Bonney Lake police discovered at least two homeless camps in the Washington State University forest Tuesday, one littered with hundreds of possibly stolen gambling pull-tabs.
The discovery occurred during a planned sweep of the forest to find and break up transient camps — and hopefully recover a handgun recently reported stolen.
In the past five weeks, the department received reports of seven successful and one attempted vehicle prowl outside the shopping centers north of the forest; three prowls were reported in the past week. The crimes occurred at various times of day and often in the space of minutes, leaving police no clear pattern to follow, Ofc. Daron Wolschleger said.
“When a theft happens out here, usually the suspect will run to the woods, take what they want and discard everything else before moving on,” he said.
The roughly 140-acre forest is thick with growth and dozens of rough trails, making police searches on foot or bike difficult at best; felony crimes will warrant a K-9 search. The area’s relative seclusion has made it a prime spot for concealing criminal activity, ranging from underage drinking to drug activity and, in some cases, sexual assault.
“(When a crime is reported) we can contain it with patrol cars from outside, but it’s still a huge area to cover,” Wolschleger said.
During warmer months, the forest has also been known to house illegal camp sites. Last summer, the city shut down “Paradise Cove,” a particularly sophisticated vagrant encampment replete with power, a kitchen and a structure sturdy enough to ride out the 2012 ice storm.
Police had been planning for weeks to sweep the forest for camp sites in a recently acquired all-terrain vehicle. Department officials plan to use the buggy — a Kawasaki Mule 610 — to eliminate the trials of searching Bonney Lake’s forests. The vehicle is designed to traverse rough terrain and hopped several curbs in and out of the forest easily during the operation.
The report of a .45 caliber pistol stolen from a vehicle parked near the Tall Firs Cinema Friday put police on high alert. Officers on the sweep were urged to approach anyone they encountered with caution, and a metal detector was deployed at every camp site found.
The Mule was deployed outside the Franciscan Medical Pavilion shortly after 2 p.m. and, within minutes, came across a man and teenaged boy wandering a section of woods north of Fred Meyer. The man was unaware of its presence until police were right on top of them — indeed, the small motor could easily be mistaken for a lawn mower.
The two — known to police from past investigations — were stopped and searched. Officers seized a boxed printer cartridge to investigate whether it had been reported stolen. The man was released from the scene and the teen agreed to lead police to a camp deep in the forest south of Goodwill.
“We probably wouldn’t have come down a trail like this without the Mule,” Sgt. Ryan Boyle said as he led the way into a path surrounded by trees and brambles.
Several yards in, officers found the encampment — a pile of blankets, pillows, a small statue of a geisha and the aforementioned pull-tabs.
“It’s not unusual for (a suspect) to steal a blanket from the Goodwill and bring it back here,” Wolschleger said.
They notified Public Works employees — on standby during the operation to clean up any camps found — and Wolschleger and Chief Dana Powers moved on to search for similar sites. Boyle stayed behind to sweep the area in case the missing handgun was hidden nearby.
No one had reported the theft of the pull-tabs, commonly sold in bars, and they didn’t appear to be used. But the department would be able to report the ticket numbers to the state Gambling Commission for later investigation, Boyle said.
Soon Powers and Wolschleger radioed to report they found another encampment, less than half a mile west and immediately outside the Tall Firs Plaza.
“Bonney Lake police, we’re coming in,” Wolschleger said just before opening the front of a small tent. No one was inside, but there was bedding and several boxes of food. “This is something somebody will definitely come back here for. “Just 30 feet off the main trail, there are people sleeping out here.”
Wolschleger made a note to have an officer check the site for occupants later.
The majority of the forest trails had been searched inside an hour, a feat that would have been impossible without the Mule.
The Mule was acquired by the department earlier this year after being recovered and impounded by King and Pierce counties’ P.A.T.R.O.L. auto theft task force. State Farm had long ago paid out to the original owner, and offered to donate it to the task force. They declined, and BLPD was able to pick it up for the cost of the impound fee. It was soon refitted with emergency lights and decals identifying it as a law enforcement vehicle.
The buggy was present at the recent Spike & The Impalers concert and had been tested in forest terrain, but Tuesday’s sweep was its first major operation.
“We’re very excited about having the Mule,” Assistant Chief James Keller said in a written statement. “Our goal is to prevent transients from setting up camps, and to apprehend car prowlers and shoplifters who may have been able to get away in the forest previously.”
The Mule is now intended for more frequent deployments in the WSU forest, as well as the forests outside Allan Yorke Park and Bonney Lake High School.