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Ranger Shot, Wounded at Yosemite

TIMES STAFF WRITERS; Clifford reported from Los Angeles and La Ganga from Yosemite National Park. Times staff writer Martha Groves and staff photographer Bob Carey also contributed to this story from Yosemite

A veteran park ranger was shot and wounded Wednesday night--the first incident of its kind in the park’s 103-year history--touching off a search for the assailant Thursday and forcing the evacuation of more than 1,000 park visitors.

The ranger, Kim Aufhauser, 37, was driving his patrol car along Tioga Pass Road three to four miles east of Tuolumne Meadows about 10:15 Wednesday night when he stopped to question someone he saw walking along the road, said National Park Service officials.

Shortly after Aufhauser got out of his car, he was fired on and wounded in the left leg. Two other bullets struck his armored chest protector and did not injure the ranger, officials said.

Aufhauser, who was patrolling alone, radioed for help. He was treated at a hospital and released Thursday, a park spokeswoman said.

Within hours of the shooting, a 50-square-mile area was being searched by more than 100 law enforcement officers, including park rangers, FBI agents, U.S. Forest Service and California Highway Patrol officers, and sheriff’s deputies from three nearby counties. The search was being conducted on foot and by helicopter. Canine teams were expected to join the search today.

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Early Thursday morning, officers began evacuating more than 1,000 campers and backpackers from Tuolumne Meadows, one of the park’s most popular backcountry destinations. If the assailant is not found, Park Service officials said the search could go on as long as 72 hours. Officials said that Tuolumne Meadows might be reopened sometime Saturday and that Tioga Pass Road between Tioga Pass and the eastern end of Tenaya Lake might be reopened late today.

With the closure of Tioga Pass Road--California 120--a popular route across the Sierra Nevada mountains was off limits to travelers, forcing them to drive up to 100 miles out of their way.

Ramon and Sabine van Reine, a honeymooning couple from Holland, arrived at the east entrance to Yosemite shortly after 8 a.m. to spend a day in the park. They were sent 100 miles to a part of Yosemite still open to visitors. By then, it was 4:30 p.m., and the van Reines decided to head elsewhere.

“We’re going now to Sequoia. We missed the whole day in the park,” said Ramon van Reine.

Some backpackers stepped out of the wilderness only to find roadblocks barring them from the park shuttles that would take them to their cars. Others found they had no place to spend the night Thursday.

“We have no idea what we’re going to do tonight,” said Debi Engel, a teacher from La Mesa. “It’s just sad that you can’t even go camping.”

Forced to leave Tuolumne Meadows, Engel and her companion, Jim Ward, found that the nearest campground, at White Wolf, was full.

Meanwhile, Gerald Aikman of Garden Grove was trying to figure out how he was going to be reunited with his car after four days of backpacking ended at a roadblock 20 miles from Tuolumne Meadows. Aikman had planned to take a park shuttle.

Searchers had little to go on as they combed the mountainous terrain. Before the shots were fired, Aufhauser had only a glimpse of the person walking along the road, said Chris Fister, a park service information officer. However, Fister said, Aufhauser did return fire and heard someone running away.

“He hit the ground, rolled and returned fire with three shots,” Fister said. “He didn’t see the person and couldn’t tell whether the person was a man or a woman.”

Park officials said rangers typically patrol alone at night because of cutbacks in park service personnel.

“At Yosemite, we are down 18 rangers from last year alone,” said Holly Bundock, a spokeswoman for the Parks Service’s western regional office in San Francisco. Bulletproof vests have become standard attire for park rangers because violence in national parks has increased.

For campers at Tuolumne Meadows, the first indication of trouble was the sound of a helicopter overhead.

“About 6 a.m., a helicopter flew over, waking everyone up,” said one camper. “A little later, rangers came through telling people to stay in the campground and that there had been a shooting. About 8, they came back and told everyone to leave.”

By midday Thursday, Park Service officials said law enforcement officers were looking at a possible link between the Yosemite shooting and a fatal shooting that took place earlier Wednesday in Nevada.

“We’re looking at the possibility of a connection between the murder and the incident here,” Fister said. “But we have nothing to connect (the Nevada suspect) to the incident here. There also are other leads that are being checked into.”

The Nevada shooting took place in Gardnerville, south of Carson City and about 90 miles north of Yosemite. The Douglas County Sheriff’s Department identified the suspect in that case as James Steven Robinson, 39, described as 5 feet, 9 inches tall, 150 pounds, balding, with bad teeth and a tattoo of a burning cross on one shoulder. He was said to be driving a 1981 Datsun B210 with Nevada license plates and is considered armed and dangerous.

Park employees reacted grimly to the shooting.

“This is a very violent park, more violent than any other national park,” said David McCarl, a crew leader with the Youth Conservation Corps, who has worked for the National Park Service for seven years. “There are too many people. They get 4 million customers a year here. They bring their urban problems into the park. . . . But I’ve never heard of a ranger being hit.”

A ranger attached to the park’s law enforcement branch for more than two years, who declined to give his name, said: “We stay real busy up here. There’s been other instances but nothing like this since I’ve been here.”


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