Dozens live in the area where body was found
A sprawling neighborhood of sorts lies on 160-plus acres east of U.S. Highway 101 behind the Safeway shopping center in Crescent City.
Transients’ camps are a common sight in Elk Creek Park and nearby areas east of the Safeway shopping center. (The Daily Triplicate/Adam Madison)
It has no streets, no addresses, no garbage pickup, no electricity and no running water.
And until something happens like a woman’s recent death after an alleged sexual assault, it doesn’t get much attention from the rest of the community.
A former resident who still goes there to collect cans and bottles said at least 50 people live there.
Elk Creek Park and nearby areas are inhabited with transients “who come and go on a weekly basis, so (its population) goes up and down,” said Antonio Lawton, 46.
The camps are spread out, with portions within the jurisdictions of the California Department of Fish and Game, the Del Norte County Sheriff’s Office and the Crescent City Police Department.
City police Detective Keith Doyle said transients have camped there since the 1990s.
He also said since he began with the City police in 1992 he has responded to numerous crime reports.
“We’ve got the ordinance about no camping, but that only goes so far,” said Doyle, adding city police officers patrol their portion of the area at least once a week.
Del Norte County Sheriff’s Commander Tim Athey said the county portion, often referred to as the ‘Elk Creek drainage,’ is not part of any regular patrol.
“We don’t have the manpower and we don’t have the ability to send people out to that area,” Athey said.
He added, “we do go out there if we hear someone there has a warrant on them.”
The state Fish and Game Web site said the 160-acres Elk Creek Park under CDFG jurisdiction is home to fishing and birdwatching opportunities.
A spokeswoman for Fish and Game said if camping is not listed, it is not allowed.
County and city officials said the lack of law enforcement in the area is due its multi-jurisdictional nature and the agencies not having time to meet for a game plan to clean out the camps.
Lawton was on his bike one day recently, making his “weekly” trip back to the camps to collect bottles and cans.
“I recycle them to get propane for my trailer,” he said.
“This time I’m going to need about $7 worth,” said Lawton, as he bent over, crushed a can and then stuffed it into a plastic bag on his handlebars.
Lawton said he had lived in the camps for two years “until I could get my life together.”
He hasn’t lived at the camps for a few years, but still returns to them for survival — by recycling the piles of cans and bottles he finds each week.
He said the same areas always produce piles of cans and bottles — mostly alcohol containers, said Lawton.
He sticks to picking up plastic and cans.
“I don’t like to carry too much glass, it can drop and break,” said Lawton.
Most of the trails have brush so dense it creates natural roofs overhead.
Heavily trodden but still somewhat hidden trails lead to camps, more trails, even portions of Elk Creek itself.
“They can get you all over town —you can follow Elk Creek drainage to just about anywhere,” said Athey.
Some areas have to be crawled through because they are so dense with brush and debris.
“I do this about once a week, but I stopped coming for a while after they found Sheryl,” said Lawton.
He said he personally knew Sheryl Dickson, 50, whose partially clothed body was found at her camp on April 20.
Authorities determined she had been raped and sexually assaulted. Another transient known at the camps, Robert Randolph, 47, has been charged with first-degree burglary (home invasion), rape, sexual penetration with a foreign object and sodomy with a foreign object. He has not been charged with murder.
Initial results of Dickson’s autopsy did not “determine the definitive cause of death,” said Del Norte County District Attorney Mike Riese.
But Riese said on Tuesday that “nobody would consent to that amount of trauma.”
Riese is awaiting toxicology results from the state Department of Justice, and said no decision has been made on whether murder will be added to the charges.
Randolph plead not guilty Tuesday.
“This was where she died; she was a real nice lady,” Lawton said as he walked to the remains of her campsite
A large pile of flowers were left on what he said was the area where she had cooked her food.
There were more flowers on a tree, near a torn-up tent, strung between branches. The camp was a pile of garbage, the makeshift shelter in tatters.
For the next hour, Lawton led the way to dozens of other encampments.
All were devoid of life, save Dickson’s campsite, where a tabby-cat came out from the brush to greet the onlookers.
“Her name was Nummers, that was Sheryl’s cat, she just got her a few weeks ago,” said Lawton.
“They’re afraid,” he said. “They’re here, but they’re hiding.”
Crescent City Police Officer Justin Gill said there has been a recent exodus.
“Since the investigation many of them moved out of there — they were scared,” said Gill.
“They come back out when it quiets down,” Lawton said about the campers.
Lawton said the residents move farther east into the park area — deep enough that they know authorities won’t come out to run their names or question them.
He said they also sometimes move to other camps.
There are also homeless camps behind the Crescent City Fire Hall on the 200 block of West Washington Boulevard, at Elk Valley Road and Maiden Lane and sometimes at the end of Fifth Street on the beach.
The Elk Creek camp is by far the largest, according to Doyle and Gill.
Semi-permanent homeless camps aren’t the only problem at Elk Creek — the accumulated trash is comparable to an exploded landfill.
Lawton had filled three bags with recyclables by the time he made it to the fifth camping area.
At least 30 shopping carts were found along the way, three of them submerged in a pond. More than 10 bicycles were walked past, rusted, missing parts and nearly overgrown with foliage.
Athey said last year, county, CDFG and city police cleaned out the area and have done so at least five times since 1985.
Each time, the camps are quickly back up.
“We’ve gone in there and we’ve done sweeps and moved them out—they are back two days later,” said Athey.
Lawton said it was normal not to see many people in the camps during the day.
“Usually when people are gone, they’re out working or panhandling—doing what they need to do to survive,” he said.
Most of the transients just make a quick hike to the U.S. Highway 101 Shopping Center and by the afternoon — they have enough change to buy booze, food or whatever they need for the day, said Lawton.
The money is most often spent on alcohol, he said, shaking a plastic shopping bag stuffed with crushed beer cans.