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Patrolling the Pines : 2 Deputies Keep the Peace--and Quiet--in Lonely Lockwood Valley

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just two cops patrol 867 square miles of Ventura County’s rugged high country. For the 1,000 or so citizens of Lockwood Valley, they are the only law around.

In summer they bounce down rocky forest trails on dirt bikes, looking for dopers and drunks.

In winter they skim out across the frozen turf aboard police-issue snowmobiles to rescue lost hikers from hypothermia.

They winch stuck cars out of deep snowbanks, and they get friendly waves from most folks they meet.

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And at shift’s end, these backcountry lawmen come home to warm county-owned houses on the biggest, loneliest and most coveted beat in the Sheriff’s Department. As part of the deal with the department, their wives work as radio dispatchers.

Deputy David Kenney said off-road motorcycle riders are surprised when he and his partner, Senior Deputy Pat Ruby, ride up. “You mean you guys get paid for this?” is a typical remark, Kenney said.

“For the most part, it’s a really great place to work,” said Kenney. “Our department takes real good care of us up here.”

They carry scope-fitted AR-180 Armalite assault rifles in case they get pinned down--some gun enthusiasts come to the Los Padres National Forest toting fully automatic weapons these days.

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They are only a radio call away from aerial support by their department’s helicopter out of Camarillo. They can also call for backup from nearby stations of the California Highway Patrol, the U.S. Forest Service and the Santa Barbara, Kern and Los Angeles counties’ sheriff’s departments.

But Kenney, 28, and Ruby, 33, still are isolated from their nearest supervisor by more than an hour’s drive.

“It’s kind of the last frontier of Southern California,” said Ventura County Sheriff Larry Carpenter, who served in the Lockwood Valley station in 1970, when it was a one-man operation.

“There’s lots of pine and lots of rocks and mountains and blue sky,” the sheriff said. “It takes a unique kind of person, a person very much interested in public service. You’re not going up there to put a notch in your gun or climb a ladder on the way to success. That’s a position you go to because you genuinely like the work.”

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One day recently, Kenney and Ruby cruised up the twisting, icy road to Mt. Pinos and found a huge four-wheel-drive truck loaded with snow that had skidded nose-first into a snowbank.

The teen-agers who had hoped to haul the snow back to Bakersfield had spent 15 minutes trying to dig their way out when the deputies pulled up in their Blazer.

“You know, there’s a $15 fine for taking snow out of here,” Ruby deadpanned.

“What? Aw, man,” one of the teen-agers grumbled. “I ain’t paying for it. Now we gotta unload it all.”

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It was not until Ruby and Kenney had dragged the snow-laden truck out of the bank with their electric winch that they let the teen-agers in on the joke. Then they sent them on their way with a warning to watch for ice on the way down the mountain.

“That one’s for free,” Ruby hollered. “The next one’s gonna cost you.”

Busting drunk drivers, ticketing scofflaws, quelling rowdy parties, Ruby and Kenney perform all the customary cop tasks. They arrest about 10 people a month in the isolated community near Ventura County’s northern edge.

But many times, they settle problems with a stern word or a quiet talking-to. Arresting someone means killing a day just driving down to the County Jail in Ventura for booking. And while both deputies work weekends, only one at a time is on duty Monday through Thursday.

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“We cite (and) release as many people as we can up here,” Ruby said.

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In this part of the county, talk keeps things calmer than force, he said.

“If you see a rancher out there, you can just kind of chitchat with him and find out what’s going on. It’s more public relations contact than arresting people,” he said as the two bounced along Lockwood Valley Road on patrol. “In the city, the only way you contact the public is traffic stops or (as) crime victims.”

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Four Bakersfield snow-seekers in a low-rider Honda Civic with tinted windows, no front license plate and a three-inch mantle of snow cruised past, a perfect opportunity to demonstrate the Lockwood Valley method.

Kenney whipped into a U-turn, pulled them over for the missing plate and visibility problems and ordered the driver out of the car.

