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Wednesday, 01 February 2012 21:37

Hikers’ cars hit by thieves: Trailhead safety becomes focus after recent “car clout” convictions

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Three Tennessee residents are headed to prison for breaking into a slew of cars at trailheads in Haywood County during a several month period, hitting hiker’s vehicles in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Pisgah National Forest.

The three stole credit and debit cards, and ran up charges on them, while the unsuspecting victims were off happily hiking … often for several days at a time. Other personal items were stolen, too, including a man’s billfold and, most brazenly, a U.S. government credit card from a U.S. Forest Service employee’s vehicle.

Their arrests and subsequent prosecutions have put renewed focus on what you should do, and not do, when parking a vehicle before taking a hike or backpacking trip.

The main thing is to “use common sense,” said avid hiker Cory McCall of Outdoor 76, an outfitter store in Franklin. “These trails do cross roads, and you often leave your car in vulnerable places.”

McCall is currently helping an Appalachian Trail thru hiker try to decide on a safe spot to leave her vehicle in Macon County for an extended period of time. That might not be completely possible, but there are steps hikers such as that can take, according to forest experts.

And here’s what the victims of the relatively recent break-ins didn’t do: they failed to take valuables out of their vehicles.

That meant when the Tennessee trio — Billy Chad Reese, 39, his wife, Christy Leann Reese and Jessica Hope Daniels — systematically smashed the passenger-side windows of cars at trailheads, they were amply rewarded for their criminal intentions. Specifically, they hit trailheads at Big Creek in the Smokies and Max Patch and Harmon Den in the Pisgah National Forest.

They would hit as many as five cars at the trailhead at one time. They would then go back into Cocke County, Tenn. and promptly use the cards to buy everything from cigarettes to jewelry.

When it comes to protecting visitors to the national forest lands and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, law enforcement officers with both agencies are taking a hold-no-prisoners stance.

And that focus is paying off: In the Smokies alone, more than 100 people in the past decade have been prosecuted for car break-ins, dubbed “car clouts,” at trail heads.

“That makes a big dent,” said Clay Jordan, chief ranger for the Park.

Sure does: The Smokies used to average about 100 car clouts per year. That number dropped to 37 incidents in 2010 and 14 in 2011.

“We have a cadre of rangers and special agents who are very attuned to it,” Jordan said of Park personnel’s attention to trail heads and visitor safety.

That’s true, too, of workers on the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests. Stevin Wescott, who oversees public relations for the U.S. Forest Service in this area, said extensive efforts are oriented toward educating hikers. But, still, the fact remains that “it is pretty clear that theft is probably the most reported crime” in the national forests.

“We are always trying to encourage people to be safe,” Wescott said. “It’s very sad when (theft) happens. Our officers feel terrible for the people.”

Echoing McCall from Outdoor 76, Wescott said that visitors “should try to leave their valuables at home. If they must leave them in their car, tuck them out of site. Bring only the bare essentials.”

That advice holds true on the trail, too, the U.S. Forest ranger said. Tent break-ins also occur.

Smokies Chief Ranger Jordan said law enforcement is able to successfully prosecute most offenders. The crime, which is a felony offense prosecuted in the federal court system, carries a prison term. On average, those found guilty typically receive a six- to 12-month sentence plus three years probation, Jordan said.

The Tennessee man, Reese, pleaded guilty in August and was recently sentenced to serve more than 10 years in prison by a U.S. district judge and pay $23,000 in restitution. Reese received such a stiff sentence because of prior burglary convictions. When arrested, Reese was unlawfully in possession of a handgun. This meant he received an “enhanced” sentence under the federal Armed Career Criminal Act.

His female accomplices are scheduled Feb. 27 for sentencing.

 

Trailhead-safety tips

• Remove valuables from vehicles.

• If you must leave valuables in vehicles, hide them out of sight in the glove compartment or trunk.

• Scan the trailhead to make sure no one suspicious is hanging about. If they are, consider moving to another trailhead.

• Do not leave a hiking itinerary on your dash. Leave it with friends, family or at a ranger station.

• Don’t back your car into a parking spot. This provides thieves cover to break into the trunk.

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