Park reopens with volunteer patrols
By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
CRYSTAL RIVER -- For the third time that day, the gold Camry cruised by Yeomans Park, pausing at the entrance before moving on.
"Maybe he likes driving this stretch of road," Crystal River police Officer Jim Seagreaves said, watching from the shade of a gazebo.
"Or maybe he's out here to see anybody he can meet," offered the man in the turquoise polo shirt and pressed navy slacks.
Alan Diel, a 63-year-old former traveling salesman from Wisconsin, is on the front lines of the city's war against lewd behavior.
It began four months ago, when City Manager Phil Lilly heard complaints that the secluded park off Turkey Oak Drive had become a sexual playground for men.
Lilly closed the 40-acre park almost immediately, and over the past several weeks recruited a band of volunteers to patrol during the park's new, limited schedule: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
The eight rangers, who divide four-hour shifts, have been trained to spot "suspicious activity" and are in radio contact with police should a situation arise.
"If the park is going to be used, it has to be safe and attractive for a family," said Seagreaves, who supervises the rangers. Most also are members of the citizen radar patrol team, an approach to the city's speeding problems.
Seagreaves, speaking from the park Thursday afternoon, said the volunteers are there to watch for anything from drug dealing to injuries and to provide a friendly, reassuring face.
But the men are unquestionably focused on preventing sexual liaisons.
"If we see two or three guys going into the bathroom, is it okay to lock them in there?" Diel asked Seagreaves, who responded with a nervous grin. "No. You don't have to do that."
The broad-shouldered officer in designer sunglasses also cautioned against writing down the license plate numbers of all cars that enter the park, as one ranger suggested.
"You guys are pretty slick," Seagreaves said, "and can recognize when something is not on the level."
The police acknowledge they have limited anecdotal evidence and know of only one investigation; they have heard criticism that closing the park and now using rangers is overkill. But they say one incident is one too many.
Given the nature of their job, the rangers seemingly walk a fine line between protecting against what is an illegal activity for heterosexuals and homosexuals alike, and engaging in what might be construed as discrimination or profiling.
"If all that is happening is two men walking through the park, there is certainly no right" for the rangers to interrogate them, said Randall Marshall, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. "But certainly there is no right to have sex in a public bathroom."
"You just use common sense," Diel said. "That's what we were taught. We're not going to accuse someone just by the way they are dressed."
The rangers, thus, have been told to be as unobtrusive as possible, to act as casual observers. The best deterrent to any illegal activity, Seagreaves said, is the simple presence of the rangers.
So when do they act? If a older gentleman is talking with a child and something seems awry, the ranger may walk over and strike up a conversation.
"I don't want them asking pointed questions like, "Is that your granddaughter, or are you a sicko?' " Seagreaves said.
While it is common for a group of women to go to the restroom together, that is not the case for men, Seagreaves said.
"If there are two or three guys in there, we're going in," said Tony Tate, a 72-year-old Crystal River Village resident who served in the Army during the Korean War.
Tate said he will keep an eye out for vandalism in the bathroom. Before they were pressure washed and painted, the walls bore messages of people interested in sex.
Should they encounter sexual activity, the rangers, who do not have arrest power or carry weapons, have been told to leave the restroom and contact the police. During the wait, they will record descriptions of the men and take down license plate numbers.
The rangers say they have already seen an improvement in the park. On Thursday, several people stopped by in a span of about an hour.
Sonya Dias, who works in a local law office, drove up with two friends on their lunch hour. The rangers proudly informed them that down a short trail, an alligator and her babies could be seen in a narrow canal.
The women had stopped by Yeomans Park before but said they did not like what they saw. "We drove in and drove out," Dias said.
-- Staff writer Alex Leary can be reached at (352) 564-3623 or email@example.com.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111