By Eric Stevick Herald Writer
MARYSVILLE — It’s a rite of spring.
As skies clear and the temperature rises, sun-starved hikers, bikers and joggers descend upon parks and trails across Snohomish County.
Thieves do, too, hovering in the shadows, laying low.
Often, they’re the ones in street clothes who loiter in the parking lot.
Their calling card can be a pile of broken glass.
At least seven break-ins occurred at parking lots along the Centennial Trail between April 9 and 16. Five of those car prowls happened over the weekend on stretches of the trail near Marysville. More likely went unreported, officials said.
“It’s a crime of opportunity,” Snohomish County parks director Tom Tiegen said. His department oversees 10,000 acres spread over more than 100 parks.
At this time of year, people should take extra precautions at city, county, state and national parks as well as local playgrounds, Tiegen said. Urban and rural parks are common trolling grounds for thieves.
Thieves typically look through car windows for purses, electronic equipment, GPS devices and other goods that they can steal quickly, Tiegen said. Often, they will bide their time, waiting and watching people wander off onto the trail. They know their victims can be gone for hours on walks. The Centennial Trail, for instance, is 30 miles long.
The best defense is to have nothing worth stealing in the car.
It’s also helpful to place anything of value in the trunk before leaving home or arriving at the park. If thieves watch valuables being put inside the trunk, they’ll simply smash a window and pop it open.
“We really try to encourage people to just be aware of their surroundings,” Snohomish County parks operations supervisor Rich Patton said.
If someone appears to be lingering in a parking lot in street clothes, it makes sense to jot down their license plate numbers, he said.
Sometimes thieves will work in tandem with one person in the parking lot and a lookout on the trail with a cellphone.
Recently, a county ranger encountered two men in street clothes at the trail head to the Lime Kiln Trail near the Robe Gorge. They appeared to be waiting for her to leave. They managed to smoke a pack of cigarettes while she waited them out. She didn’t budge; they eventually left.
In his 19 years as a ranger, Patton only once caught a thief on the prowl. He did a stakeout, armed with binoculars, a telescope and a camera. Even with all the equipment, the thief was so efficient, Patton couldn’t be sure a car had been broken into until he went to investigate at close range.
“It’s amazing how fast they can be,” he said.
Vehicle prowls at parks and trails tend to come in spurts and they can be tough to quantify, officials said.
“When the weather gets better, we see an increase in car prowls,” Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Shari Ireton said. “The challenge is not everybody reports it.”
The use of surveillance cameras at some parks and monitoring by park rangers and patrol officers is not enough to keep car prowlers at bay.
“The public can help us by being our eyes and ears,” sheriff’s Lt. Kathi Lang said. “If you see someone acting suspicious — peering into parked cars or who doesn’t appear to be there to use the park or trail — please call 911.”
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here are some safety tips if you are planning to leave your car unattended at a trail head:
•Always lock your car, roll up the windows and take your keys with you.
Do not leave any valuables in your car.
If you must leave items in your car make sure everything, regardless of value, is locked in the trunk or glove box and not visible. Try to put items in the trunk before arriving at the park.
Stop and take note of your surroundings before leaving your parked vehicle. If you notice anything suspicious, call 911.