Trail of fears

The American River Bike Trail is idyllic, as long as you don’t get maced, mugged or beaten with a rock

Observers say the trail’s first five miles east of Discovery Park are the most problematic.

Observers say the trail’s first five miles east of Discovery Park are the most problematic.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Encompassing 32 miles from downtown Sacramento snaking east into Folsom, the American River Bike Trail is a regional jewel of recreation and outdoor splendor. But some enthusiasts point to a discomfiting trend of incidents—including muggings, vehicle burglaries and assaults—that suggest public safety on the trail is sorely lacking. Those trail users argue that a combination of understaffed park rangers and law-enforcement agencies can make an everyday outing turn ugly.

Lloyd Billingsley, who has eluded two attempted muggings while riding on the trail, said he saw a sheriff’s deputy with an M-16 on July 4, while riding between Watt Avenue and Goethe Park.

“He’s sort of ready to rock and roll with this thing. I stopped and asked what was going on,” Billingsley said. “He said someone was out there shooting off a gun. But I talked to some people at the park, and they said there have been four people robbing bike riders.”

Between May 10 and June 30 this year, there were six robberies, assaults or combinations of the two reported on the trail in the Northgate and Del Paso Heights areas. In one incident, the victim was stabbed before the assailant took money; in two, the assailants pointed a gun or what appeared to be a firearm; and in another, a victim was hit with a stick.

According to reports filed by the Sacramento Police Department, in all cases, the suspect descriptions were different, as was the method of operation.

In addition to those, since 2002, there have been 11 other reported cases of assault or battery on the trail, two robberies, one rape and one attempted rape. In one case, a bicyclist was seriously injured after riding into a head-high length of what may have been fishing line strung across the path.

For Skip Amerine, the daily commute means getting on his bike at his home near Hazel Avenue and riding to downtown Sacramento; he’s been making the 40-mile round trip for 16 years and proudly maintains that it’s much better than taking Highway 50 into the crowded downtown commute.

But he still remembers the June evening in 2001 when he was heading home from work. At mile 3.7, he came upon two white, male skinheads who parted, ostensibly to let him go by. When he passed, he was pepper-sprayed.

Luckily, Amerine’s glasses deflected most of the chemicals, and he was able to ride to a call box down the trail.

“I called the police and fire people to come out, and they came in about 20 minutes,” Amerine said. The two suspects, whom he says he was able to glimpse with his good eye, were never caught. “My major issue with enforcement of the trail is that county Parks and Rec. are spread real thin,” said Amerine.

Amerine isn’t bitter about the incident, despite the fact that it could have been much worse had the pepper spray disabled him at his 20-mph-plus pace.

Bill Rhea wasn’t so lucky. In July 2000, paddling with a friend in the American River at Goethe Park, Rhea came across a half-dozen young skinheads throwing rocks at him from the bank. He approached the group in his canoe and asked them to stop. Rhea was trying out a new flat-water boat and readying himself for Eppie’s Great Race.

One of the men “picked up a big baseball-sized rock and hit me in the head with it, like a club,” he said.

The blow inflicted a compression fracture of the skull, 2.5 to 3 inches wide. He tipped over in his canoe but made it to shore to try to recuperate. The group fled, and his friend and witnesses were left to deal with the scene.

After reconstructive surgery, $72,000 in medical bills and six weeks of recuperation, Rhea returned to work with the state’s Franchise Tax Board. He battled problems with equilibrium that lasted a year, and he managed to get his driver’s license back after it was suspended because of his injury.

“The doctor said if it had been a half inch in either direction, I would’ve died instantly,” he added.

Rhea also said he contacted the sheriff’s office to hopefully find his assailant.

“I called them six or eight times,” Rhea recalled. “They said, ‘Don’t call us; we’ll call you.’ I was very upset over that.”

However, a law-enforcement source, who declined to be named for this story, said that incident would fall under the jurisdiction of the park rangers.

Dave Lydick, chief ranger for Sacramento County Parks, said his staff of 14 covers 26 miles of the trail—5,000 acres in all. A ranger most likely will be the first person to show up at an incident report.

“There’s been changes over the years,” Lydick said. “The sheriff’s department used to have a unit in the unincorporated part of the parkway, eight on horseback and four on motorcycles. But that was in the early 1990s, before budget cuts.”

Billingsley said his weekend outings on the trail have been increasingly problematic in the past one-and-a-half years. He typically rides from Discovery Park to Natomas and back. Last March, he had just entered the path along Garden Highway for his ride; up ahead, three men came into view—one lying down in the middle and the other two lurking on either side.

“I was thinking it was a fake,” recalled Billingsley, 55. “I just kept going and didn’t slow down.” When he got to within approximately 20 feet of the seemingly downed man, “he jumped up out of the way.”

It was the second time it’s happened to Billingsley; in both cases, he kept pedaling, refusing to slow down, and got by without a confrontation.

“Just around Discovery Park, you have homeless types there. Sometimes it looks like the yard at Folsom Prison,” Billingsley said. “People yell stuff at you for no apparent reason. I shouldn’t have to carry a .45 to go for a bike ride.”

After the incident near Garden Highway, Billingsley said, he called the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. “If I’d waited for them to give me an answer, I’d still be on hold. I waited about 15 minutes before hanging up,” he said. “I called back the next day. The lady that answered just kept saying, ‘Sir, do you realize how many of these we have?'”

Although the bike trail runs though a variety of law-enforcement jurisdictions—including Sacramento police, the Sacramento County sheriff, and the Rancho Cordova sheriff—people who have had incidents on the trail report similar responses when phoning in a crime.

On October 20, Sacramento cyclist Tim Freeman called 911 after seeing a man who appeared to be planning to burglarize vehicles near the Fair Oaks bridge. “I would soon realize how completely useless 911 is at a time like this,” Freeman later wrote to the other members of his cyclists e-mail group. “As I’m waiting for 911 to even pick up, I hear the crisp ‘pop’ of a window breaking, and a car alarm goes off.”

Once Freeman got through, his frustration only increased: “After a five-minute report of what was happening, the operator says it’s a county issue and transfers me. I end up having to tell the sheriff’s operator the same story. They took my cell number and said they would have someone check it out.”

Freeman tracked down the victims in the parking lot and suggested they stay until police came, but he added that he’s having second thoughts about parking his own vehicle there in order to use the trail.

“I know that law enforcement is strained, and a minor crime like this is probably low on the priority list, but I felt really frustrated by the lack of urgency and the impartiality that 911 emergency portrayed,” he wrote. “I really got the impression that it was the first priority for them to see if they could pawn it off on another jurisdiction.”

Of the several cyclists, runners and paddlers interviewed for this story, most agreed that the especially problematic portions of the trail are within the first five miles east of its beginning at Discovery Park, as well as in the Northgate and Del Paso Heights areas.

Walt Siefert, executive director of Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates, says that having more people on the trail would make it safer, but that solution has problems, too.

“It’s real tough. On the one hand, we want people to use the trail. But on the other, especially the first four or five miles of the trail, it’s hard to recommend to people, especially women riding alone, that they venture out there," Siefert said. "We’d like to have more eyes on the trail, but we don’t think it’s as safe as it could be right now."