Plenty of visitors, fewer law officials formula for wild weekend

November 28, 2001|By LAURA MITCHELL, Staff Writer

GLAMIS — Almost double the visitors and half the law enforcement as last year may have been a formula for the most violent Thanksgiving weekend ever at the Imperial Sand Dunes.

Two vehicular deaths, an infant's death, a shootout with one man seriously wounded, two stabbings during a large brawl and an attack on an officer were among the incidents reported at the dunes over the weekend.

"There is a possibility of this area being closed if we cannot control lawlessness," Imperial County Supervisor Wally Leimgruber said.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management oversees the dunes area and would have to make the decision to close it.

More than 190,000 people visited the sand dunes over the four-day Thanksgiving holiday, bringing motor homes, dune buggies and other off-road vehicles. That number is almost double the about 100,000 visitors over Thanksgiving 2000, said Ira Long, acting public information officer for the BLM.


The BLM oversees the dunes but is a regulatory agency, not a law enforcement agency, said Imperial County Sheriff Harold Carter.

Thirty-five law enforcement officers, including park rangers and officers from the U.S. Border Patrol, the Sheriff's Office, and the Brawley and El Centro police departments patrolled the dunes over the holiday weekend, compared to 70 officers last year, Long said.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks took officers to other assignments, leaving the BLM short on officers, he said.

Meanwhile, the level of violence at the dunes has increased every year for the past several years, said Larry Caffey, BLM acting El Centro office field manager.

Long said more than 1,000 citations were issued at the dunes over the weekend for offenses ranging from driving under the influence to minor drug possession.

There also were more than 220 medical emergencies treated by BLM employees during the four-day holiday weekend.

The problem

"There's a mob mentality out there and less than 40 officers is not going to handle it," Carter said.

Leimgruber was personally involved in an attack while watching a race with his son and his son's friends.

"Another group said someone from our group threw something at them. Then they proceeded to start a fight," Leimgruber said.

One young man from El Centro suffered minor bruises during that fight, he said.

On big holiday weekends, many visitors to the dunes are not the usual duning crowd, American Sand Association President Jerry Seaver said.

The law-abiding off-road community understands and supports what authorities are doing, Carter said.

"If we're going to go back out to the dunes, we're going to have more officers. My officers said there are locations out there where they won't go," Carter said. "The average person wouldn't believe what goes on out there."

There is no doubt the lawless groups are scaring away law-abiding family vacationers, Seaver said.

The ASA started a safety program — the Safety Bug — to get people to think about public safety at the dunes, he said.

Seaver said he thinks this coming weekend will be busier than usual because family vacationers will come to the dunes a week later to avoid the rowdy groups that came over the Thanksgiving weekend.

Possible solutions

There are three options for the dunes, Carter said. The BLM and county could do nothing, the dunes could be closed or more law enforcement could be brought in, he said.

The next big holidays at the dunes will be Christmas and New Year's. Carter said the county is assisting the BLM to bring a larger law enforcement presence to the dunes.

Carter said when a state park reaches capacity, potential visitors have to go somewhere else. He said the BLM may have to look at limiting capacity at the dunes.

Certain hot spots, such as Competition Hill and the Sand Drags have had repeated problems. Carter said he thinks the BLM should close the hot spots at night.

"Those areas have to be controlled. Right now, with the number of officers we have, we can't control them," Carter said.

There are just too many people using the dunes, said Karen Schambach, California coordinator for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. Schambach said her group has suggested the BLM's dune-management study address the visitor capacity of the dunes.

She said BLM employees are reporting to her office that they are more concerned about their safety in the dunes than they were two years ago when there were near riots in the dunes.

However the dunes situation is settled, Carter said the citizens of Imperial County should not be burdened with the costs of the patrolling of 190,000 dunes visitors.

The Sheriff's Office gets federal and state money to pay for extra equipment and officer time at the dunes, but crime investigations, arrests and housing suspects in jail are all expenses the county is paying.

He said his office will pursue state and federal assistance and outside help from other law enforcement agencies.

Law-abiding recreational dune users spend money in the county. It's good business, Seaver said. Limiting visitors to the dunes would have an impact on the economy of the county, he said.

"The next step is not to impose capacity limitations. We hope that things can be controlled out there without that," Seaver said.

>> For more information on the Safety Bug program, see the ASA Web site at

>> Staff Writer Laura Mitchell can be reached at (760) 377-3452 or

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