Many hikers, joggers and bicyclists say the Centennial Trail is one of the best things about Spokane.
Thieves may be saying the same thing.
Law enforcement agencies say reports of theft, vehicle break-ins, and vandalism have increased in recent months along the 39-mile trail and adjacent park land.
The Spokane County Sheriff’s Department has assigned three detectives to investigate thievery along the Centennial Trail.
“It’s a big piggy bank,” sheriff’s Sgt. Ron Ethridge said. “It’s like leaving a $100 bill on the sidewalk and expecting it to be there when you come back.”
The Sheriff’s Department reports 132 thefts from vehicles at trail entrances in unincorporated areas of the county in the last six months. In the area between Painted Rocks northwest of the city and Boulder Beach in the Spokane Valley, $100,000 worth of property was stolen, said Ethridge.
Those who park at trailheads or on state park land to walk, jog, or bike, may believe it is safer to leave valuables inside locked cars than carrying them.
Even items stored in locked trunks are not safe in cars with trunk openers triggered from inside the vehicle.
“They can do this very quickly. It depends how bold they are,” said Gary Herron, administrator at Riverside State Park. “The best thing to do it so take your valuables with you or leave them home.”
Rangers at Riverside State Park patrol much of the trail west of city limits.
In December, they arrested three men accused of stealing two purses from a car parked near the Bowl and Pitcher rock formation.
The trio was arrested after being stopped by Ranger Mike Sprecher, who noticed their illegally parked car. As he approached, it sped off. He stopped it again at the park boundary.
While searching the car, Sprecher found two purses stashed under the front seat. The suspects, all of whom have extensive records for theft, were carrying $1,500 in cash and traveler’s checks.
Purses, wallets, cameras, tools and clothing are items most frequently stolen, although deputies, city police and park rangers report backpacks, a CD player and a Los Angeles Police Department badge have been taken as well.
Herron thinks several groups or individuals are responsible.
“The logistics are not there for the same bunch,” he said. “We’ve had some at the same time, several miles away.”
The problem has not been as severe in the city of Spokane, where trail areas tend to be less secluded. Still, with a mild winter, there have been more cases.
“In the last couple weeks it’s becoming a problem,” said Darlene Ahrendt, director of the city’s crime analysis unit.
Five break-ins were reported in January and five more so far in February. Areas especially vulnerable are around Fort George Wright Drive and Upriver Drive at Mission where the trail runs past Washington Water Power.
“If it’s up now, imagine what it’s going to be like in the summer,” Ahrendt said. “People are going to have start being aware.”
Herron added trail users should be on the lookout for anyone lingering near parking lots and trail heads. A description of these people and their vehicle license numbers should be reported to the park office or police.
The Sheriff’s Department is doing even more, and is trying to interview all victims of theft on the trail in the unincorporated areas. Ethridge thinks one group of men in their mid30s may be responsible for many of the incidents.