay, major abdominal surgery and years of physical therapy for Pena to recover. “I was 5-10, 185 pounds and 5.5% body fat when it happened, and by the time I got out of the hospital, I was a shell,” Pena said.

He still rides, but only for short stints, because of the pain he still gets in his leg and back. His racing bike was never recovered and his attackers were never caught.

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