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Officials See No Crime Wave on Beaches, Despite 2 Attacks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When state parks ranger Jeff Price arrived in Ventura from Northern California in 1985, it was, as he recalled, “a war zone.” The July 4th holiday exploded with thousands of beach fires between the Ventura Harbor and the county fairgrounds. Restrooms were set ablaze.

“It was a no-man’s-land,” he said.

Price hardly blinked. He had supervised another battlefield between San Francisco and Santa Cruz, where holidays such as Fourth of July were celebrated by misguided celebrants popping quarter sticks of dynamite and firing off rounds from automatic weapons.

As he did up north, Price coordinated a law enforcement crackdown with local authorities, confiscating illegal fireworks and weapons, enforcing fines, controlling access and getting out the word that the beaches would be safe recreation areas--or else.

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Now, says Price, the chief Department of Parks and Recreation ranger for the district stretching from Carpenteria State Beach to McGrath State Beach, the sand here “is very, very safe to be on.”

The observation of Price, a ranger for 21 years, comes at a time when Oxnard police are searching for the assailants of two women, ages 18 and 23, who were raped this month on a city beach.

Still, law enforcement officials with the Oxnard and Ventura police departments and the sheriff all agreed with Price’s conclusion. Those attacks notwithstanding, they said they perceived no violent crime sprees on area beaches.

Indeed, homicides, rapes and aggravated assaults on the beach are as rare as summer rain, they said.

“I can tell you, we don’t have a real problem out there,” said Larry Hurliman, an Oxnard Police Department crime statistician. “Crime has been consistently low (on the beach) for five years. It’s just that those two rapes have people up in arms.”

The public shouldn’t be afraid to use the beaches in light of these attacks, he said. Individuals should simply use common sense when the sand and sea beckon.

For example, he said, don’t go to the beach at night and avoid spots where sand dunes block the view of others who could help if trouble arises.

To be sure, violent crime is not unheard-of along the many beaches that stretch from the popular surfing beach at the Los Angeles County line to Rincon Beach.

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“I’m scared to death of some of the beaches” because of their reputation for unsavory gatherings, said a veteran surfer who requested anonymity.

But Ventura Police Lt. Mike Tracy also believes that violence on the city’s beaches is uncommon. There are gangs that assemble on the sand, as they did at this year’s California Beach Party near the Ventura Pier, but thus far there have been no serious incidents, he said.

Sheriff’s Lt. Paul Buckley recalled some “local problems” when young people try “to dominate” a beach, such as Oxnard’s Silver Strand.

“But there really hasn’t been any high crime (on the beaches) in recent times,” he said.

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Price said the last homicide he could recall in his jurisdiction occurred about three years ago at Emma Wood State Beach. A mentally disturbed man killed another mentally disabled person and buried the victim in the sand.

Price recounted that a female jogger on a bicycle trail was attacked before sunrise two years ago at San Buenaventura State Beach. And, over the past 10 years, three or four bodies have been found on the sand, perhaps dumped there after the victims had been killed elsewhere, he said.

More recently, he said, two armed robberies took place during the summer and fall last year near the Ventura Pier.

Holding down the crime rate, Price said, is the sometimes harsh climate, generally on the cool--or cold--side at night.

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“You can be drunk, but not warm,” he joked, noting that beach fires are not allowed, but beer is. This situation, he said, tends to keep Los Angeles-size crowds from gathering at night and causing disturbances.

Price is firm in his belief that the area beaches are safe overall.

He said his agency recorded 261 crimes reported in the county’s Channel Coast District in 1990, ranging from robbery to lewd acts to theft. He said that figure represents a reduction by more than 40% of the crime reports in the district compared to five years ago.

Statistics do not provide much solace, however, for Oxnard residents who live near Oxnard Shores, where the Sept. 4 and Sept. 14 nighttime attacks took place. Detectives have yet to apprehend anyone in what they believe to be unrelated incidents.

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“We thought the beaches were safe,” said Carol Swanson, who lives four houses from where the rapes occurred. “Life doesn’t stop. But it makes you think.”

Another longtime homeowner, Gloria Pratt, said the two attacks “have caused considerable concern and consternation” among area residents. Indeed, she said, they have even caused her to delay her morning beach stroll by an hour, so she can walk when more people are on the streets.

“I’ve become very (apprehensive) of people walking on the beach” since the attacks, she said. “I turn around to look at people walking behind me, which I never did before. There was always a feeling of safety here.

“The attacks have caused a great stir in the Channel Islands area.”

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Oxnard Police Sgt. John Crombach said his agency is increasing its visibility at the beach to assuage fears of nearby residents.

Price, too, has asked his rangers “to show the colors, to make a better visual presence” while on patrol. This translates into saying hello to people on the beach and in campground areas as the rangers drive by on patrol.

This was evident on a recent weekday evening as ranger Andrew Zilke maneuvered his Jeep along the dirt roads at Emma Wood State Beach and then along the sand in the Pierpont Bay area.

In line with his boss’s mandate for a higher profile, Zilke waved and greeted several individuals and couples walking along the beach.

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At one point while driving through the brush at Emma Wood, Zilke, who is armed and whose Jeep sports a shotgun latched to the dashboard, spotted a young man on a sandy ridge. It was nightfall and, curious, Zilke cut the engine and walked over to him.

“He was upset about something,” Zilke said upon returning. “Sometimes you can save a life by stopping something from happening.” He said he would check later to see if the youth was still there.

Aside from rousting homeless people who camp in the state park near the Ventura River bottom, Zilke said park rangers have made several arrests of individuals hanging out near the beach who are wanted on criminal warrants in other states.

Also, he said, arrests for prostitution, lewd behavior and illicit drug use are not uncommon within state parks and beaches.

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“It’s kind of a crazy place,” he said.


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