The "SWAT Team" Story
« previous entry | next entry »
Nov. 16th, 2011 | 05:58 am
I debated for a bit on how much of this to tell, because I can really get to rambling when I'm of a mind to, but in this case I decided to just stick to the events of the one day in question, and offer as little foreword and afterword as I can get away with.
In 1997 I was sub-contracted to do forest measurements for the BLM's Current Vegetation Survey program in western Oregon. The boss would hand out "packets" of work, ten plots to a packet, and we'd go get more when we were done. The plots paid $1200 apiece, and my partner and I split the cash 50/50. It was a pretty intense study model, so this was actually a pretty reasonable price for the quality and quantity of work we were expected to produce. Our habit was to camp near moving water, and to drive to work sites and back daily. Once a week we'd go into town for laundry and groceries and such. We tried to camp at least a half-mile from each other in order to stay out of each other's hair; evidently it worked because we're still good friends. The moving water provided a place to bathe and also clean-enough water to boil for coffee. Lake water always smelled funny to me.
In this case, we were camped along the Siuslaw River, just downstream from Siuslaw Falls, and at a road intersection where a small stream (Dogwood Creek? Apple Creek? I don't remember) crossed. There was a cluster of gravel piles for road maintenance there, so we simply camped on opposite sides of the gravel pits in order to preserve personal space. At the time, I was living in a '74 Suburban. With the rear seats folded down, I had room for a narrow futon mattress, all of my gear, and a bunch of books and music. It wasn't a bad way to live at all. My partner had a small camp trailer, so I'd do my cooking there in the mornings and evenings. When the sun went down, I'd wander back across the gravel pit to my truck and read until it was time to sleep.
After a couple of weeks camped in this place, on a rainy night, a truck towing a trailer pulled up along the road. A lady came out and knocked on the trailer door. My partner and I were inside drinking beers and listening to a ballgame. She asked if she and her husband could camp there. Well, it was public land, so we couldn't say no, but it was awful nice of her to ask, and we told her so. They were there for a couple of weeks before they moved on. Somewhere in there a couple of kids showed up in their camp, looking to be about 12 and 16, respectively. The older one had a quad which he'd ride all over the gravel pit. They were polite and outdoorsy and didn't bug us at all.
One day we came back from the woods (to the woods? not a paradox, because camp is camp) and they were gone. Oddly, they had left a bunch of stuff, some of it obviously not garbage. In particular, there was a nice canoe that had seen very little use. Well, the older kid showed up a couple of times riding the quad; turns out the family had moved down the road a mile or so in order to not run afoul of the rule permitting camping on public land for two weeks. We were not under this time restriction, as our contract stipulated that we could camp for the duration of the job on any BLM land.
Eventually we got to the end of the "packet" and were divvying up the cleanup work before moving on to the next site. Partner got up before I did, and was gone while I was making breakfast. About halfway through my second cup of coffee, I heard a helicopter. Didn't think much of it until I heard it again, and then again. I scanned the sky for smoke, but there was none to be seen. The helicopter was circling about a half-mile from me at an elevation about 1000 feet above the ground. It kept circling, and I began to get annoyed by the noise. I stepped outside to take a closer look, and heard more noise, this time closer. In fact, it was on the opposite side of the very gravel pit that I was in, but the source of the noise was obscured by two piles of gravel. I walked toward the noise intending fully to clomp up over the second pile and give somebody an earful.
Well, I clomped, but instead of dishing an earful, I received an eyeful. There, on the other side of the pile, was a full SWAT team, probably fifteen or twenty strong, armored car and all. There were two ambulances, and also a second helicopter. One balaclava'd officer turned to another and asked, "D'you think I should bring the sniper rifle?" The other replied, "Couldn't hurt". It was about then that the news crew arrived. I read the names of several local towns from the doors of cars and trucks -- Eugene, Cottage Grove, Veneta. The news crew was from Eugene.
This was in the days before cell phones were widespread, and I didn't have a CB in my truck, and didn't expect my partner to be near his anyway, so I got kind of nervous about the possibility of him barreling into camp unaware that there were guns drawn. I had no idea yet what this was all about, so I asked the sniper guy what was going on. He was cagey, as police are, telling me only that there was an "operation" going on and that I should go back to wherever I came from. I asked who was in charge, and was pointed in the direction of (what else) the news crew. There was a sheriff there; evidently this was his show. He was from whatever county Reedsport is in (I don't feel like looking it up). I told him who I was, and what I was doing there, and what I was concerned about, and asked what I should do. He said, off-handedly, "well, if he runs, he'll probably go that way" -- pointing upstream toward Loraine -- "so don't go there". My partner had gone the opposite direction that morning, so he was believed to be out of harm's way, but my goal was in the direction the sheriff was pointing, which basically put me out of business for the day. I figured I might as well at least be there when my partner got back so I could explain what was going on.
After awhile, the place emptied out. There were gunshots in the distance, far enough away that I couldn't make out an approximate caliber. About then my partner limped in on two flat tires and a banged-up rim. We pulled the tires, threw 'em in my truck, and headed for town, the better to be away from whatever was going down, and to get the tires fixed.
As we returned to camp that evening, the procession of police, emergency, and news vehicles passed us on their way out. Late that night, while sitting in the trailer drinking beer as usual, we were visited by an unusually mannish-looking woman who introduced herself as a detective from Eugene. She asked if we knew the people up the road, and what did we know about them? We asked why the questioning and why the late-night visit; she told us in a confidential tone (innocent until proven guilty and all) that our neighbors had been arrested in conjunction with a series of car thefts stretching along the coast from Astoria to Brookings! Moreover, shots had been fired, notably by the older of the two kids. The whole lot of them were in custody, and would we pick them out of a line-up, please?
Well, they'd done us no harm, and we didn't know anything about any car thefts, but it turned out the canoe was stolen, as was the quad. I don't remember my partner agreeing to cooperate at all; I agreed to point at pictures in a photo line-up to simply say "I have seen this person", but nothing more. Later it turned out that the adults were thrill-seeking tweekers who stole stuff for the rush. Apparently they didn't sell any of it, just left it behind (hence the mysterious canoe), and had been on a spree for a couple of months already before they pulled into our camp. Weird.
Punchline came a couple of days later when we turned in our work. The boss had seen the news coverage, recognized our camp from the aerial view, and thought it was us! His first words were "how did you get out of jail so quick?"
-- the gravel pit looks totally different now, and from the debris in the river, it looks like the bridge has been replaced. That was where our neighbors were -- somewhere up the road across the river.