Ruby ordered the other three out--a young man and two young women--and searched the car, while Kenney questioned the teen-age driver.

“You’re 18 and you’ve got no license at all? No identification?” Kenney asked the teen-ager, who shook his head and shuffled his feet in the cold. His fists were jammed into his jeans.

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As Kenney cited him for driving without a license and warned him to have the car’s owner replace the missing plate, Ruby turned up a just-opened wine cooler bottle.

Ruby quizzed the other young man. After determining that he had not consumed the beverage, Ruby made him pour it out on the ground and cited him for riding in a vehicle with an open alcohol container.

Citations in hand, the four were sent on their way--with the second man, who was licensed, at the wheel.

“The real stupid thing about the whole situation is there’s a licensed driver in the car,” Kenney said, adding that it was a typical stop--out-of-towners come to play in the snow.

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Hard crime has little chance to take root here.

Drug dealers, for instance, “stick out like sore thumbs” and are swiftly busted on tips from vigilant locals, Ruby said.

Sometimes the deputies encounter suicide victims atop Mt. Pinos, Kenney said. “People come up here to where it’s pretty to kill themselves,” he said.

The region’s last homicide--still unsolved--was in 1989, involving a woman who had been stabbed 27 times with an ice pick in Kern County and dumped just over the border in Ventura County. And the last major assault--a man beating his girlfriend--was handled by the deputies at the Santa Barbara County sheriff’s Cuyama station, Kenney said.

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The locals cause little trouble--theft, vandalism and an occasional fence-line feud over water rights account for an average of six calls a week, Kenney said.

Most of the trouble comes from outsiders who visit the wilderness campgrounds in the summer and the Mt. Pinos recreation area in the winter. The population in Lockwood Valley and nearby Frazier Park in Kern County can swell to nearly 40,000 on weekends.

Drunk, belligerent or just plain careless, they fire guns, rip across private land on dirt bikes and get lost in the snow.

Often the deputies are called to calm down drunken, trigger-happy party-goers or search for lost nature lovers in temperatures that range in winter from the 20s in the daytime to zero at night.

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“A lot of people, they think you’re in Southern California and you don’t get cold,” Ruby said. “They’ll go up to play in the snow in Windbreakers and jeans, and it turns colder and they’ll go down the wrong side of a hill and get turned around and all of a sudden they don’t know where they’re at.”

These two deputies love their job. The work is exciting, the equipment up-to-date. The workplace is beautiful and nearly unsupervised, and they can make their own hours.

“There’s no set time when we’re away from the station or at the station,” Ruby said. “Dave may work 8 to 4, I’ll work 6 to 2. It’s hard for people, unless they’re locals and they’re watching us, it’s almost impossible to figure out where we are.”

Yet the assignment has a three-year limit.

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About six months from now, Kenney will have to transfer to other duty. Ruby is about halfway through his stint.

“They don’t want you getting too comfortable,” Ruby explained. “In the past they’ve had problems with guys getting too comfortable.”

“Thinking they’re their own sheriff,” Kenney said.

“They don’t want you getting too friendly with the locals,” Ruby added.

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There is also one major drawback to the posting, the deputies and their wives admit: It’s a long way from friends, family and civilization.

“I’ll miss the area and the snow at Christmastime,” said Paige Kenney, Dave’s wife. “But I won’t miss driving nine miles one way to get milk or driving two hours to the mall.”

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Work can get chaotic as the dispatchers try to juggle phone and radio calls 24 hours a day while caring for their young children, said Paige Kenney, mother of three, and Genie Ruby, who has two.

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“It’s very stressful because we have kids,” Genie said. But they like the work. “It’s nice when you can work searches, and you get to meet the people you rescue.”

And Paige Kenney said of the locale, “I like the openness of it, being out in the mountains.”

“Everybody says we’re in the middle of nowhere, but we’re somewhere,” Pat Ruby said. “We know where we’re at. We’re right here.”


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