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Thursday, July 13, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Forest killings are still rare, but crime is rising

Seattle Times staff reporter

The Puget Sound region is blessed with an abundance of destinations where people can get close to nature and escape the urban environment. But even these places aren't immune from crime.

Steve Costie, executive director of The Mountaineers, said car break-ins at trailheads are common, and he has feared inadvertently encountering a clandestine methamphetamine lab while hiking in the woods.

The discovery this week of two women killed along a hiking trail off the Mountain Loop Highway in Snohomish County prompted Costie on Wednesday to advise people to consider hiking in groups.

"There has never been a crime issue like this," Costie, who has been an avid hiker for nearly 30 years, said of the slayings.

U.S. Forest Service Officer Mike Gardiner, who patrols the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest where the bodies were found, says he's never heard of another slaying in the sprawling forest. "This is a freak occurrence," Gardiner said. "The forest is a safe place."

In 1997, though, 52-year-old Alice Underdahl was killed while jogging on a remote stretch of the Cedar River Trail in Ravensdale, south of Maple Valley. Her killer, a convicted sex offender, later committed suicide.

In other areas of the country, crime in national forests has been on the rise.

Safety in the forest


Visitors to forest areas can help keep themselves safe by following these tips:

• Be alert and aware of your surroundings and other people in the area.

• Stand tall and walk confidently. Don't show fear.

• Trust your instincts. If you feel uncomfortable in a place or situation, leave right away and get help if necessary.

• Be observant of others and use discretion in acknowledging strangers.

• Avoid confrontations.

• Be respectful of your fellow outdoor enthusiasts. Always use good manners when interacting with others.

• Carry a cellphone if coverage is available.

• Know how to contact law enforcement or other assistance.

• Carry a noisemaker, such as a whistle or other protective device that you have been trained to use.

• Do not pick up hitchhikers.

• Never go anywhere alone. It is safer to be in pairs or a group.

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Sheriffs' Association

Over the past decade, slayings have occurred in national forests in Maine, Oklahoma and just outside Yosemite National Park in California.

In 2003, two Texan campers were shot to death at the Ouachita National Forest in Oklahoma by a mentally ill former prison guard. Edward Fields Jr. pleaded guilty just before his trial was to begin and received the death penalty.

In 1996, the bodies of two Maine hikers were found bound and gagged, with their throats slit, along the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park. Serial killer Richard Marc Evonitz was linked to the slayings by genetic evidence, but he killed himself in 2002 before he could be questioned.

In one of the most infamous cases, Cary Stayner in 1999 killed three guests at a motel just outside Yosemite National Park. Later that year he killed a park guide. Stayner confessed to all four slayings and was sentenced to death.

Attacks, threats and lesser altercations involving Forest Service workers reached an all-time high last year, according to government documents obtained by a public-employees advocacy group.

According to the agency, 477 such reports occurred in 2005, compared with 88 logged a year earlier. The total in 2003 was 104; in 1995, it was 34.

Costie blames the increase in crime on urban expansion into areas close to the forest. "We always say never hike alone," Costie said. "This is a case where society has come up from our urban areas. ... The pristine backcountry is getting pretty close to our city life."

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com

Information from Seattle Times news researcher Gene Balk and The Associated Press is included in this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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