Sweep turns up four guns and leads to multiple arrests, but Sheriff’s Dept. says more work and resources are needed
By Gary Walker
Marina del Rey residents have long complained that the largely unpatrolled Ballona Wetlands has become a magnet for homeless encampments.
Now the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Dept. is saying portions of the 600-acre state ecological preserve have also become a staging area for criminal activity.
During a meeting of local officials on Friday, Capt. Reginald Gautt of the Marina del Rey Sheriff’s Station asked state Assemblyman Steven Bradford (D- Gardena) for state funding to help stamp out an apparent crime ring operating out of wetland areas west of Lincoln Boulevard and south of Fiji Way.
Gautt said a group of people working out of and possibly even living in the Ballona Wetlands has been stealing and later selling stolen bicycles and may be tied to other criminal activities.
A recent sweep of the wetlands recovered 15 stolen bicycles and four handguns, according to the Sheriff’s Department.
There have been multiple arrests in connection with the stolen bicycles, but not all details are being made available because the criminal investigation remains active, Sgt. Anthony Earnest said.
Deputies described the bicycle ring as being relatively sophisticated, but limited funding means Sheriff’s have been unable to assign patrol officers to the wetlands on a long-term basis, Gautt said.
“We had no other choice but to reach out to you,” Gautt told Bradford, whose district includes the Ballona Wetlands.
Jurisdictional issues also abound. The state-owned land is overseen by the California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, which does not actively patrol it, while Los Angeles police and the county Sheriff’s Dept. have only limited jurisdiction over the land.
Gautt said deputies have found “a direct correlation” between certain encampments in the wetlands and both violent and property crimes.
“It’s like Vietnam,” Gautt said. “It’s a jungle in there.”
Deputies and social service providers have had a difficult time addressing homelessness in the wetlands.
“We’re encountering some service-resistant people out there,” Gautt said. “We’ve been dealing with the homeless there for four or five years, and we’ve expended at $25,000 in resources on this problem.”
During the meeting, Bradford asked whether obtaining unused property to house homeless people would be a better solution than funding more deputies to patrol the wetlands and simply displacing the homeless. Not associating homelessness with criminality is also an important distinction, he said.
“At the end of the day, [criminalizing homelessness] creates an ‘us vs. them’ situation,” Bradford said.
Booker Pearson, a Playa del Rey resident who works with organizations that assist the homeless, said a social services response is needed in order to steer the law-abiding homeless away from the wetlands to shelters and supportive housing.
“We need a professional outreach team that can go in and build relationships with the people in [the wetlands] and then be able to connect them to medical and housing services,” said Pearson, who has led similar efforts in Westchester and Playa del Rey.
A March 2012 survey by People Assisting the Homeless located three people living in the wetlands and direct evidence of at least another 10, Pearson said.
The Westchester Business Improvement District along Sepulveda Boulevard contributes $5,000 per year to a fund for homeless outreach.
Marina del Rey Lessees Association Executive Director Tim Riley said county leaseholders in the Marina hadn’t been approached with a similar idea.
“We have not formally considered anything like that. I think that’s a discussion that could occur with the county,” Riley said. But, “We [already] pay a lot of money in rents and maintenance in Marina del Rey.”
Riley said the confirmation of criminal activity in the wetlands validates residents’ longstanding concerns.
“It was important for [Bradford] to know that there is a serious criminal element operating out of the Ballona Wetlands that could be impacting Marina del Rey,” he said.
Funding projects to limit access to Ballona, which is technically closed to the public except for authorized tours, could help keep trespassers out, said Richard Brody, who manages the wetlands for the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Bradford said state funds had been decimated during the recession, but “as our coffers build up, we may be able to be more flexible.”
Bradford also suggested more immediate solutions could involve working with the Conservation Corps to clean up trash and the wetlands and help construct temporary access barriers.
“They might be able to do some of the things that we’ve talked about here, like building fencing,” Bradford said of the Corps, an organization that works with at risk youth where he served as a former director.
Brody said the eventual implementation of wetlands rehabilitation plans will help alleviate trespassing.
“We’ll have ongoing management then with a constant presence in the wetlands. That’s why we’re looking forward to the restoration,” he said.
An environmental study required to start the restoration effort has been delayed numerous times.
Bradford, who terms out of the Assembly this year, said he understood the concerns about crime by lessees, law enforcement and residents.
“We don’t want [criminals] in anyone’s backyard, whether it’s Marina del Rey or downtown Los Angeles,” Bradford said. “But we also have to guard against criminalizing everyone, and criminalizing someone because they’re homeless.”